Christmas can bring out something sentimental in authors and readers alike, something locked away for the rest of the year, like Bukowski’s Bluebird. This means that Christmas stories are a genre of their own, sentimental but sad and happy, stories which hold a mirror up to their characters at a magical, vulnerable, quivering time of the year, when the air between worlds seems thinner than ever.
Here, Hope from Central Library, highlights four excellent Christmas stories.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
“Marley was dead; to begin with.“
But this doesn’t stop Marley coming back, the first of four ghosts to visit his old business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge. A classic known by children and adults alike, living on thanks to adaptions such as A Muppet’s Christmas Carol. I remember playing Tiny Tim’s mother in an assembly when I was seven years old (I think my costume was a pinny over my school uniform.)
This story of cruelty and redemption, of second chances, of warmth, love and conviviality, was written in Victorian England, but still speaks to us today. I think of it smelling of port and mincemeat, with the clutter of cutlery in the background, and the glow of a warm coal fire, flickering by the hearth. It’s a book to make you feel warm, even when winter is at its coldest, and maybe, that is why we still need it.
Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor by John Cheever
“Do you have any children Charlie?” Mrs Fuller asked.
“Four living,” he said, “two in the grave.” The majesty of his lie overwhelmed him.
This strange, sad, lovely story by John Cheever, published in The New Yorker in December 1949, is one of my favourites. A lonesome elevator operator in a high-rise building in New York, encounters everyone who lives in the building and has many drinks and Christmas dinners, throughout the day. Cynical and sentimental, this story looks at giving and the way that while Charlie sees Christmas as a sad season for the poor, perhaps this is not always the case?
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
“Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. To-morrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present.“
I hate this story by O. Henry, but couldn’t not include it. The first time I read it I wept at the stupid injustice at the heart of the tale, where an artist and his lovely wife both sell their most prized possessions to buy one another a Christmas gift. It’s desperately sad, but it is about love, and beautifully written. And I remember it, even if it is with sadness and anger at this cruel, if sentimental Christmas tale.
Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story by Paul Auster
“The very phrase “Christmas story” had unpleasant associations for me, evoking dreadful outpourings of hypocritical mush and treacle.“
A writer is tasked with the impossible: to write a non-sentimental Christmas story. He doesn’t know what to write, until chatting to his friend, cigar shop owner, Auggie Wren. It’s not a conventional Christmas story, but I would argue that it has a lot of sentiment, not in a sickly Hallmark kind of way, but in a way which is real, tender and true.
Listen to Paul Auster reading his story online.
It was also made into Smoke, which I think is a fantastic Christmas film.