Selecting the perfect Christmas stories
Festive yarns pivot around three points: past recollection, present revelry and future hope
Jim Carrey lifting sled over his head in a scene from the film How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Photograph: Universal/Getty Images
To the best of my knowledge, no children’s book has been written about the public execution by hanging and burning of Santa Claus outside the cathedral at Dijon in December 1951.
Two hundred and fifty children gathered at 3pm on December 23rd to witness the old man’s beard catching fire. Then Santa, the accused, simply “vanished in the smoke.” Santa stood suspected of advancing the “Americanisation” and commercialising of the Feast of the Nativity. More damningly, he personified the supposed paganising of that sacred event.
The great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) recounts the details of Santa’s murder in his essay “Santa Claus burned as a Heretic” (1952). Lévi-Strauss traces Santa’s lineage back through to Saturnalia, the pre-Christian Roman winter celebration held in honour of Saturn. He incorporates Santa into an account of the cyclical cultural practices of autumn and winter. The season begins with children dressing up as ghouls at Halloween, then proceeds through a period of weeks when the little ghouls beg for rewards – sending letters to Santa and so on – and ends with Santa desperately clambering down chimneys, valiantly assuaging the appetites of the little blighters. Santa then beats a hasty retreat only to return the following year.
And then the Bishop of Dijon, hoping to halt the cycle, went ahead and executed Santa.
The day after the burning of Santa in Dijon, Santa rose again from the dead and appeared to the crowds at Place de la Libération. Staying well clear of the church, Santa spoke to the children from the rooftops of city hall. Christmas – at least a secular version – had been restored. The boys and girls of Dijon would receive their gifts after all.
Christmas returns. No matter how many would like to see it condemned to the flames, Christmas always returns.
For those of us who love Christmas, and who wistfully recall how as children the arduousness of the classroom, the trauma of the schoolyard and the mild rancour of family life, dissolved in anticipation of the big day, share, as often as not, the desire to reproduce the potency of the Christmas season for our own children.
But how best to do this?
In co-orchestrating the business of Christmas for our children for a couple of decades, what I have learned is this. Alongside the tinsel and the gifts, selecting the perfect Christmas stories – I mean holiday books, for sure, but also the loveliest of carols, the fondest of memories to be shared, the tales to be told around the candles and the tree – needs some careful deliberation. This is because stories provide an arterial route to the very heart of Christmas.
Though a tale of the burning of Santa outside the cathedral at Dijon might not make one feel especially Christmassy, a mood of looking to the past, of nostalgia, provides an obvious signature for many Christmas stories. This may be unsurprising since the season calls to mind the antique event of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. A goodly proportion of popular carols celebrate that epochal event: Silent Night; The First Noël; O Come, All Ye Faithful; and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, to name some traditional favourites.
A religious commemoration is smuggled into the Christmases of even those who celebrate in a more secular spirit. Readers with a taste for the poignant might like to pick up Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant (1888) during this season. The climactic appearance of the Christ-child in the giant’s garden is a reminder that even a soured heart – no matter how gargantuan – can be softened by a marvellous event. Another moving story that puts Christ in Christmas (and this one more directly involving the nativity scene) is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Hunchback Zia (1916). Zia, “who has known no joy before since the hour of his birth” witnesses the miracle of Jesus’s birth and is beautifully transformed by it. Steel yourself before reading either of these stories aloud, I advise you.
The sepia-bathed mood of Christmas stories does not, however, depend exclusively upon a harking back to biblical events. In A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1952) – Dylan Thomas’ most popular prose work in the US – a small boy interrupts the narrator’s reminiscences of just how snowy Christmases were in the Wales of long ago. The little boy casually remarks that “It snowed last year.” He might have been speaking for all children who have had to endure interminable accounts of the splendours of the Christmases of yesteryear. Yet the narrator – presumably Thomas himself for the poet had been commissioned to narrate scenes from his childhood – brushes the boy’s intrusion aside declaring, “. . . but that was not the same snow”.
Indeed, it snowed so much in those early years that, famously, Thomas could never remember “whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was 12 or whether it snowed for 12 days and 12 nights when I was six”. Thomas’s story, gloriously illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg in the 1969 printing that I have, is still read aloud in many households, though the audio version, recorded by Thomas in 1952, a year before his death, is necessary listening.
When A Child’s Christmas in Wales is read alongside Dylan Thomas’s letters of that time which bespoke his poverty, and in which he lamented the poems left unwritten because of his plight, the contrast between past and present seems fierce. “I wish I could sell my body to a rich widow,” he wrote to friend and publisher James Laughlin in 1949, “but it is fat now it trembles a little”. How consoling it is to soak in the clement waters of a Christmas memory when adult life can be so very chastening.
But here’s the thing, no matter how powerful is the nostalgia of Christmases past, for the child Christmas is always this very Christmas. The story of the first manger, or even listening to a hard-drinking, philandering, impecunious poet’s recollection of a snow-blanketed Wales, rarely makes a child feel like an epigone, a latecomer to his or her own Christmas celebration.
Those who recoil from Christmas often find in it melancholy emotions, sensing, that is, in Christmas more “-algia” (pain) than “nostoc-” (returning home). But the spirit of Christmas is not, I think, founded solely on sweet retrospectives. Rather, Christmas draws its power from a potent coalescing of recollection (of the past), revelry (in the moment) and firm resolution (about the future), the last named being the least obvious but arguably the most significant. These three moments – that together I call, somewhat grandiosely, the “temporality of Christmas” – can be used to categorise the motifs of most stories about the season. These stories in turn – as we have already seen to be the case with nostalgic reflections upon the past – lend their heft to Christmas’s distinctive intensity.
That the spirit of Christmas tethers past, present and future is the core insight from that inescapable Christmas tale, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). An honest recollection of the past, a taking note of the revelry of the present pleasing day – this Christmas day – and clear-sighted prognostication about a possible future shepherds Scrooge to his resolution to be a better person. Having resolved to reform his behaviour, Scrooge enjoys, finally, his Christmas Day.
If nostalgia works by casting its sepia glow about the season, it is a child’s interest in gifts, both receiving them and selecting them for others, that adds a delicious tension to the holiday. That is, it is the prospect of presents that provide (forgive me) the present tense of the Christmas season. If the piquancy of the pre-Christmas season has a crown prince, this must surely be Calvin – of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (1985- 1995) fame – who spends his Advent fretting about Santa’s largesse. Has he, Calvin, been good enough to deserve gifts, he wonders? In other moods, Calvin defiantly rails against the injustice of Santa sitting in judgment upon him.
The exchange of gifts has an antique past, and is a psychologically fraught business. Each year, for example, I select with varying degrees of success, a gift for my beloved. During our most impoverished years, we set very strict monetary limits on our purchases. One year as we laid our gifts under the tree, and based upon the little hints we dropped, we had seemingly purchased identical gifts for one another. Indeed, when the gifts were unwrapped we had exchanged iPods. Hers, from me, was a beautiful 5GB Nano. Mine, from her, was a 60GB monster. Rarely is the awkward asymmetry in gift-giving quite so apparent.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most popular stories about Christmas concern the business of gift exchange.
The Brothers Grimm’s The Elves and the Shoemaker (1806) may be for many children their first introduction to the notion that though gifts may be given for their own reward, such gestures are often reciprocated. In that story, the elves’ selfless nocturnal labours help grow the shoemaker’s business and make him wealthy. In return, the shoemaker and his wife make for the elves – who in the original version of the story are described a “two pretty little naked men”– nice suits of clothes and pairs of shoes. A pleasant, though admittedly modest, offering in return for setting the shoemaker up for life. The little men dance off, and the shoemaker prospers. If there is a troubling asymmetry in this gift-exchange, then the Brothers Grimm do not make a fuss about it.
Act of giving
O Henry’s beautiful, if sentimental, story Gifts of the Magi (1905) – retold for children in a number of editions – delights because it reminds us that it is the giving that is most important. Neither husband nor wife are materially rewarded by their gift exchange (she cuts and sells her hair to afford her husband a chain for his watch, he sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair) but as O Henry writes, “of all those who give gifts these two were of the wisest”. And in Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem, Christmas Carol (1872), to give a final example, the impoverished narrator asks what can I give Him, concludes “Yet what I can, I give Him,/Give my heart.”
The act of gift-giving forces all of us, children and adults, to reflect upon our lives as they are right now – what do we deserve? – and, just as importantly the act calls on us to reflect upon our relationships: how do we give to others with love? As we gather around the hearth, with family and friend, offering a gift both reveals, and when perfectly chosen, consolidates our bonds.
Full of promise
Christmas is a feast oriented toward the future in the important sense that at its core is the possibility that Christmas can make us feel that the world is young again and full of promise. Christmas is the season when we take stock, and resolve to be better people.
The resolution of Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957) comes with a change of heart about the future: “And what happened then? Well . . . in Whoville they say, That the Grinch’s small heart Grew three sizes that day!” For Scrooge, also, Christmases of the future are also a matter of a renewed heart. After his ordeal, Scrooge announces, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
So, Christmas has returned. Many of us will open a worn copy of The Night Before Christmas (A Visit from St Nicholas) (1823) and wait for the return of the right jolly old fellow to round out the year and prepare our hearts for the next.
Liam Heneghan’s latest book is Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2018). He is professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University. He tweets @DublinSoil