"Christmas Waits" by Charles Green. 1912. 7.7 cm by 8.9 cm exclusive of frame. Dickens's The Haunted Man and The Ghost's Bargain. A Fancy for Christmas Time, Pears Centenary Edition, in which the plates often have captions that are different from the short titles given at the beginning of the volume in the "List of Illustrations" (p. 15-16). For example, the series editor, Clement Shorter, has included a quotation as a caption underneath the three-quarter-page lithograph of the three street musicians who are playing a carol somewhere in the vicinity of the Old College: "The Christmas Waits were playing somewhere in the distance" (p. 43, quoted from p. 42 facing) to underscore the heretofore alienated and morose Redlaw's growing awareness of the Christmas season being celebrated by the community, as represented by the Swidgers.

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Passage Realised

Ghastly and cold, colourless in its leaden face and hands, but with his features, and his bright eyes, and his grizzled hair, and dressed in the gloomy shadow of his dress, it came into his terrible appearance of existence, motionless, without a sound. As he leaned his arm upon the elbow of his chair, ruminating before the fire, it leaned upon the chair-back, close above him, with its appalling copy of his face looking where his face looked, and bearing the expression his face bore.

This, then, was the Something that had passed and gone already. This was the dread companion of the haunted man!

It took, for some moments, no more apparent heed of him, than he of it. The Christmas Waits were playing somewhere in the distance, and, through his thoughtfulness, he seemed to listen to the music. ["Chapter One: The Gift Bestowed," p. 42, 1912 Pears edition]


From the middle ages in England until the passage of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, professional musicians working on behalf of civic authorities would play loud wind-instruments such as the shawm and serpent to welcome royal visitors at the town gates and escort the Mayor and aldermen through the streets of any British town of note. Members of waits were paid salaries, and given civic liveries and silver chains of office, bearing the town's arms. However, such professional bands were abolished shortly before Victoria's accession, and the term "waits" was subsequently applied popularly to amateur bands of musicians, often augmented by carolers, who would sing and play traditional Christmas songs for money around their town or village at night over the Christmas period. The Victorians, yearning for the customs of Old Christmas, revived British carols, which had survived in only a few country hamlets and towns. Publishers put out collections of the old songs, and Anglican clergy enthusiastically supported the revitalisation of carols in the national church. The Religious Tract Society collected old carols that had been circulating as separate tracts and broadsheets; the result was The Christmas Box. In 1822 Davis Gilbert published Ancient Christmas Carols, which he set to the west of England tunes that he had heard in latter part of the eighteenth century, when he was a child. In such places as Dorset, the custom of the parish quire's going from house to house to play for drinks and food continued well into the nineteenth century, as Thomas Hardy's 1872 novella The “Under the Greenwood Tree, or, The Mellstock Quire — A Rural Painting of the Dutch School suggests in the opening scene, realised by illustrator R. Knight as Going the Rounds (Chatto and Windus, 1878, p. 33).

The line referring to the Christmas "waits" (a term originally implying "watchmen") in The Haunted Man contrasts the communal practice of celebrating Christmas in the streets at night with the solitary Redlaw, lost in his own thoughts and barely cognizant of the signs of the season such as the holly that he has just discovered the Swidgers putting up around the Old College. By the opening decades of the twentieth century, in England's towns and cities the street singing of carols was dying out, along with the local waits. Thus, Green's illustration of the three-man wait would have been informative to many readers who had heard about such a tradition, but had never actually seen and heard a wait. Although not dressed in any sort of livery as they would have been before 1835, the three, well-dressed, middle-aged musicians, serious of purpose, play wind-instruments at a snowy street-corner. To justify Redlaw's hearing the tune they are playing, Green has placed in the background, several city blocks away, a group of mediaeval buildings that must be the Old College.

Although Nicholas Bentley et. al. do not gloss the term in The Dickens Index, in The Dickens Page, David Perdue glosses the topical reference simply as

member of a small body of wind instrumentalists maintained by a city or town.

In November 1988 as part of its Carollers series for the forthcoming Christmas season, the British Post Office issued a stamp depicting traditional nineteenth-century waits of the type found in many Victorian towns and cities. Its commentary on the post cards, first day of issue cover, and presentation package connect one of Dickens's favourite American writers, Washington Irving, the author of Bracebridge Hall, to the reference to "waits" in The Haunted Man (1848):

The Christmas Waits

The waits whose 'beautiful music' surprised an American visitor, Washington Irving, on Christmas night 1820, descended from the horn-blowing nightwatchmen. Edward IV maintained at court 'A wayte that nightelye pipe the watche fower tymes — in the somere nightes three tymes'. May you be surprised three or fower tymes this Christmas by the beautiful music of the waytes. [British Post Office First Day of Issue Presentation Pack, 22 November 1978]

On Christmas night in 1820, an American visitor to England, Washingtion Irving, was surprised to hear 'beautiful music from rustics'. he found it came from 'a band which I concluded to be the waits from a neighbouring village'. The waits — yet another Christmas takeover from the past. Waits were the nightwatchmen of old, who would sound a horn or play a tune, to mark the hour. . . . . [British Post Office First Day of Issue cover, 22 November 1978]


Bentley, Nicholas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1988.

British Post Office. Christmas 1978: 19th century Waits, [9 p]. Reproduced from a stamp designed by Faith Jacques and issued by the Post Office on the 22 November 1978. First day of issue cover and presentation pack. Edinburgh: Post Office Picture Card Series PHQ 32 (b).

Dickens, Charles. The Haunted Man; or, The Ghost's Bargain. Illustrated by John Leech, Frank Stone, John Tenniel, and Clarkson Stanfield. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1848.

___. The Haunted Man. Illustrated by John Leech, Frank Stone, John Tenniel, and Clarkson Stanfield. (1848). Rpt. in Charles Dickens's Christmas Books, ed. Michael Slater. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971, rpt. 1978. Vol. 2, p. 235-362, 365-366.

___. The Haunted Man and The Ghost's Bargain. A Fancy for Christmas Time. Illustrated by Charles Green, R. I. London: A & F Pears, 1912.

___. Christmas Books. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.

___. Christmas Books, illustrated by Fred Barnard. Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.

___. Christmas Books, illustrated by A. A. Dixon. London & Glasgow: Collins' Clear-Type Press, 1906.

___. Christmas Books. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book, 1910.

___. Christmas Stories. Illustrated by E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

___. The Haunted Man. Christmas Stories. Illustrated by Felix Octavius Carr Darley. The Household Edition. New York: James G. Gregory, 1861. Vol. 2, 155-300.

​Hardy, Thomas. Under the Greenwood Tree, or, The Mellstock Quire — A Rural Painting of the Dutch School. Illustrated by R. Knight. London: Chatto and Windus, 1878.

Perdue, David. "Glossary." The Dickens Page. Accessed 30 June 2015. http://charlesdickenspage.com/glossary.html#W.

Last modified 4 July 2015