Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Reading.

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to find genuinely Christmas-spirited literature? There are a lot of books whose plot is incidental to Christmas. There are a number of significant stories with a point, that are, quite frankly, a bit depressing. There are sickly sweet stories, that try too hard. There are cynical stories that make a mockery of everything. The well written Christmas story is a rare thing indeed. Therefore, in the interest of genuine public spirit, I present the following list, in no particular order:

The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. That is an obvious one, of course. There is a reason that is has been the Christmas story for a number of years. In addition to being extremely well written, and sprinkled throughout with typical Dickensian humour, it boasts a main character has a strong, dramatic moral arch, and a deeply affecting resolution. Though it is primarily a secular story, it is heavily influenced by a Christian world view. And Dickens's descriptions of the Christmas celebrations are the most authentic of any you are likely to find.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. A singularly charming short story of true love, and a happy marriage in spite of - or perhaps, because of - poverty. The sacrifices that Della and James make to get each other a Christmas gift are sweetly touching, and the ending paragraph, that explains the title, inevitably chokes me up.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. When the horrible Herdman kids take over the annual Christmas pageant, everyone expects the result to be a shambles. What actually happens makes for an often hilarious, and ultimately touching story.

The Father Christmas Letters: by J. R. R. Tolkien. Every Christmas for years, Tolkien wrote letters to his children in the guise of Father Christmas. The letters, written in scrawling calligraphy and lavishly illustrated, mostly recount various mishaps and disasters that befall the residents of the North Pole. The ensuing chaos inevitably endangers the year's Christmas packages, but Father Christmas, and his helper, the North Polar Bear, never fail to save the situation at the last possible moment - generally with a good deal of Tolkien's droll humour thrown in.

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. Try to get the version illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. There are few books that capture the feel of Christmas the way this one does. The book brims with joy and cheerful sentiment, that never turns into sentimentality. The descriptions are densely poetic, the imagery vivid. One can feel the clean, cold air, with the salt tang in it, smell the goose, hear the gas lights hiss. It is a quick read, and I read it nearly every year.

The Spirit of Christmas by G. K. Chesterton. A collections of essays, plays and short stories built around the celebration of Christmas, both as a religious holiday, and a secular one. The sheer jolly wholesomeness of it is an excellent antidote to the maudlin insipidity that seems to be the hallmark of the season these days. Unfortunately, this book is rather hard to get a hold of.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Anonymous. This is an old poem, written in Middle English, but you can easily find it in Modern English too. The action takes place between Christmas and New Year's, and Christmas motifs run rampant in the descriptions. There are several themes running through it: knightly nobility vs. virtue, temptation, but not falling into sin, the nature of courage and honour, and their place in living a truly Christian life. These themes are treated seriously, but never overwhelm the story, nor the Christmas setting.

The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I am cheating here slightly, since this historical novel is not a Christmas book at all. However, there is a crucial plot development that takes place on Christmas Day, and there is something extremely satisfying in the way the author takes the incidental setting and lavishes such attention to all the little details that it makes the Christmas celebration - in the background though it is - quite memorable. (To be honest, The Sherwood Ring is just a satisfying book all the way around. It is one of my fall back books when I don't know what else to read.)

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