A feast of Christmas stories, from Dickens to Joyce
Whether the festive season fills you with humbug or goodwill, there is a Christmas story or poem for every mood. Anne O’Neill selects 11 works that capture its spirit
Anjelica Huston as Gretta Conroy and Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in John Huston’s film based on The Dead by James Joyce, a classic short story set around Christmas time
The beautiful birth narrative of Jesus from the gospels of Matthew and Luke is the original Christmas story, one that has enthralled and nourished the Christian imagination with its powerful imagery; the stark poverty of His birth in a stable in Bethlehem; the journey of the Magi who followed the birth star of the newborn king and found him in his humble birthplace; they worshipped Him in the stable and gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
It is not surprising that Christmastime has become a rich source of secular literature, the annual holiday period whose festivities mark the end of another year. The writer Garrison Keillor noted that “the lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together”. Whether you subscribe to the bah-humbug notion of Christmas or are a dyed-in-the-wool lover of the festive season, there will be something to cater for all tastes in this selection of Yuletide scenes filtered through the frosted lenses of some of the world’s most famous poets and writers. The season of magic and mystery acts as a portal to our humanity via fir, fairylights and frosted landscapes.
1. A Christmas Dinner by Charles Dickens
“Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas.”
For all those rendered into a curmudgeon at the prospect of enforced incarceration with family members for the Christmas dinner you can lay the blame squarely at Charles Dickens’s door, the writer who is said to have invented the notion of a family Christmas. A Christmas Carol is the most famous of his works on the theme. It tells the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, the ghost of Christmas past and the ghost of Christmas yet to come. He is given a chance at redemption which he grabs with gusto and renounces his old avaricious ways and promises to honour Christmas with all his heart. The extract above is from an earlier short story called A Christmas Dinner. Dickens’s description of Christmas dinner at the home of Uncle and Aunt George is stodgy with sentimentality and packed with platitudes, an ode to peace and goodwill. You can read it here.
Dickens describes the gigantic pudding, with a sprig of holly at the top and a family where there is “laughing, and shouting, and clapping of little chubby hands”. This short story is one that would gladden the heart of any Christmas curmudgeon and should be prescribed reading for those reluctant to enter into the spirit of Christmas.
2. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
George Eliot believed that “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”. Franzen’s highly regarded novel, The Corrections, allows us a complete immersion and contact with a dysfunctional but highly recognisable middle-class family called the Lamberts. The matriarch of the family is Enid, who is struggling to cope with the demands of caring for her husband Albert, who is struggling with dementia and Parkinson’s. She is powered by a strong sense of optimism and nags at all her children to convene for “one last Christmas” at their Midwestern homestead. Her children all have their own battles. Denise, the youngest, is a talented chef with a penchant for romantic entanglements that sabotage her life. Gary, the eldest, is married with three children and has a lucrative job in banking. Chip, the middle child, is a failed academic and a Marxist devotee currently working as an aide to a Lithuanian conman. Enid’s brood are all present for the “last Christmas” but the day is stained with the siblings’ resentments, misunderstandings and by the accelerating decline of Albert. “After breakfast the hours passed in the sickishness, the invalid waiting of a major holiday.” The Christmas scenes in this novel are not all mistletoe and wine and awash with the seasonal sentimentality of Dickens. They show us real struggles and human difficulties that lurk behind the seasonal cheer of Christmas and help us to manage and correct our own expectations of the season of good will with a dollop of reality.
3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
This is a delightful lyrical tale by Dylan Thomas about cats and uncles and memories of his past Christmas as a boy in Wales. “It was years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales and birds the colour of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the heart-shaped hills.” In Thomas’s memory the postmen had “sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully”.
It is a wonderfully evocative piece of writing with its ability to conjure up a more innocent world where “snow came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and bodies of the trees”.
It is a joy to listen to his resonant tones recorded in 1952 at Steinway Hall, New York. If Christmas as a season reminds us all of the wonder of children and makes us hark back with nostalgia to our own childhoods, this is the poem that embodies all those feelings for me. I’d especially like to invite Auntie Hannah “who liked port and stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush” to Christmas dinner.
Thomas’s work has been adapted for stage and screen and there are some beautifully illustrated children’s books that help sprinkle the magic of his prose onto a new generation of readers.
4. My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard
The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book masterwork My Struggle is a type of essayistic discourse on his life’s battles, from growing up with an alcoholic father to his own struggles as a father and a writer. He elevates the trivial and the ordinary to the epic. In Book Two there is a beautiful depiction of a past Christmas. It was Christmas Eve “and the table was crammed with mutton ribs, potatoes, mashed rutabaga and Christmas ale” when the teenage Karl became entranced by his Uncle Kjartan, a poet, who was holding court at the table talking about Heidegger, Socrates, Nietzsche and Plato. His hair was sticking out in all directions, his suit askew but the young Karl noticed that “his eyes were aglow with fervour” as the rain was beating against the window, that Christmas of 1986. It was a kind of epiphany for the young Karl, who notes that he didn’t understand a word of what Kjartan said “but he understood intuitively that he was right.”
5. A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh
From Norway in 1986 to Dublin in the 1950s when Patrick Kavanagh wrote A Christmas Childhood. The Monaghan poet wrote this poem having spent a Christmas season alone in his flat in Dublin. The poem is filled with nostalgia for rural family life. His memories come to us through Christian imagery from the story of the birth of Jesus. The poem is a magical remembrance of a simple Christmas rendered surreal by the boy-poet’s imagination where his father played the melodeon and the stars danced to his music, where his mother milked the cows and her stable light becomes a twinkling star. Kavanagh was six Christmases of age. It’s a must-read for all of us who wish to enter again the gay garden that was childhood.
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade -
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
6. Journey Of The Magi by TS Eliot
This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927. The narrator’s voice is that of a wise man who is world weary and recalling a journey that was painful, tedious and plagued by a feeling that “this was all folly”. It was a difficult journey in the dead of winter, their mission plagued by challenges with camels being “galled and sore-footed” and “the camel men cursing and grumbling”. The journey to find the Messiah means forgoing “the silken girls bringing sherbet”. It echoes Eliot’s difficult spiritual journey to Christianity and how the finding of the new god means the death of old ways and old gods.
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
7. The Dead by James Joyce
The Dead is probably the literary Christmastime short story, with its rich, sad and wonderful depiction of a Little Christmas or Epiphany party and its aftermath – as much about mortality as Christmas. The action centres around the Misses Morkans’ annual dance which was always “a great affair” and never once had it fallen flat. Gabriel Conroy and his wife arrive late and the night starts on a bad note for Gabriel when he asks Lily, the servant girl, about her marriage prospects and she retorts with great bitterness that “the men that is now is only all palaver”. He then tips her, blustering on about Christmastime to cover for his embarrassment.
This Christmas party in the dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island thrums with life as friends and family arrive, glasses are clinked, boots are shook free of snow, “which no one had seen the like of for thirty years”. Gabriel’s wife Gretta confesses that she is upset because of a song from the party, The Lasses of Aughrim. It reminded her of a young boy she used to know called Michael Furey who had died when he was 17 for the love of Gretta. Gabriel realises that she has never felt similarly passionate about their marriage. Gabriel begins a meditation on the dead and feels spiritually connected with those that had passed. “He was conscious of but could not apprehend their wayward and flickering existence.” Joyce’s creative genius has this awakening happen on the feast day of the Epiphany, January 6th.
8. A Serious Talk by Raymond Carver
There is no one quite like Carver to excavate the truth in the human condition with his signature economical and spartan style. This short story is from his collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. We meet Burt returning to the marital home from which he is estranged. He buys his wife a cashmere sweater but feels apart from his family as they prepare for Christmas dinner. He notices the cigarettes in the ashtray are neither his nor his wife Vera’s brand and is simmering with petty jealousies and resentments. He resorts to nearly causing a house fire, cutting the telephone cord when Vera talks to her new lover but all the time wanting to have a serious talk. Further bad behaviour is hinted at in this bleak story but he returns the next day to make amends, using the hackneyed line that it’s Christmas and that’s why he came. She replies with the hostile retort that it’s the day after Christmas and that she never wants to see another one. The line is reminiscent of the line from Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, again the story of warring lovers – pray God it’s our last.
9. The Green Road by Anne Enright
This was my favourite read of the year. The plot hinges on a reunion, the family coming together for Christmas for the first time in years. We meet the Madigan family and are treated to stylish prose that charts the fortunes and misfortunes of this family over a period of 25 years. In the second half of the novel, after we have been introduced to the clan, Enright gives a sustained and absorbing account of Christmas 2005. One of the best sequences is the depiction of the mother of all shopping exhibitions undertaken by Constance, the only one of the siblings who lives locally, a stay-at-home wife and mother. To hear Anne Enright read this extract is a great joy as she conveys the consumerist abandon of Celtic Tiger-era Christmas shopping. Constance pushes her trolley through the vegetable section picking up “celery, carrots, parsnips for Dessie, sausage and sage for stuffing, an experimental bag of chestnuts, vacuum packed”. She also tossed in “a case of prosecco and eight frozen pizzas, wine, sherry, whiskey, fresh nuts, salted nuts, crisps, bags and bags of apples, two mangoes, a melon, dark cherries for the fruit salad, root ginger, fresh mint, a wooden crate of satsumas.” After buying enough food to feed an army and just in case any one was still hungry she got some “ready cooked drumsticks to keep people going”. She notes that the bill came to more than €400, a new record – Dessie would be almost proud.
10. Queenie by Alice Munro
This 60-page short story by one of the masters of the form, Canadian writer Alice Munro, could be read in one sitting to dispel the ennui of the post-Christmas slump. The reader is immediately brought into a perfectly drawn world by Munro. When her father marries his second wife, Chrissie gets a new stepsister, who is three years older than her and very beautiful. Queenie runs away at 18 with a neighbour and their lives diverge. After the duo reunite, an incident from the previous Christmas is told by Queenie to her friend. She had got a job in a movie theatre and was happy because she had her own money at last and could buy the ingredients for a Christmas cake. She invited some neighbours and her husband’s students, she made sausage rolls and gingerbread. A young Chinese boy named Andrew danced with her to the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! Her jealous husband later accused her of giving the cake to the poor student when she was under the influence of alcohol. She later finds the wrapped-up Christmas cake but never tells the controlling husband Stan. She tells her stepsister that he was “just so jealous, just so jealous”.
11. Seasonal Suicide Notes: My Life as it Is Lived by Roger Lewis
This is the ideal read for the disgruntled curmudgeon at Christmas. It is a dark, savage, scabrous account of his daily life by the author Roger Lewis. For some years he had been entertaining his friends with a letter at Christmas giving a no-holds-barred account of his daily battles against indignity, insolvency, parenthood and work. The comedy is high farce and for lovers of black comedy and bad taste this is the seasonal read for you. It is a laugh at life’s absurdities and will strike a chord with those who don’t do Christmas and who baulk at its mawkish sentimentality.
Anne O’Neill blogs about books at ofselfandshelf.com