Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ten Best Christmas Stories: My Undefinitive List

This morning I was idly flipping through my freshest New Yorker when I came across the story "A Christmas Miracle," by Rebecca Curtis. It's an odd, funny story about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through the holidays without strangling each other. (In a bit of heavy, undisguised symbolism, the family's cats are being picked off one by one by prowling coyotes.) Reading the story made me think about the whole genre of The Christmas Story, and how funny it is that it exists. I'm not sure there are equivalents for other religious holidays ... you don't see Easter stories proliferate in the same way, or Rosh Hashanah stories, or Eid al Fitr stories. Or heck, maybe you do, and I'm too culturally isolated to know it.

The original Christmas story is the best-known, of course, but also may be the least typical of the genre. The archetypal Christmas story to me is Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which sets the stage for all the Christmas stories henceforth: you need something about family, something about charity, something about forgiveness and/or redemption. Often you have a character (like Scrooge) who is isolated in some way, a solitude that is most profoundly experienced at the holidays. Christmas both highlights the isolation and then fixes it. In "A Christmas Carol" it's literal spirits (ghosts, specters) who do the mending; in most other Christmas stories, it's a more figurative Christmas spirit that brings the isolated person back into the fold.

My own favorite this-time-of-year stories include fairy tales, short stories, movies, and ballets. Here's my list of 10 Best Christmas Stories:

1. A Christmas Carol: May as well start right here. We watch this movie every Christmas Eve, and it has to be the George C. Scott version, because if Christmas is about nothing else, it's about tradition. My kids used to be so scared of Marley's ghost that they'd press against me and hide under the blankets, and last year may be the first year my son was able to watch that whole scene all the way through. But I'm still not sure he's uncovered his eyes when the Ghost of Christmas Future makes its creepy appearance. I love this movie, love Scott's droll portrayal of Scrooge. I also love the message.

Then let him die, and decrease the surplus population

2. Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor: A short story by John Cheever (you can read it here), which is both hilarious and touching. Charlie is an elevator operator who feels terrible self-pity Christmas Eve, and manages to hoodwink the entire population of the building where he works into feeling even sorrier for him than he feels for himself. He winds up almost literally buried in charity.

3. The Nutcracker: Tchaikovsky didn't like his own music for this ballet, or the story, but whatever. What does Tchaikovsky know? I can't tell whether I love this ballet because it's just so familiar, or if the story and music actually does have some intrinsic value ... I just know I love it. I've watched the ballet many times (a number of them as the mother of a ladybug or bumblebee).

4. It's a Wonderful Life: Because Jimmy Stewart. I could watch him read a phone book. Like most stories in this genre, one of the central messages is that "stuff" is not what it's all about. It's funny how drawn we are to that anti-consumerist message at this, the most shoppingest time of year.

5. The Loudest Voice: A short story by Grace Paley (which you can read here) about a group of Jewish schoolchildren, recently immigrated, who are given the major parts in their school's Christmas pageant. The protagonist gets the part of Jesus narrating (looking back on the story) because she has the loudest, clearest voice. The narrator is quite pleased to have the job and, as children usually are, does not share the concerns of her mother, who feels the school has been culturally insensitive. After the play the child listens to the families talk.

They debated a little in Yiddish, then fell in a puddle of Russian and Polish. What I understood next was my father, who said, "Still and all, it was certainly a beautiful affair, you have to admit, introducing us to the beliefs of a different culture."
"Well, yes," said Mrs. Kornbluh. "The only thing ... you know Charlie Turner — that cute boy in Celia's class — a couple others? They got very small parts or no part at all. In very bad taste, it seemed to me. After all, it's their religion." 
"Ach," explained my mother, "what could Mr. Hilton do? They got very small voices; after all, why should they holler? The English language they know from the beginning by heart. They're blond like angels. You think it's so important they should get in the play? Christmas ... the whole piece of goods ... they own it."

6. A Charlie Brown Christmas: Christmas is not complete without Vince Guaraldi's score, which is sweet but a little melancholy — like everything else about Peanuts. And how many of us have come home with one of those kind of trees? Pretty much every one we cut ourselves from the local forests looked like this:

7. The Little Match Girl: Hans Christian Andersen was not a cheery man. And this is not a cheery tale. Written around the same time "A Christmas Carol" was written, it has a similar theme: remember those less fortunate, especially at this, the coldest time of year. Actually, don't just think about those less fortunate, do something about it. When I read this to my daughter, who was about five at the time, she got very angry at the end and said, "That is a terrible story!" That was one of those moments I realized fairy tales are not necessarily children's stories.

8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: A very funny children's book by Barbara Robinson about a group of hellish siblings who almost ruin the annual Christmas pageant. If you have kids in elementary school, this is a great read-aloud for this time of year.

9. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town: My husband and I both grew up with this movie and we can't separate our love for it from our nostalgia for it. It just presses so many wonderful buttons. I love the stop motion, I love the abominable snowman (although he scared the heck out of me as a kid), and I especially love Burgermeister Meisterburger.

10. Love Actually: A movie starring everyone. It should be a mess, with so many characters and so many storylines, but somehow it works. Everyone has a favorite bit: while I do love the vignette pictured below, the character that has stuck with me is Laura Linney's Sarah, who is struggling to deal with her mentally-ill brother. I wish that story would get a movie of its own (especially if it kept Rodrigo Santoro as Karl, because yum), and sometimes I toy with writing a fanfic version of it myself.

What are your favorite Christmas stories? Do you work any of them in to your holiday traditions? If you celebrate a different tradition, does it come with its own stories?


  1. What a great, timely post!

    Thanks for introducing me to several films I haven't seen (I will also check out the short stories you recommend). I'm surprised that "A Christmas Story" didn't make your list. I just love that one! Perhaps my favorites from your list are the Charlie Brown one and "It's a Wonderful Life" (and I agree, Stewart is fascinating to watch in any role.) You know, I was telling my daughter about "The Little Match Girl" the other day and she was horrified just thinking about it! (But also VERY curious). I had this book as a little girl and was oddly fascinated by the drama of it. I'll see if I can find a copy for my daughter, the horror/melodrama writer.

    1. Loving Colonel Stewart in the role that returned him to Holywood, I still place "Miracle on 34th Street" (the Natalie Wood version) as the best Christmas film forever. My favorite story remains O'Henry "the Gift of the Magi", and let´s not forget modern classics like "Gremlins" "Home Alone" and "Die Hard". Merry Christmas to the Sisterhood!

    2. "A Christmas Story" came to me rather late; I saw it once and liked it, but it didn't grab me the way it has so many other people.

      I love that your daughter is a burgeoning horror/melodrama writer! :)

  2. Stephanie I loved this. Love the Match Girl. Always makes me sad and angry.

    Happy Christmas to you and Lorena.


  3. Love your list! I think I've seen most of them (except for a couple of the short stories). I haven't seen "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" in such a long time, but now I really want to! We always watch "Christmas Vacation," "Elf," and "A Christmas Story." Oh, and "It's a Wonderful Life" if we happen to catch it when it's on!

    1. "Christmas Vacation" is my kids' favorite (they announced to me). So we watched it a few days ago; it is pretty funny! I still haven't seen Elf, which I realize is a travesty.


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