#14: QUIETLY THINKING THINGS OVER AT CHRISTMAS. The holiday of Christmas entered American emotional life so thoroughly that it still, even for many people for whom its religious origins are lost or disdained, has a tremendous psychic pull: a time when our dreams of charity and kindness come to us again, powerful and poignant. It can still seem a right time for ritual and remembrance (though I fear this is ebbing), and many people have their traditional favorites from the vast mine of art, music, literature and tradition associated with the time of year.
My own favorite of all Christmas stories is the “Dulce Domum” chapter of The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame: heartbreak and cheer stand so closely knit in it that it can be no coincidence that Mole’s rediscovery of his abandoned home and of “the special value of some anchorage in one’s existence” takes place at Christmastide (it also has a splendid carol in it).
The Tailor of Gloucester remained Beatrix Potter’s favorite of all her books and with its mice, cats, humans and views of snow-laid Gloucester, it has some of her most luminous and enchanting watercolors.
A one-of-a-kind little book, recently republished by Wesleyan, is Rockwell Kent’s A Northern Christmas, the Christmas journal entries excerpted from his book Wilderness and done as a separate book. It’s as simple as can be imagined—Kent and his son were staying with a friend in Alaska while he was separated from his wife and trying to gain a foothold as a working artist—but here too a sense of loss and hope conjoined come across to seem the true emotion of the season, like a great land come into distant view.
Set on Christmas Eve but unlike any other Christmas story, “Vanka” is one of the simplest, most moving of all Anton Chekov’s short stories—a few short pages that achieve an extraordinary pathos. It’s the first story in The Portable Chekov (Knopf).
For observation and nailing the familiar, read Carol Bly’s essay “Thinking Things Over Quietly at Christmas,” in her collection Letters from the Country, for a great sense of the numinous under our noses—or down the street from the VFW. And for a wily and surprising account of how Christmas came to be what it is, read Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (Vintage).
The surprise of the anthology Christmas Poems, edited by John Hollander and J.D. McClatchy for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series (Knopf, 1999) is how interesting it is. It does not err in skimping on the obvious: Clement Moore claims his usual place, the lyrics for the best-remembered carols are there, even W.H. Auden shows up as perhaps expected: "To those who have seen / The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all." The little-known lines from the December of John Clare's Shepherd's Calendar are here, so blessedly sturdy and convincing well as Robert Southwell's poem "The Burning Babe," still haunting and unique. But there are the modern and contemporary variants, not just ironic: ferocious pieces from Chinua Achebe and Thomas Hardy, convincing as well. The surprise of this is that is the variety and firmness of emotion is right to the topic as well as heartiness and cheer. Perhaps we have not exhausted the mysteries of this event, this time of year, just yet.
And when the cleanup is all done and the guests are gone and you’ve sighed with relief that it’s done for another year, read the great post-Christmas short story, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” the wryest and most whimsical of the Sherlock Holmes tales. It’s in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and of course in The Collected Sherlock Holmes (Doubleday).