On my latest adventure into the periodical archives, I came across a fitting subject for a New Year’s post—the story of the Christmas microbe! This short story, published in Fun in 1898 follows the capers of a festive microorganism on his mission to bring christmas joy to an unlikely city merchant. The merchant, like Dickens’ Scrooge, is initially resistant to the delights of the holiday, shunning his children and wallowing in the memory of his dead wife. However, soon the Christmas microbe is on the case, a microorganism that is – it boasts – ‘not the sort you can kill with a sniff of carbolic [acid]’.1 By slipping into his glass of grog, the Christmas microbe infects his merchant with Christmas cheer, turning him into ‘a perfect hotbed of Christmas germs’ who comes home laden with toys for his children.
This story is particularly interesting for my research as it articulates a vision of microbial contagion that is not pathogenic, but rather has a positive impact on society. Post germ theory, this story offers us a more benign view of the microscopic world, and one which speaks to the connection between gastrointestinal health and the emotions, or to what is now called the gut-brain axis. Indeed, the microbe establishes itself as a ‘cousin’ of indigestion, gesturing toward both its functional similarities, and to the overindulgences of the festive season. The opening of the story frames the microbe using the lexis of food and drink: ‘its face simply sparkled with fun and merriment, of the wassail bowl, baron of beef, and the steaming plum pudding,’—an association that recalls the ‘undigested bit of beef’, ‘blot of mustard’ or ‘crumb of cheese’ that Scrooge implicates in the appearance of the ghostly apparition that begins his own Christmas tale.
The microbe itself is depicted as a demon or goblin-like creature, which seems to be a common illustration for indigestion—in 1888, for example, Adolphus E. Bridger published a treatise on digestion entitled ‘The Demon of Dyspepsia’, while in 1892 Mary Bates Dimond wrote a poem, ‘Micrology Against Mythology’, which argued that the ‘fay and goblin [that] once held carnival of magic and of mirth’ had been replaced by the ‘arrogant Bacillus’.2 Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading published a morality in rhyme called ‘Molly’s Dream’, which too used a gobliny aesthetic to warn against indigestion. Playing on the homophonic goblin and gobblin’, the poem recounts the story of Molly, who suffers a nightmare after indulging in a late-night feast:
Molly, our Molly, had sat up rather late—
Molly, our Molly, cooking was her fate,
And she had been very hurried,
With pies and puddings flurried—
With this to stew, and that to steep,
Until at length she fell asleep,
And in her sleep she saw the dreadful goblin.3
At length the goblin speaks to her, proclaiming itself ‘the imp of indigestion’:
“I’m the imp of indigestion!
Play—the horrible suggestion—
With folks’ insides, who love things rich:
You and I, Moll, can serve out sich.
I love you ‘cause you plague your race—
I love you for your fat, round face—
So you, sweetheart, shall be my own dear goblin.”
Molly awakens with a shriek; however, far from having made some Faustian deal or having been kidnapped by the Goblin king a la Bowie in Labyrinth, she is met with the realities of her lack of willpower.
In fact, in answer to our question,
The doctor said ’twas indigestion;
The gobbling often was the cause of goblin.
With this cheerful moral ringing in your ears, I’ll leave you to finish off the holiday chocolate. Happy New Year from the Diseases of Modern Life team. May your grog remain long infested with the joyous contagion of the Christmas microbe!
Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life.
1 ‘A Christmas Microbe’ Fun 67(4 Jan 1898)1704 p.17.
2 Mary Bates Dimond, ‘Micrology Against Mythology’ The Independent, Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts 44(27 Oct 1892)229, p.1.
3 S. C. Hall, ‘Molly’s Dream’ Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading 33(July 1868) p.91.