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10 Surprising Literary Facts for Christmas

Charles Dickens's earliest piece of writing about Christmas was a short sketch -- published when Dickens was in his early twenties -- describing the perfect Christmas dinner.
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My blog, Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness, is celebrating its second birthday this month. Launched on December 1, 2012, the website aims to share surprising and intriguing nuggets and factoids about famous literary works. (Such as: did you know the word "factoid" was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, but that he meant it to refer to facts which are, in fact, not true? But sorry, on with the blog post.) To mark its two-year anniversary, I've been posting a literary fact every day throughout December, in a special 'Advent Calendar of Literature'. This will continue until Christmas Eve, giving us 24 facts in total -- or one for every month that my blog has been running. Below, I've put together ten of my favorites, including some that haven't been published on my blog yet.

1. Michael Bond bought Paddington Bear on Christmas Eve because he felt sorry for him. Bond, the creator of the Peruvian bear, purchased him in 1956; he felt sad for the teddy bear as it was the only toy left on the shop's shelves on Christmas Eve.

2. The Grinch had already appeared in print before How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Most sources will tell you that the Grinch first appeared in the 1957 Dr. Seuss book, but the Grinch -- or at last a Grinch -- actually made his debut in print two years earlier, in a 1955 poem, "The Hoobub and the Grinch." This 32-line poem appeared in the May 1955 issue of Redbook. But as Philip Nel suggests in Dr. Seuss: American Icon, perhaps this "Grinch" is not the Grinch, since he is a smaller creature than the more famous creation of two years later.

3. Charles Dickens's earliest piece of writing about Christmas was a short sketch -- published when Dickens was in his early twenties -- describing the perfect Christmas dinner. The piece offers an insight into what the average nineteenth-century family did at Christmas time. This was in 1835, a couple of years before Queen Victoria came to the throne and the idea of the modern Christmas would become firmly entrenched in the national consciousness -- and just before Dickens's own literary career went stratospheric. You can read it here.

4. The first TV adaptation of The Hobbit was produced in 1977 by Rankin/Bass -- the same company that created the stop-motion 1964 Christmas special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." You can watch a Youtube clip from the Hobbit adaptation here. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the casting is the fact that John Huston, most famous for directing "The Maltese Falcon" and "The African Queen," voices Gandalf. The same company would go on to adapt the third part of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in the 1980 animated musical film "The Return of the King."

5. Despite selling 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve -- five days after it was published -- A Christmas Carol did little to solve Dickens's financial problems.This was because the author insisted on a book jacket design that was costly to produce, but was nevertheless made cheaply available to the public -- so that the book could reach the largest number of people possible. So the book sold for five shillings a copy, and made Dickens very little money. But it would, nevertheless, help to heal his ailing career and ensure that his popularity would endure: over 170 years after its initial publication, it remains probably Dickens's best-known story.

6. Jean-Paul Sartre's first ever play was a nativity play, performed at Christmas 1940 by his fellow prisoners of war. The play was called Bariona ou le fils du tonerre (or "Baronia, or The Son of Thunder") and was performed at Stalag XII at Trier in Germany, where Sartre was himself a prisoner during WWII. Sartre made it clear that his position on Christianity didn't change during his captivity, but that he drew on the Christian nativity story as a way of working with the priests who were his fellow prisoners to "bring about, on that Christmas Eve, the broadest possible union of Christians and unbelievers."

7. The only Christmas presents William Faulkner would accept from his family were pipe cleaners. Faulkner's stepson, Malcolm Franklin, wrote in his book Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak that his gifts "consisted of little bundles of pipe cleaners, some in assorted colors, others snow-white. There were all kinds of pipe cleaners in various bundles clinging precariously to the branches of the tree, each with its little tag. There was one package of Dill pipe cleaners, which Faulkner liked particularly... If he received any other gift he would carefully take it to his office and there it would remain unopened." Why the great writer would only accept these presents remains a mystery.

8. There is a species of Fijian snail called Ba humbugi, named after Scrooge's famous exclamation in A Christmas Carol. This may have been because the snail was discovered on the island of Mba, and this suggested "ba," and, in turn, Scrooge's catchphrase. We say "catchphrase," but Scrooge only utters the words "Bah, humbug!" twice in the whole story (though he exclaims "Humbug!" a number of times).

9. The work of the Roman poet Martial shows us that the Romans weren't so different from us when it came to "Christmas." Sigillaria, a day in the Saturnalia festivities, saw the Romans exchange gifts, much like our modern Christmas Day. Dr. Matthew Nicholls, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Reading, has developed the Virtual Rome project and studied the work of Roman writers including Martial. As this post from the University of Reading website reveals, Nicholls' studies reveal that the Romans exchanged horrible sweaters ('shaggy nursling of a weaver on the Seine, a barbarian garment') and the ancient equivalent of the modern-day e-reader or Kindle, a series of papyrus scrolls which enabled people to carry a large amount of literature around in a small volume.

10. A Christmas Carol wasn't the first Christmas story Dickens wrote. It wasn't even the first Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote. He'd already written "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," featuring miserly Gabriel Grub, an inset tale in his first ever published novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). The tale shares many of the narrative features which would turn up a few years later in A Christmas Carol: the misanthropic villain, the Christmas Eve setting, the presence of the supernatural (goblins/ghosts), the use of visions which the main character is forced to witness, the focus on poverty and family, and, most importantly, the reforming of the villain into a better person at the close of the story. It is hard to see it as anything other than the dress rehearsal for the more celebrated story Dickens would go on to write a few years later. You can read "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton" here.

Several of these facts have previously appeared on the website Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness. The advent calendar posts continue to appear daily until December 24.

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