Christmas tales are meant to cheer us and to help usher in the Christmas spirit; yet, every favorite tale embodies a degree of struggle, an element of danger or some darkness that must be gotten through. There may be magic and wonder leading up to the final, satisfying denouement of Christmas morning – upon waking to find everything wished for sitting under the starry lights of the Christmas tree, but the waiting is always prolonged.
Most of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket anthology follow this pattern distinctively, in 20 different ways. From Charles Dickens to Richard Ford the inveterate Christmas struggle is traced.
Dickens and Early Russian Writers
The anthology begins with a Dickens tale called The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton (from The Pickwick Papers). Charles Dickens was only 25 when he wrote this playful tale, and the ironic humor that we have come to love in just about every Dickens story is delightfully fresh in this selection from his first novel. It is a Christmas Eve ghost story amidst a nighttime landscape of snow and stars and a bad-tempered old grave digger named Gabriel Grubb. A bit like A Christmas Carol, Grubb is visited, in this case, by a fantastical goblin king and his goblin courtiers. They sing terrifying ghostly songs to Gabriel Grubb and, rather violently, teach him a lesson about life and his disagreeable attitude toward other people. Dickens, the eternal humanitarian, makes a case for women as being the most compassionate of the human race.
He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore in their own hearts an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotedness.
Of the Russian writers in the anthology, Nikolai Gogol is most similar to Dickens, yet Gogol’s devils and witches of Christmas Eve are finally conquered by the, mostly benevolent, characters of a snowy village near St. Petersburg in The Night Before Christmas. This is a famous Russian fairy tale about a gifted painter and blacksmith who paints frescoes of the saints on the church walls and who is therefore most sought after by the devil. This devil, whose lover is a witch, steels the moon on Christmas Eve and tempts the best, god-loving people of the village. Another delightful, fantastical tale!
Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is and Anton Chekhov’s Vanka are both heart-warming stories that evoke questions of morality, spirituality and the love of God and people.
Vladimir Nabokov’s more modern narrative reflects an elegant mastery of story-telling with a unique, stream-of-consciousness style in the beautiful yet tragic story titled, Christmas.
The night was smoke-blue and moonlit; thin clouds were scattered about the sky but did not touch the delicate, icy moon. The trees, masses of gray frost, cast dark shadows on the drifts, which scintillated here and there with metallic sparks.
The three Russian writers are similar to Dickens in their sympathy toward humankind; they are quite clear about the virtues of compassion. In the modern tales, however, the narrative of compassion and human mercy is more implicit.
British Writers Apart from Dickens
When it comes to expert story-writing, leave it to the British. And when it comes to writing a great detective yarn, leave it to Arthur Conan Doyle to tell an amusing Sherlock Holmes story. The investigation in The Blue Carbuncle takes place in the bustling streets of London, in Covent Garden Market, two days after Christmas. Holmes is just as we like him: clever, articulate, circumspect, and yes – merciful.
Anthony Trollope’s whimsical Christmas at Thompson Hall mixes suspense with a smattering of cheeky humor. His name, Trollope, like his writing style, gallops or trots along and is as ever: impeccably English. And Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant Bella Fleace Gave A Party takes place in Ireland, outside Dublin in the Market town of Ballingar where a wealthy, eccentric lady decides to divert death and instead throw a party. The story is expertly written, detailed and surprisingly ironic. Elizabeth Bowen, who always wrote a flawless tale, is somewhat dated in Green Holly, yet the witty cadence makes this bizarre ghost story worth the read. And Muriel Spark whisks the reader along in Christmas Fugue. It is a romantic tale, a travel piece, in which the main character, Cynthia at twenty-four is suspended in a kind of limbo or liminal zone up high in the air on a passenger jet. Questions of belief… in Christmas, in the start of a new life, in a love affair and in reality itself are raised in an unforeseen way.
Willa Cather, a favorite American poet and novelist, had a beautiful way of drawing in the reader and maneuvering the plot. The Burglar’s Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve in Chicago. Reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, juxtapositions of excitement vs. safety, and poverty vs. success, drive this touching story along, together with the prevailing theme of motherhood and mother-son relationship.
John Cheever’s excellent Christmas is a Sad Time For the Poor examines the benevolence of people in a New York City high-rise apartment-building one day out of the year when these sophisticates have the chance to give. And Truman Capote’s now famous A Christmas Memory is the striking memoir about a seven-year-old boy and his elderly cousin. Capote’s style is compelling from the first sentence:
Imagine a morning in late November.
This poignant tale is a must-read at Christmastime.
John Updike’s evocative The Carol Sing takes us through a melancholy surveillance of the cycles of life, death and seasonal holidays in highly intelligent, sharply witty prose.
Strange people look ugly only for a while, until you begin to fill in those tufty monkey features with a little history and stop seeing their faces and start seeing their lives.
Grace Paley’s The Loudest Voice is about a Jewish schoolgirl, Shirley, who has the most resonant voice in a Christmas play. Her family and the Jewish families in her neighborhood struggle to accept their children being in a Christian play. Shirley, representing the only first-generation American in her family, is open-minded, curious, helpful and resoundingly confident.
Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winner, Richard Ford depicts a divided American family mired deeply in issues. In Creche, the main character, Faith, a successful L.A. attorney, narrates the story amidst growing resentments, threats and dangers. Yet, by Christmas Eve, the snow still glistens over everything and the children are tucked away safely in their beds. Ford holds our interest and sustains a measure of hope with his buoyant prose, as when Faith goes for a solo, nighttime ski-run:
Here the snow virtually hums to her sliding strokes. A full moon rides behind filigree clouds as she strides forward in the near-darkness of crusted woods.
Nobel Prize winning, Canadian author, Alice Monro’s gamey tale is a bold and effective portrait of human nature. The Turkey Season describes the acute observations of a fourteen-year-old girl who is surrounded by small town people who tend to be decidedly small-minded and cruel. Still, Christmas appears to win in the end.
These stories represent a fine collection of esteemed writers. I have not mentioned all of the stories here, some of them are simply short and sweet, but for a good measure of the Christmas spirit and a reminder of what it is to have a sympathetic heart, all of them are worth reading.