Background.

A Christmas Carol.
  • Great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence‘ is a quotation from A Christmas Carol (Stave 3).
  • A Christmas Carol is a novella, or short story, written by Charles Dickens and first published in the Christmas of 1843. The allegorical tale tells the story of the transformation of the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge through the visits of the spirit of his former business partner and three ghosts over the course of a Christmas Eve night. It remains a much-loved traditional Christmas tale.

Context.

In this quotation Dickens humoursly compares chestnuts to the ‘waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence‘. Chestnuts are the large edible fruit of the chestnut tree and are a popular food at Christmas time, when they are traditionally roasted on open fires.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, the second of the three spirits that haunt the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, in order to prompt him to repent his selfish ways, has taken Scrooge to see a city street full of shops selling produce for people to enjoy their Christmas meal.


Illustration from Stave 3 of the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing the Ghost of Christmas Present visiting Ebenezer Scrooge.

Symbolism in A Christmas Carol: Food.

Food is used within A Christmas Carol to highlight individual characteristics and complement some of the themes that run through the story, such as Christmas and the importance of family. At the start of the novella, imagery of food is used to show characteristics of the protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge as a closed, self-isolated character when he is described as being as solitary as an oyster. On Christmas Day morning, Scrooge is shown city streets full of delicious food prepared for the festive period. Charles Dickens pays detailed attention to describing some of the food and often adds humour to the depictions, almost giving them their own personality such as great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, and ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars. We read of the Cratchit family sitting down to a small roast goose dinner on Christmas Day. Goose was a cheaper meat than Turkey, reflecting the poverty of the family. The meat is eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, reflecting the Cratchit’s making do with cheap accompaniments. Poor households did not have their own ovens so the goose is cooked in the ovens of a local bakers and a clothes-washing pot is used to cook the small pudding for a large family, causing the cloth to have a smell like a washing-day! Bob Cratchit makes a festive punch-type drink of a hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, gin being a cheap alcoholic ingredient to add. Despite the meagre meal the dinner at the Cratchit’s shows Christmas tradition of bringing the family together and the emotional warmth within the household. After he is visited by the spirits of his former business partner, Jacob Marley and three ghosts, we see Scrooge, a changed man, purchasing a large turkey to for the Cratchits, symbolising his transformation from miserly to a generous character.


Literary Technique.

This is an example of the figurative language Charles Dickens uses in his works, here using the literary technique of hyperbole (exaggerated language) in the form of a simile to compare chestnuts to the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. The use of similes helps an author to strengthen a description, and for the reader it helps to better visualize a character or scene in their heads. Dickens is particularly comparing the characteristic of the appearance of the chestnuts.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Stave 3 (The Second Of The Three Spirits) of A Christmas Carol:

The Ghost of Christmas Present rose.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”

“Touch my robe!” Scrooge did as he was told, and held it fast.

Holly, mistletoe, red berries, ivy, turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, meat, pigs, sausages, oysters, pies, puddings, fruit, and punch, all vanished instantly. So did the room, the fire, the ruddy glow, the hour of night, and they stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavement in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses, whence it was mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snow-storms.

The house fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and waggons; furrows that crossed and re-crossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.

For, the people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball—better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest—laughing heartily if it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.

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Great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.
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