Tuesday, December 09, 2003

A Christmas Stories Review

Following up on my post on some of my favorite Christmas recordings, I wanted to list some of my favorite Christmas stories (and, when appropriate, editions of those stories). Of course, these are even more innumerable and varied than Christmas songs. Moreover, perhaps even more than music, holiday stories exist on a wholly sentimental plane--between the words and plots and the characters, and the way they work upon our memories, our hopes, and our perceptions of our environment, we find ourselves moved, or not. Musical recordings, even of carols, can be critiqued to a degree, but what can you can you say about Christmas tales? That they're badly written? That the moral of the story was inadequately supported? Almost by definition, when you're talking about a genre like this (equal parts inspiration and folk), such criticisms are besides the point. So take that as a warning: this is simply a list of fine Christmas stories, all of which have helped, and still help, me get into the spirit of the season. And consequently, I'm not going to talk about them, the way I did about musical recordings. Rather, I'm going to quote passages. Either you'll get it, or you won't.

(Also, a second warning: Melissa and I have kids, and we've been reading to them since they were tots, so many of the following are usually classified as "children's literature." Not that that should keep you away from them.)

1. Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Match Girl.
"The little girl stretched out both her hands towards the candles--then out went the match. All the Christmas candles rose higher and higher, till she saw that they were only the twinkling stars. One of them fell and made a bright streak across the sky. Someone is dying, thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had ever been kind to her, used to say, 'When a star falls, a soul is going up to God.'"

2. Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory.
"'Buddy, are you awake?' It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. 'Well, I can't sleep a hoot,' she declares. 'My mind's jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?' We huddle in the bed, and squeezes my hand I-love-you. 'Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you're grown up, will we still be friends?' I say always. 'But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo papa gave me. Buddy'--she hesitates, as though embarrassed--'I made you another kite.' Then I confess that I made her one too; and we laugh."

3. Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
"And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: 'How could it be so? It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!' And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! 'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!'"

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Santa Comes to Little House.
"Laura and Mary never would have looked in their stockings again. The cups and the cakes and the candy were almost too much. They were too happy to speak. But Ma asked if they were sure the stockings were empty. Then they put their hands down inside them, to make sure. And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny! They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny! There had never been such a Christmas."

5. Raymond Briggs, The Snowman.
[There are no words in this beautiful, whimsical picture book, which is certainly not only for children. The story only remotely has to do with Christmas (the video version adds a bit more Christmas stuff, along with a haunting piano tune from George Winston), but it is magical, warm, and ultimately deeply sobering. A warning if you have a sensitive child: a four-year-old I used to babysit would bawl uncontrollably when we turned the final page of this book.]

6. O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi.
"At seven o'clock the coffee was made and the frying pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops. Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: 'Please God, make him think I am still pretty.'"

7. Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express.
"The North Pole. It was a huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made. At first we saw no elves. 'They are gathering at the center of the city,' the conductor told us. 'That is where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas.' 'Who receives the first gift?' we all asked. The conductor answered, 'He will choose one of you.'"

8. Irene Trevas, Emma's Christmas.
"On the twelfth day of Christmas a very weary Emma climbed up to the hayloft for some sleep. But over the snowy hills she saw: twelve leaping lords, eleven dancing ladies, ten drumming drummers, nine piping pipers, eight milkmaids with cows, seven laying geese, six swimming swans, five pages bearing five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and--just behind the pear tree and its partridge--the prince himself, smiling his funny smile. In spite of herself, Emma was enchanted."

9. Rudyard Kipling, Eddi's Service
[A beautiful, humble, wise poem, available in many collections. Perfect for Christmas Eve. "The altar-lamps were lighted / An old marsh-donkey came / Bold as a guest invited / And stared at the guttering flame. / The storm beat on at the windows / The water splashed on the floor / And a wet, yoke-weary bullock / Pushed in through the open door. / 'How do I know what is greatest / How do I know what is least? / That is My Father's business' / Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest. / 'But -- three are gathered together -- / Listen to me and attend. / I bring good news, my brethren!' / Said Eddi of Manhood End."]

10. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
[Available in more editions than can be counted. Perhaps the greatest secular (or is it?) Christmas tale of all time--and one important enough to me that I'll need to do more than just quote from it. But that's for another post.