Christmas, as every one knows, is the season to be jolly, and also to be thankful. But sometimes I have trouble being jolly or thankful because Christmas is also the season to publish and promote Christmas-themed books. Lots of them. Too many for most of us to be able to, on our own, separate the worthy from the tolerable from the absolutely wretched.
Turn to the Internet for help, you say. Well, I did that, and I found lists and lists and more lists devoted to the Best Christmas Books for 2012, and also the Best Christmas Books for Kids, for Toddlers, for Preschoolers, for Book Clubs, for Kindergartens, for Finns, for Dogs, for the Lovers of Dogs, and for Adults.
Since I’m in theory one of those, I paid especially close attention to the lists of Best Christmas Books for Adults, which recommended tomes with titles like “The Christmas Box,’’ “Christmas with Paula Deen,’’ “The Christmas Sweater,’’ “The Purpose of Christmas,’’ “The Christmas Quilt,’’ “The Christmas List,’’ “The Light of Christmas,’’ and thousands of other books with Christmas in the title.
Now, I’m probably not going to read any of those books, although I’m sure that at least one of them is not totally execrable. But these lists did inspire me to create my own lists of various categories of best Christmas tales. The only rules guiding my choices were that the books and stories had to be books and stories that I loved, no matter the season; they must not include Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol’’ nor any books that would probably make anyone else’s list of the Best Christmas Books; and that each list could include only one narrative listed in that particular category.
In other words, what follows is a series of off-puttingly personal lists that perversely exclude pretty much all the most beloved Christmas books of all time and instead include several yarns that aren’t about Christmas at all. For that matter the lists aren’t really lists at all. Enjoy!
The Best Christmas Story Set in an Orphanage: “The Birds for Christmas” from “Charity’’ by Mark Richard (Nan Talese/Doubleday, 1998)
Richard is the author of four remarkable, idiosyncratic books (most recently last year’s wonderful, weirdly touching memoir, “House of Prayer No. 2’’), and in all of his books, and especially in his short stories, he does an expert job of cutting the sweet with the profane.
Nowhere is this more true than in “The Birds for Christmas,” in which all that two probably-too-old-to-be-adopted boys want for Christmas is to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds’’ on their TV, which was “donated thirdhand by the Merchant Seamen’s and Sailors’ Rest Home, a big black-and-white Zenith of cracked plastic and no knobs, a dime stuck in the channel selector.”
When one of the nurses says that particular movie is not especially suitable Christmas viewing for a child and suggests “Frosty’’ instead, Michael Christian (an African American kid with an enormous Afro and a bum leg) suggests doing something unmentionable to Frosty and then adds, “I want to see ‘The Birds,’ man. I want to see those birds get all up in them people’s hair. That’s some real Christmas TV to me.” If “The Birds’’ is some real Christmas TV, then “The Birds for Christmas” is some real Christmas fiction: irreverent and wistful and absolutely heartbreaking in its examination of what people settle for wanting when they can’t get the thing they really want.
That Other Best Christmas Story Written by That Other Famous Welsh Boozer That Is Also So Lazily Written and Executed as to Be Charming, and Strangely Moving: “A Christmas Story’’ by Richard Burton (1964, Reprinted by W.W. Norton, 1991)
I know what you’re thinking: Richard Burton! The actor! Wrote a Christmas story! It’s true. And like his fellow famous countryman Dylan Thomas’s more famous Christmas story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’’ Burton’s “A Christmas Story’’ is slender (the book weighs in a whopping 41 pages) and autobiographical (it’s about a boy, in Wales, whose mother-figure sister is about to give birth on Christmas Eve) and so tossed-off seeming as to at first appear dismissible. But it’s not. It is actually a smart, deeply felt examination of the tradition — I don’t mean the Christmas tradition; I mean the tradition of Christmas literature.
It begins like so: “There were not many white Christmases in our part of Wales in my childhood — perhaps only one or two — but Christmas cards and Dickens and Dylan Thomas and wishful memory have turned them all into white.” That’s a beautiful sentence, and a complicated idea, and the story that follows moves so quickly that you’ll want to go back to see how it manages to affect you so. And you should do that.Continued...