Madelyn and Michael Bender had one goal for this year's holiday party: To capture the spirit of Charles Dickens and the very ambience of early Victorian England.
The catalyst for the Benders' party was a small book titled "Dining with Dickens," written by Cedric Dickens, the great-grandson of Charles Dickens. Mrs. Bender knew about the out-of-print book from her business contacts, as owner of Scrooge and Marley, Proprietors, a company that sells Dickensian collectibles, including books, prints and other memorabilia. A friend of a friend put her in contact with Cedric Dickens.
"Actually, I had received a copy of "Drinking with Dickens" last year for Christmas," says Mrs. Bender, "and I knew the other book was out there somewhere ever since my interest in Dickens first blossomed into a business about two years ago."
Since she buys quite a few books from the London Dickens Fellowship, a group devoted to keeping alive the spirit of Dickens, Cedric Dickens recognized her name when she called him about "Dining with Dickens."
In response to her inquiry, Dickens sent her his personal reading copy of the book with an inscription and with sections underlined by him.
"Dining with Dickens" is a lighthearted look at the foods and dining customs of Victorian England. It is filled with quotations VTC from the writings of Charles Dickens and with recipes of the period, including a few from Lady Maria Clutterbuck, the nom de plume of Dickens' wife Catherine. One chapter is devoted to Christmas dining, the hallmark of the English holiday in the mid-1800s.
According to Cedric Dickens, Charles Dickens drank little and ate sparingly. But he loved the happiness and festivity of Christmas parties and often wrote detailed descriptions of the holiday eating and drinking habits of his fellow Victorians.
"A Christmas Carol," first published in 1843, is filled with references to food, such as the ghost of Christmas Present arriving at Scrooge's home with ". . . turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes and seething bowls of punch . . ."
And the holiday excitement at the Bob Cratchit house is generated not by brightly wrapped gifts under a festooned Christmas tree, but by the prospect of a delicious Christmas dinner, crowned by plum pudding. For these early Victornians, food made the day and the spirit of Christmas was wound tightly about all the delicious and precious goodies that marked the season.
"My favorite part of 'A Christmas Carol' is the near the end of the story when Scrooge goes absolutely crazy with happiness and the first thing he decides to do is to send the turkey to the Cratchits," says Mrs. Bender. "My children might not get too excited if someone would send us a turkey, but in those days, a turkey was very special."
The Benders decided that a turkey would be the centerpiece of their party feast.
Once the Benders were committed to the party, Madelyn Bender created her own black and white invitations using the famous quotation from the last line of "A Christmas Carol": "And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us Every One." She mailed them to guests about a month before the party, noting on the invitations that Victorian dress was optional. She and Michael, acting out the roles of Scrooge's nephew Fred and his wife, rented outfits from the Costume Shop in Westminster.
Since the time period of the party was the less elaborate mid-1800s, not the fussy and overblown late 1800s, Mrs. Bender decorated sparsely, using holly as trimming throughout the house. Dickens often referred to holly, along with ivy,
fresh greens and mistletoe, in his writings about Christmas. The Benders did hang a "Bah Humbug" flag -- an item sold through Scrooge and Marley, Proprietors -- over their front door.
A few weeks before the dinner, Mrs. Bender experimented with the turkey recipe in "Dining with Dickens," which included sliding mushrooms under the turkey skin, covering the breast with pork fat, and stuffing the bird with old potatoes and spices before roasting. Although she was fairly pleased with the result, she reasoned that her party guests might not be too happy with a turkey swimming in a pound of pork fat. So the turkey for the Dickens dinner was roasted minus any additional fat.
Besides gleaning information from "Dining with Dickens," Mrs. Bender also wrote to David Greenman, an English professor at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., for menu tips. Dr. Greenman, active in the Dickens Fellowship, sent a menu that included wassail, oxtail soup, roast turkey, crown roast of pork, boiled red potatoes, mince pies and, of course, plum pudding. "You really can't have a Dickens dinner party without plum pudding," adds Mrs. Bender.
The Benders also planned entertainment for the evening, a common party practice in Victorian times. Building on a suggestion of Dr. Greenman, they enticed actor Mark Redfield, known locally for his portrayal of Scrooge in the Spotlighters production of the musical "Scrooge," to come to their home, sit before the fireplace, and read highlights of "A Christmas Carol" to the assorted guests.
They also invited the Notre Dame Concert Choir, under the direction of Sister Joseph Mary Zimmer, to sing English carols during the serving of the "starters," an English term for appetizers. And, as the party began to wind down, guests were surprised when Scrooge and Marley (actors Chris Verrill and Pete Taylor), arrived to perform a short scene from "A Christmas Carol."
While the Benders' party was large and involved, Madelyn Bender says people can capture the Dickens flavor without going into such planning. "Really, the important thing is to have the right mind-set and understand what the holidays meant during the mid-1800s," she says. "The times were really very simple. Things like plum pudding were a major treat. People celebrated with food, singing, gathering together and not working for a day."
"I also think it is important to include the children," she continues, noting that her younger children, 6-year-old Andy and 4-year-old Missy, were part of the party.
Other tips: It's not necessary to hire professional actors -- family or friends may do wonderful readings from the works of Dickens. Things are kept lively by inviting people of all ages. Scrooge's nephew Fred and his wife joined their guests in traditional parlor entertainments.
As Dickens wrote in "A Christmas Carol," "After a while, they played some games, for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas."