Christmas season is overwhelmingly full of options…here I will limit the options to a few favorite “add-ons,” to use the 21st Century vernacular. Add-ons that highlight both the spirit and the spirituality of the season as well the beauty of storytelling in capturing our imaginations. Both present a spirit of the season—generosity, camaraderie, joy—that is subtle and sentimental and beautifully told.
My first favorite is easy: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I want to challenge people to read the actual story, not just to see it in its many movie, made-for-TV, and stage versions. Dickens’s story itself is very, very rich in language and image and technique. If you dare to read it, you’ll have to ease your mind into a mid-18th Century vernacular…the words are different, the phrases are different, the world was different. No mention of Santa Claus for Dickens’s time, no mention of Black Friday sales or shops open until midnight. A Christmas Carol in its original form is a simple story for a simpler time. The focus is clearly the reclamation of a lost soul, Ebenezer Scrooge, through the inspiration of Christmas. Scrooge may be an icon in today’s world, but he is the singular creation of Dickens in 1843. In his tale, Dickens captures all the frustrated dreams of the poor, all the miserly self-righteousness of the rich, and all the redemptive power of seeing things in a new light. He offers a perfect villain: Scrooge; a pitiful dupe, Bob Cratchit; a hero, Scrooge’s noble nephew, Fred; a feisty heroine, Mrs. Cratchit; a host of scary ghosts, and the purely redemptive Tiny Tim. And, of course, a litany of memorable quotes, such as, ``Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?'' or “Bah, humbug!”
If you already know, read, and enjoy A Christmas Carol, then I will also recommend The Man Who Invented Christmas, the story about both the holiday and Dickens’s own redemption through the book. When he wrote his Christmas ghost story, Dickens’s career was in the midst of a downturn…but the book renewed his fame and focused new attention on an ancient holiday.
Another favorite is a Christmas story that again makes no mention of Santa or any of the commercialism of the season that we know and exercise. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote is an English teacher’s dream…it is a short story written with the language of poetry. Capote uses repetition beautifully, assonance, alliteration, imagery, epiphany, foreshadowing, metaphor, and on and on. The language is beautiful, the tale is beautiful, the spirit of the story is beautiful. Capote creates a mystical image of his childhood where he as a boy enjoys the mysteries of life at Christmastime with an elderly cousin. He describes their ritual of making fruitcakes as if it were a central mystery of life:
“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke.”
And the pay-off is an epiphany about the meaning of life so perfectly constructed and revealed near the end of the story that I won’t spoil it by trying to describe it. Other than to say that Capote uses blatant symbolism to end his story...this English teacher’s dream of a symbolic image in simile becoming a metaphor. Fantastic. Treat yourself and read it.
I certainly still enjoy all the holiday standards, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life, …I especially love to watch Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol from back in the 1960s. But for me the two stories above offer senses of holiday spirit not available elsewhere.
I’ll end as Dickens did… “as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”