Twelve Unusual Christmas Reads
Sick of Dickens? From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Christmas letters, Stefan Beck picks 12 unusual Christmas reads.
Every home should have a hearth, but my landlord says the fireplace is defective and that any attempt to use it will constitute breach of lease. What he means is that he’s taken my measure and thinks my living room is a tinderbox of rolling papers, pornography, and fried chicken cartons. He’s quite mistaken. In my parlor he would find a lovely Christmas tree, twinkling like the very dome of heaven, and a troop of apple-cheeked Hummels I acquired last year but haven’t yet managed to pawn. Tinsel, garland, and chestnut shells are the only combustibles on offer. This atmosphere of holiday cheer cries out for a wood fire, or even a Duraflame log, by which to read Christmas classics.
The natural-gas heater will have to suffice. Herewith, a 12 Days of Christmas reading list you might actually enjoy. I won’t tell you to reread A Christmas Carol, sniffle at “Gift of the Magi,” or keep a straight face for the concluding line of Chekhov’s “At Christmas Time” (to wit: “The hot douche, your Excellency”), when there are so many other odd, beautiful, and at times hilarious selections out there.
Day 1: Jacobus de Voragine, “Saint Nicholas,” Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend). One encounters the word “hagiography” so often in reviews of celebrity bios that one forgets it’s a real genre—a surpassingly weird one. Jacobus, né Jacopo, was a 13th-century Genoan archbishop and compiler of what we might call Lies of the Saints. His entry on Nicholas is loaded with bizarre goodies, including the origin of St. Nick’s preference for invading homes through the chimney.
Day 2: John Betjeman, “Advent 1955.” It was perhaps Betjeman’s “background of solid bourgeois respectability,” as Paul Dean put it, that encouraged him to pen the ur-verses against the commercialization, and mawkish sentimentalization, of Christ’s birth. “We raise the price of things in shops,/ We give plain boxes fancy tops/ And lines which traders cannot sell/ Thus parcell’d go extremely well/ We dole out bribes we call a present/ To those to whom we must be pleasant.” But the poem ends on a strikingly uncynical note.
Day 3: Max Beerbohm, A Christmas Garland. A compendium of literary parodies—some loving, some devastating—on the subject of Christmas. Many of the authors Max buttonholes beneath the mistletoe are too obscure for modern readers to care about, but parodies of G. K. Chesterton (“Some Damnable Errors About Christmas”), Joseph Conrad (“The Feast”), and George Bernard Shaw (“A Straight Talk”) are priceless. Chesterton: “I select at random two of the more obvious fallacies that obtain. One is that Christmas should be observed as a time of jubilation ... This brings me to the second fallacy. I refer to the belief that ‘Christmas comes but once a year ...’ ”
Day 4: Neil Gaiman, “Nicholas Was ...” A very short story from Smoke and Mirrors, which can be enjoyed online. “The dwarfish natives of the Arctic caverns did not speak his language, but conversed in their own, twittering tongue, conducted incomprehensible rituals, when they were not actually working in the factories.” The moral of the story: Sucks to be Santa. (See also: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.)
Day 5: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Father Christmas Letters. Christmas has always been neck and neck with Halloween for the title of Best Time to Traumatize Your Kids. This year my cousin let one of her daughters torment one of her sons with fake threats from The Man Up North. The practice, whatever Child Protective Services may think of it, enjoys a distinguished pedigree. Tolkien used his Northern European imagination not to frighten but at least to compel belief in the corpulent, red-clad judge. His illustrated letters to his children, which feature a North Polar Bear, Ilbereth the elf, and goblins, are an invaluable template for those parents who find it funny to watch their kids’ eyes go wide and scared-shitless as Christmas approaches.
Day 6: Robert Frost, “Christmas Trees.” It wouldn’t quite be winter without “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but “Christmas Trees” is dearer to my heart now that I live 133 miles from Manhattan. The poem, a “circular letter” to friends, deals with some citified jerk who tries to clear-cut Frost’s forests at 3¢ a tree. Frost doesn’t take the bait: “I doubt if I was tempted for a moment/ To sell them off their feet to go in cars/ And leave the slope behind the house all bare,/ Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon./ I’d hate to have them know it if I was.”
Day 7: Washington Irving, The Christmas Sketches. Geoffrey Crayon’s impressions of Christmas, from The Sketch-Book, are a perfect American companion to Dickens’s Christmas Carol. (A Christmas Carol was very much Dickens's answer to Irving; he once remarked, "I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.") Irving’s old-style perorations are as mellifluous and soothing as a pewter goblet of heavily fortified eggnog. Here, in “The Stage Coach,” we discover that Christmas break was ever thus: “It was delightful to hear the gigantic plans of pleasure of the little rogues, and the impracticable feats they were to perform during their six weeks’ emancipation from the abhorred thraldom of book, birch, and pedagogue.”
Day 8: Tobias Wolff, “Hunters in the Snow.” It isn’t a Christmas story, but it’s very much a winter’s tale—and it lends the necessary tincture of violence and menace to this list. The twist, when it comes, makes O. Henry look like a hopeless pansy. If only he hadn’t looked like one already.
Day 9: Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One can read Gawain in an hour or two, if it’s in translation—Simon Armitage’s is easy to digest—and it’s an ideal Christmas repast. Most of this 14th-century poem consists of elaborate descriptions of Christmas partying at Camelot, the court of King Arthur, and the rest is a supernatural thriller—perhaps what Andy Williams had in mind when he crooned about “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” Armitage even uses the word “wodwo,” at one point, which should guide readers to Ted Hughes’s poem of the same name, and to the “Wild Man,” which, in Northern European folklore, is one of Santa’s pagan precursors.
Day 10: Terry Pratchett, Hogfather. Death takes a holiday. Things get weird. Trust me.
Day 11: Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, How to Be Topp. The closing chapter of this most brilliant, and fantastically illustrated, “children’s book” is all about Christmas. “The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter” belongs in every child’s arsenal. There’s also this mouths-of-babes heresy: “Personaly i do not care a d. whether Marley was dead or not it is just that there is something about the xmas Carol which makes paters and grown-ups read with grate XPRESION, and this is very embarassing for all. It is all right for the first part they just roll the r’s a lot but wate till they come to scrooge’s nephew. When he sa Mery Christmas uncle it is like an H-bomb xplosion and so it go on until you get to Tiny Tim chiz chiz chiz he is a weed. When Tiny Tim sa God bless us every one your pater is so overcome he burst out blubbing.”
Day 12: Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal. The crown jewel of the Christmas bookshelf. Rock Crystal contains the most gorgeous descriptions of a frozen landscape you’re likely to encounter in any book, as well as the most affecting Christmas miracle in world literature. Adam Kirsch called it a “parable of frightening depth.” That this simple story of two lost children manages to scale such heights is a testament to the holiday season’s imaginative power. The NYRB version, translated by the poet Marianne Moore, belongs on every civilized bookshelf, all year round.