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Posts Tagged ‘A Christmas Memory’

Twelve Minus One Tales of Christmas

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

The Christmas season has been a gift to authors. Christmas has been the colorful backdrop for mysteries, romance, ghost tales and children’s fiction; it lends itself to episodes of humor, compassion, tradition and nostalgia; and the observance that is integral to Christmas – the act of giving – will often become the linchpin of the plot.

Here are a list of couch-and-cocoa worthy works that are about the Christmas season, or feature a key Christmas episode.

The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry works one of the author’s signature plot twists into this ironic parable of gifting and giving, wherein a poor young couple can only purchase the perfect Christmas present for the other by giving up their most valued possession.

Mary Mapes Dodge’s classic, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, was a best-seller in its day. Set in the season between the Dutch St. Nicholas Day and Christmas, is a pay-it-forward tale, of Hans Brinker, the recipient of kindnesses who shows kindness in return by sacrificing his lead – and the prize of silver skates – in an ice-skating race to his friend.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women opens with the March sisters forgoing presents for themselves to buy gifts for their mother, and giving their Christmas breakfast to an indigent family. Generosity inspires generosity; their wealthy neighbor rewards their kindness by delivering refreshments and flowers to them on Christmas night.

In Margaret Sidney’s classic, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, the widowed “Mamsie” Pepper and her five children endure poverty with perseverance, mutual support and Christian faith. Only the two eldest are old enough to remember better times when there was a Christmas celebration, and they decide to give the younger ones their holiday experience. Sympathetic neighbors and a generous benefactor turn their homespun efforts into a festive celebration.

Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, is a fragile reminiscence of the Christmas preparations of Buddy (Capote) and an elderly relation, who spend their year’s savings on the ingredients for fruitcakes, to be given away to strangers and casual acquaintances who have done them a kindness. With nothing left to spend on each other, Buddy and his cousin fall back on the customary exchange of homemade kites.

Anne Shirley, in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables receives her first real Christmas gift from her kindred soul, the elderly Matthew Cuthbert; but it is not simply that it is Anne’s first genuinely pretty dress (“Puffed sleeves!”) that makes the gift remarkable, but Matthew’s poignant and humorous struggle to overcome his congenital shyness in order to procure it.


The Christmas Child, a little known tale by the little-known author Hesba Stretton (aka Sarah Smith), has such distinct similarities to the Anne of Green Gables series that I wonder whether it might have influenced Montgomery. Not unlike Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are the stern spinster Priscilla Parry and her sympathetic old farm worker Nathan. Priscilla has raised her two nieces, Rhoda and Joan, disowning the former when she elopes with a local rogue. The discovery of Rhoda’s baby in the barn one Christmas morning exacts from Priscilla the important gifts of forgiveness and compassion.

Forgiveness is also the gift of the impoverished, blind spinster Margaret Snow in The Sixth Customer and the Silver Teapot. The story appears in Fergus Hume’s Hagar of the Pawn Shop. As the holiday season approaches, Margaret is compelled to pawn the silver teapot in which a series of love letters have been sealed. At a point in the story, the teapot is unsealed, the letters read, and Margaret realizes that the break with her wealthy fiancé had been brought about by a treacherous friend, now the former fiance’s wife. Empowered by evidence of the deception, the dying Margaret conceals the truth from her former love and forgives his remorseful wife.

Another Christmas tale that ought to be better known was originally published under the title The Melodeon, later retitled A Christmas Gift (titled A Christmas to Remember for a television movie). Glendon Swarthout (whose eclectic output includes Where The Boys Are as well as The Shootist) weaves this Depression era tale of a 13-year old boy send to live with his grandparents on their Michigan farm. His grandmother decides to donate their little-used melodeon (a small pump organ) to their rural church, which leads to a Christmas Eve ordeal as the melodeon is hauled through the snow with the help of four lively neighbor girls and a mysterious helper, in a tale that is equal parts humor, nostalgia and ghost story.

A Christmas night party is the gift of the lonely bachelor in Robert Grant’s humorous and highly underrated turn-of-the-century tale, The Bachelor’s Christmas. Resigned to another Christmas Eve, a “…gloomy diabolical anniversary…for old maids and bachelors [who] had no things-in-law to invite them to dinner”, an inspirited Tom Wiggin decides to “…give an entertainment to all the old bachelors and maiden ladies of my acquaintance…” on Christmas night. There is, of course, the girl-who-got-away, still a spinster, a misunderstanding explained away and an agreement “…to live as bachelor and maid no longer.”

And finally, there is delightful, little-known 1879 story, A New Departure, by Mary B. Horton, gently tweaking the budding women’s rights movement with Mrs. St. Nicholas attempting to usurp her husband’s position. After airing her “eighteen hundred years, and odd” of complaints, she presents to the hapless Brown family a succession of gifts that fall far short of the St. Nicholas standard. Santa arrives in time to mollify his wife and distribute the Browns’ proper gifts.

I invite you to round out a “Twelve Tales of Christmas” by adding your own recommendation!


The Orphaned Films of Christmas

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

While I lamented, in my remarks about A Christmas Story, that the modern Christmas films are either tailored to a star’s comic persona, or issues-oriented dramas that happen to take place in December, there had been a time when every Christmas season offered one or two very good holiday-themed television films. They were modest, by feature film standards, but infinitely superior to the Yule season tide of forgettable “All-I-want-for-Christmas-is-a-boyfriend”–like fare. Many of these productions were literary adaptations; they aired periodically and then were dropped from the holiday calendar. A few are available on DVD and all of them are worth hunting down or pestering Netflix to acquire.

Buddy and Sook

A Christmas Memory was one of the hour-long installments in the unsuccessful experiment, Studio 67, to develop an anthology of dramas, documentary and variety programming. First airing in December, 1966, it was adapted from Truman Capote’s autobiographical, Depression-era tale of the final Christmas that seven-year-old Buddy (Capote) spends with his elderly aunts. His aunt “Sook”, naïve and open-hearted is his best friend, and together they contrive to keep up their small traditions despite their poverty and the discouragement of their other relations. In a brilliant stroke, the decision was made to have Capote narrate and his languid, almost childlike recital sets the perfect nostalgic tone. Geraldine Page, as Sook, won Emmys for both A Christmas Memory and its sequel, The Thanksgiving Visitor. 

Addie wants a Christmas tree

The House Without a Christmas Treewas the first of a quartet of films based on children’s author Gail Rock’s “Addie Mills” series. First airing in the early 70s, it was a Christmas staple throughout the decade. The tale, set in mid-1940s Nebraska, is focused on spirited, 10-year-old Addie Mills and her embittered father who has not allowed a Christmas tree in the house since his wife’s death. When Addie wins a Christmas tree in a school contest, it brings about a confrontation and finally, reconciliation. Recorded on videotape, which was relatively new and raw in the 70s, but the performances of Jason Robards, Mildred Natwick and Lisa Lucas more than compensate.


Beautiful, rich and she sings!

The Gift of Love (1978) was based on the famous O. Henry tale, The Gift of the Magi. Here, the young lovers are wealthy, orphaned Beth Atherton and the poor immigrant Rudy Miller (Marie Osmond and Timothy Bottoms). Set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century New York, and with some pleasant tunes, it’s pretty much Titanic without the iceberg, the shipwreck, and with James Woods as the rejected fiancé (here, diffident and somewhat “nerdy” rather than belligerent and possessive), and with a happy ending. There have been a few renditions of this familiar classic; this one embellishes it to accommodate the feature length, but never encumbers it with mawkish sentimentality.


Best scene in the film

A Christmas Without Snow, was written for television, and suffers from many of the films of the 1970s-1980s; that is, the social issues – racial tolerance, feminism, single parents – are served up with all the subtlety of a punch list. When the story is allowed to evolve from it’s premise, it’s a rather appealing Christmas tale. Michael Learned stars as a newly divorced woman who moves to San Francisco and is recruited for a church choir. As the demanding choir director prepares the singers for a Christmas performance of The Messiah, the lives of the choir members begin to connect and overlap. As with many of the 80s TV movies, A Christmas Without Snow has a somewhat pat, off-the-template look, but some very good performances – Ruth Nelson, James Cromwell, Beah Richards and John Houseman – give it an advantage over the standard Christmas fare.

"Mary" Herdman

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, based upon Barbara Robinson’s novel of the same name, first aired in 1983. Loretta Swit, coming straight from her long run on the popular TV series M*A*S*H stars as Grace Bradley, a small-town mother who is saddled with producing the annual church Christmas pageant when the perennial director quite literally breaks a leg. Young Beth Bradley is the wry narrator of Grace’s struggle to contend with the phoned-in advice of the bedridden director, and with he pandemonium caused by the six unruly Herdmans who descend upon the church (because they heard that refreshments were served) and demand the choice roles in the pageant. High marks for communicating the spirit of Christmas in an often hilarious tale.

And 3 Degrees of Austen?
1. Geraldine Page (A Christmas Memory) appeared in White Knights with Helen Mirren, who appeared in The Debt with Ciaran Hinds, Wentworth in the ’95 Persuasion.
Lisa Lucas (The House Without A Christmas Tree), appeared in An Unmarried Woman with Alan Bates; Bates appeared in Gosford Park with Tom Hollander, Mr. Collins in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.
James Woods (The Gift of Love) appeared in The General’s Daughter with James Cromwell, who played Reverend Austen in Becoming Jane.
John Houseman (A Christmas Without Snow) appeared in Ghost Story with Alice Krige, who was Lady Russell in the 2007 Persuasion.
Fairuza Balk (The Best Christmas Pageant Ever) appeared in Valmont with Colin Firth, 1995’s Mr. Darcy.

And which Austen characters would have enjoyed these films? A Christmas Memory would have appealed to the elderly Bates ladies, perhaps remembering their times with Jane Fairfax when Jane was a child; Eleanor Tilney and Anne Elliot may have sympathized with Addie Mills’ cheerless home life; Marianne Dashwood would have been carried away by A Gift of Love; Mrs. Dashwood would have sympathized with the main character in A Christmas Without Snow, who has lost husband and home, and Fanny Price may have seen something of the Herdmans in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever when she returned to Portsmouth and her gaggle of unruly siblings.