‘Tis the Season for Christmas Reading
December 18, 2009 4 Comments
There’s so much great Christmas-related fiction that you have to start January 1 to get it all in before Christmas. But the best time to dive into Christmas stories, large and small, is during the Christmas “season.” That starts earlier for some people than others. But within ten days of December 25 you should be into the spirit of things. Some good reading can help.
Here are a few tips, including some suggested reading:
- No matter what else you do, read the original story, which explains the “reason for the season.”
The best place to begin is with the first two chapters of The Gospel According to Luke in the New Testament, then follow up with The Gospel According to Matthew, chapters 1 and 2.
- Scrounge up something classical.
If you haven’t read A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1843), can you really consider yourself properly educated? (No, the movie doesn’t count.) I went to a dramatic performance of this story one year during a business trip to Lexington, Kentucky. That was a more than serviceable alternative to re-reading the book!
For children’s fare, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson, can’t be beat. The sobering classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry (1906), makes some people laugh and some cry.
- Read Christmas hymns.
Read them aloud. Reading is a different experience than singing. (Pay attention to punctuation, as in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”) If you read your favorites early enough, when you hear them played or you have carolers at your door, the words will mean more to you.
Our family has two old books with Christmas hymns and carols. By old I mean 1930s old. One is The Book of Christmas Carols, with musical arrangements by Mary Nancy Graham and illustrated by Pelagie Doane (published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1938). Our copy was discovered at an estate sale, and is inscribed by “Mother and Daddy” to their daughter, Evelyn, Christmas 1939.
The other is called Christmas Carols, selected and arranged by Karl Schulte, with illustrations by F. D. Lohman (Whitman Publishing Company, MCMXXXVIII, MCMXLII). The sketch that accompanies “Deck the Halls” has given me a better sense of what it means to shout out, “See the blazing Yule before us!” The final page provides a bit of history for each of the 17 carols included.
There are recent books of carols, too, of course. Eventually, if they’re actually used, they will have nostalgic significance every year at Christmas.
Tip for parents of young children: Buy enough copies of a durable collection of carols and sing from them each year. Later, when the children value objects for their sentimental significance—this usually happens sometime between age 25 and age 55—you can give one to each as a Christmas gift. The more ragged and earmarked, the better.
- Read in your favorite genre.
If you like mystery stories, there are Christmas stories in the genre. Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas, by John Mortimer (which features clever humor alongside sleuthing) is a fine stand-alone story of this type. Vicki Cameron writes about Christmas mysteries here; on this page there are links to several mystery stories for Christmas. I’ve dipped into Mystery for Christmas, and Other Stories, for a brief read each year.
There are samples for sci-fi fans, too. Several good ones in short form are in Miracle, and Other Christmas Stories, by Connie Willis (an author I especially enjoy). The story, “The Star,” by Arthur C. Clarke, is, well, . . . brilliant. Then there’s “The Santa Claus Compromise,” by Thomas Disch (which I haven’t read . . . yet).
P. G. Wodehouse is in a class of his own for British humor. For a Christmas installment by him, see Another Christmas Carol.
There are romance novels and westerns, even books of horror, with Christmas settings and themes. I’m not a connoisseur and can’t recommend anything in those categories, however. (Post a comment if you have a suggestion.)
- Give your loved one a Christmas read as a stocking-stuffer.
Include a paperback of short stories for Christmas in the Christmas stocking of someone you love, then read your favorite to him or her.
Connie Willis, Miracle, and Other Christmas Stories, would be my choice, if I could think of the right person.
- Read Christmas poetry.
“Journey of the Magi,” by T. S. Eliot, and “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” by W. H. Auden, are highly stylized examples. An internet search will turn up plenty of other possibilities. Be sure to see G. K. Chesterton, “The House of Christmas.”
- Read together.
Let family members select short readings. Have an “Evening of Reading.” Take turns, or designate someone to be the family reader. You don’t have to be family to enjoy this. College students, take a break from cramming for the final exams and read some yuletide tales.
- Make up a story.
Gather the little ones (or big ones) around and make up a Christmas story. Or, take turns building a story.
This can be done in the well-known way where each one decides at his or her turn where to lead the story with the materials so far introduced. But a pleasing variation would be to agree on the basic outline of a story—what it will be about (plot), what sort of characters it will include (characters), where it will take place (setting)—then begin the telling. Record the experience for posterity. Start an oral tradition. Maybe next year you’ll want to re-visit the story and keep it going!
- Be prepared for the unconventional.
Many of the titles mentioned here are. This will be dispiriting to those who want their Christmas reading to be “pure,” in the sense of “traditional Christmassy.” But it’s appropriate to ask, “Is A Christmas Carol, by Dickens, really ‘Christmassy’?” It is predominantly macabre. How Christmassy is that? Even the Magoo and Muppets versions, though more sentimental, are spooky.
And think of the so-called “Christmas movies” that are considered classics. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a wonderful movie. But consider what makes it a Christmas movie. It can’t be because the story unfolds at Christmas and there’s at least one Christmas tree in some scene. The same could be said for The French Connection (1971), a thriller starring Gene Hackman. So what is it? This could actually be a fruitful basis for group discussion after seeing some “Christmas classic” together.
- Get creative and experiment.
Brainstorm more ideas for reading at Christmas . . . and share them at this post!
- For More Christmas Reading, go here.
- A complete MP3 audio version of all four Gospels, performed by stage actor David Cochran Heath, is downloadable in the English Standard Version here ($4.99). This page also offers the complete Gospel of John without charge. The entire text of the ESV Bible can be read online. Each passage has a “listen” link so that the same passage can be heard without downloading (and without charge). For Luke chapters 1 and 2, go here. Go here for Matthew chapters 1 and 2.
- There are numerous editions of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. One with acclaimed drawings by Robert Ingpen and the additional tale “The Christmas Story,” is here at Amazon. The edition is selling well this season. Doing even better is the edition illustrated by P. J. Lynch, here at Amazon.
- What appears to be the best-selling edition of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is at Amazon here. There are links from that page to other editions, as well as the dramatic script for performance and a DVD movie version.
- P. J. Lynch illustrates a popular edition of O. Henry’s story, at Amazon here. For an audio version of “The Gift of the Magi,” read by Garrett DeOrio, go here. This web page includes a short bio of Henry and the complete text of the story. Scroll to the end for the audio file.
- As you might imagine, books of Christmas carols abound. One that looks especially appealing, because it includes stories behind the carols, is Best-Loved Christmas Carols, with text by Ronald M. Clancey (at Amazon here). This book pairs with Sacred Christmas Music: The Stories Behind the Most Beloved Songs of Devotion (also by Clancey).
- Genre books, with titles linked to their Amazon pages: Mysteries for Christmas, and Other Stories; Connie Willis, Miracles, and Other Christmas Stories; John Mortimer, A Rumpole Christmas: Stories; for sci-fi tales, including “The Star,” by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Santa Claus Compromise,” by Thomas Disch, and “Miracle,” by Connie Willis, see the collection of 25 stories (some with very quirky titles), Christmas Stars: Fantastic Tales of Yuletide Wonder, edited by David G. Hartwell. In the vein of horror or “chiller” genre, there’s Richard Dalby’s edited volume of Mystery for Christmas, and his Horror for Christmas and Ghosts for Christmas. Not my cup of tea, really.
- For T. S. Eliot, a collection of his poems, may be wished for, but the complete text of “Journey of the Magi” can be found at the attractive website, “Poet Seers”. Auden, too, can be found either in a collection of his poems or online. Here’s a link to Chesterton’s “The House of Christmas”. (For Chesterton’s rhythmic poem titled “A Christmas Carol,” go here.) Try this link for a list of other poetry.