A Holiday Tradition: Frederick Koch’s Reading of a Christmas Carol

A drawing, in green on a white background, of Frederick Koch seated at a table with a candle on it, holding a book and pointing as he reads.

An illustration of Koch performing A Christmas Carol, 1943 (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)

When Carolina Playmakers founder Frederick Koch came to UNC in 1918, he brought with him a holiday tradition – annual dramatic readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Each year, he performed the classic Christmas tale on campus and in towns across North Carolina and beyond, sometimes performing it 15 or more times each season. The tradition started in 1906, when Koch was at the University of North Dakota:

Far away, it seems now, on the winter prairie of Dakota I was impelled with the desire to read again for my own enjoyment Charles Dickens’ immortal ghost story, A Christmas Carol. Fresh from Harvard, I was then a very young instructor at the State University of North Dakota… In that lonely isolation on the Great Flat I was pretty homesick, I guess, when I thought of the cheerful fireside associations I had left behind me in the East – of home, and friends at Christmastime. It was a Sunday afternoon that I read the story, and felt myself greatly cheered by it. So much so, that I mentioned the fact to a little group at supper in the University commons that evening with the comment: “Everybody ought to read Dickens’ Christmas Carol every year before Christmas.”

The dean of women spoke up: “Well, if you feel that way about it, you ought to read it for us.” On the following Sunday afternoon, the last Sunday before Christmas, I read A Christmas Carol, seated in a great armchair beside a crackling wood-fire. Outside the snow was blowing and drifting with a bitter wind, but inside all was warm with the glow from the hearth and from the mellow light of the candles. I remember distinctly the big bowl of crisp, green holly leaves someone had brought, and the soft singing of girls’ voices of the old songs we cherish at Christmas: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World.” So it began. The next year, and the next, and the next.

-Frederick Koch (Burlington Daily Times-News, December 13, 1933)

(An audio clip from one of Koch’s performances, year unknown, from the Records of the Department of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures, University Archives)
Program for a 1943 performance of A Christmas Carol (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)

Program for a 1943 performance of A Christmas Carol (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)

Koch’s performances brought the story to life without the aid of elaborate costumes or sets. The Raleigh News and Observer said that at a 1919 performance in Gerrard Hall, he “[sat] alone on the stage, the chapel dark except for the light at his table, with a background of Christmas trees gaily decorated behind him.” According to the newspaper’s report, he read “with spirit, vividness, and a fine touch of feeling,” and the two intermissions during the show featured carols by university singing groups.

By the end of his life, Koch had performed the story over 245 times – 39 times on the UNC campus. His readings had been broadcast on radio and television, and were a beloved annual tradition for many. After Koch’s death in 1944, the tradition was taken up by Samuel Selden, Koch’s successor as chair of the Dept. of Dramatic Art and director of the Carolina Playmakers. From 1966 through the early 1980s, the annual reading was performed by Earl Wynn of the Department of Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures.

See also: “A Christmas Carol with a Playmakers’ Flair,” North Carolina Miscellany

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