A Literary Christmas

Stories for the season

Monday, December 16, 2013

This year, I didn’t try to fight the Christmas spirit. I’ve been playing holiday albums by everyone from Elvis to John Denver, decked the tree much earlier than usual, have been attending community events such as the Holiday Port Festival and the Lighted Boat Parade, and have even sought out reading material focused on the joys of the season.

When I picked up a copy of A Literary Christmas: Great Contemporary Christmas Stories at the Bellingham Public Library last week, I was expecting to find a compendium of feel-good tales that would further enhance the festive feelings that have been pouring forth from my soul of late.

Instead, what I found in the collection—which was published in 1992 by the Atlantic Monthly Press—was a grittier, more realistic look at what the season of comfort and joy can truly bring. But rather than repel me, the short stories drew me further into my Christmas cocoon.

While part of the draw was that the tales chosen were crafted by supremely gifted writers—Raymond Carver, Jane Smiley, Annie Dillard, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, and many others made the list—the main attraction was, in fact, the themes of discord that brought light to the fact that Christmas isn’t always “the most wonderful time of the year.”

For example, the opening story, Frank O’Connor’s “Christmas Morning,” focused on two battling brothers, one of whom wakes up early on the big day to discover his sibling has a better present than him. He switches them out, and it’s not long before both brothers come to the grim realization that Santa Claus may not be real.

Tobias Wolff’s “Champagne” takes readers back to the dysfunctional childhood he wrote about so eloquently in This Boy’s Life. His gruff stepfather Dwight is searching for a perfect Christmas, but a ruined tree, moldy chestnuts and a daughter who’s making a bad choice that may affect the rest of her life intercede.

Ntozake Shang’s “Christmas for Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo” highlights a widowed mother’s love for her three daughters, but also draws attention to racial inequality—as does Harper Lee’s simply titled “Christmas,” which gleans some of its source material from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Just when you think someone might be having a perfect holiday, Patricia Highsmith’s “A Clock Ticks at Christmas” shows that even when you’re wealthy, you can quickly lose what matters most.

Although there are a lot of things that go wrong within the 27 stories that make up A Literary Christmas, things do go right occasionally. And guess what—the moments of comfort and joy come from human connections, and understanding that the spirit of the season doesn’t have anything to do with what’s under the tree.

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