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A Christmas Cricket

December 22, 2016
photo of a Charles Dickens book, a kettle and a brass cricket

The Christmas season is not a time when live insects are out and about. At least that’s true in northern climes where the temperatures drop and the snow falls during that time of year.

Of course, as is the case with most of nature, there are exceptions. Insects such as cockroaches that make their home in heated buildings or steam tunnels do just fine when outdoor temperatures plummet. Beetles and moths that feed on grain products stored in our warm houses also do quite well during the winter months. Fleas and lice that live on our pets or us can be found during the cold winter months because we warm-blooded host animals provide the warmth they need for survival.

Crickets don’t survive winter as adult insects. However, a few crickets have been known to show up in human dwellings as winter approaches. Shakespeare noted this in a line from ”The Taming of the Shrew”. Petruchio berates the tailor Hortensio for his workmanship of a gown for Katherine with a string of invectives including this, “Thou flea, thou nit, thou winter cricket thou!”

In this context, comparison to a blood-sucking flea makes sense. So does the inclusion of “nit”, which is the term for a louse egg. But why does Shakespeare throw a cricket into that list of undesirable insects? I am not aware of a specific cricket species called a winter cricket, so I assume Shakespeare was making reference to a cricket being in the house during the winter months. This could be an undesirable situation, because crickets can use their mandibles to chew holes in the fabric of clothing.

Historically, dating back as far as 500 B.C., people, especially in East Asian cultures, have considered crickets a sign of good luck and have appreciated their song. Crickets have even been kept in cages so people can enjoy their chirping. It is probably for this reason that Charles Dickens wrote a Christmas story that features a cricket in the house.

Charles Dickens was one of the most prominent writers of the Victorian era and produced a Christmas story annually between 1843 and 1848. The first of these stories is titled “A Christmas Carol” and features Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim. These memorable characters, along with Scrooge’s “Bah! Humbug!” expression of disgust  are now thoroughly entwined in the seasonal celebration.

The third of the Dickens’ Christmas stories is called “The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home.” Dickens described the story as: “quiet and domestic … innocent and pretty.” It features some of the same themes and character types as in “A Christmas Carol”, such as a grumpy businessman named Tackleton and an honest and poor married couple – the Peerybingles. Like Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol”, there is a physically impaired youngster – in this case a blind girl named Bertha.

The tale features a singing contest between a cricket and a tea kettle. The first line of the story is “The Kettle began it!” Later we learn: “It appeared as if there was some sort of match … between the Kettle and the Cricket.” The match began like this: “And here, if you like, the Cricket did chime in! with a Chirrup, Chirrup, Chirrup of such magnitude, by way of chorus; with a voice so astoundingly disproportionate to its size …”

Ultimately, Dickens incorporates into his Christmas story what may have actually been the true inspiration for the inclusion of a cricket in the first place: the historical belief that singing crickets are good luck. Referring to the cricket’s singing, Mrs. Peerybingle says to her husband:  “And it’s sure to bring us good fortune, John! It always has done so. To have a Cricket on the Hearth, is the luckiest thing in all the world!”

As a further tribute to the cricket in the story, Dickens dubbed each of the three chapters of the novella a Chirp – as in Chirp the First, Chirp the Second, and Chirp the Third. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather hear the chirp of a cricket than a “Bah! Humbug!” grumble at Christmastime!

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