DECEMBER
2005

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

Download the audio files or subscribe to our podcast.

 

Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

12-22-05

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Mr. Dickens, Humbugs and a Cricket on the Hearth


Charles Dickens has been called the unofficial poet laureate of Christmastime in the English-speaking world. Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," featuring Ebenezer Scrooge, is one of the best-known stories of the season. Another in the long line of Victorian Christmas tales produced by Dickens is "The Cricket on the Hearth."

References to insects in Christmas stories are rare. So the inclusion of a cricket in one of the Dickens Christmas tales is noteworthy. Why did Dickens choose to include a cricket in this mysterious tale?

Crickets, it seems, are prone to find their way into homes with the onset of winter. And they are likely to show up in heated areas, such as around fireplaces and stoves. Crickets are one of the songsters of the insect world. This singing habit means that they do not go unnoticed.

For centuries, humans have enjoyed the song of crickets. So much so that in many Oriental societies cricket cages were created for the purpose of housing the little songsters . Even the famed entomologist Fabre was fascinated by the singing habit of what he called "the country cricket."

It follows that literary folks would notice these songsters and be moved to pen a word or two about them. Indeed, the cricket and the association with the fire is a common poetic theme. James Whitcomb Riley, in his sonnet "To the Cricket," concludes with, in reference to the harsh tone, "That we might listen to in gentlest mirth, Thou poor plebian minstrel of the hearth."

Eugene Field in "The Cricket's Song" writes, "I quit my lair and hasten where, The old yule-log is burning." Thomas Daly in his Italian dialectical poem "Il Grillo" points out that when it snows, the cricket is in the house; he writes, "For here eet's warm, an 'O'! Il grillo seenga so: Cher-ree! Cher-ree! Cher-ree!"

A couple of other well-known men of letters in old England included Shakespeare and Keats. Shakespeare in "Pericles" writes "...crickets sang at the ovens mouth, Aye they blither for their drouth." Keats wrote a sonnet "On the Grasshopper and the Cricket" and includes the lines: "On a lone winter evening, when the frost has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills The cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever."

So Dickens had appropriated a well-known theme for his Christmas tale. Dickens does, however, add the mystical aspect of fairies to his story. Fairies also have a connection to insects. Fairies are always depicted as possessing insect wings. A concept apparently associated the Greek goddess Psyche who flitted about on insect wings, much like the more modern Tinker Bell. In blurring the line between the singing cricket and the fairies, Dickens included this line in his Christmas tale: "The Cricket on the Hearth came out into the room, and stood in fairy shape before him."

But what about this humbug thing that Scrooge was so fond of uttering? Most linguists classify the term as fashionable slang of the time. The word goes back to the 1700s, and, while the origin is unknown, it had come to mean a jest or hoax. So, in the case of the crotchety old Scrooge, his "bah humbug" was dismissing Christmas as a fraud.

It is probably no accident that the slang term humbug included bug. The word bug had come from the Celtic "boog," which meant ghost or spirit of the night. The term had been incorporated into the concept of boogyman and ultimately was used to describe the secretive creatures we know as bedbugs. The boogyman and the bedbug were mystical and poorly understood and might have been considered a hoax or jest.

In the "Cricket on the Hearth," Dickens began the tale with a singing contest between the Kettle and the Cricket. Call me Scrooge if you want, but to such a contest I say, "Bah Humbug!"

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox