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!