Despite being full of extra days off during which to read and (hopefully) the gift of some beautiful new books, sometimes the pressure of being surrounded by everyone we know and love means the holidays aren’t as enjoyable as we wish they were. But for every dull office party you attend and every well-intentioned relative asking about your plans for the future, there’s a fictional character who has got it much, much worse. So any time you’re surrounded by off-key carolers wearing intentionally ugly sweaters, just remember: at least you’re not stuck in one of these terrible holidays.
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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling
Our favorite boy wizard’s first ten Christmases with the Dursleys were undoubtedly less than magical, but his fifth holiday at Hogwarts is even worse. Harry, who has been plagued by dreams of Voldemort all year, sees Arthur Weasley get attacked by Voldemort’s snake. Worse still, Harry sees it from the snake’s perspective—and it’s not a dream but a vision of a real event. The Weasleys spend the first half of the holidays worried about their patriarch, who’s recovering at St. Mungo’s, while Harry deals with his guilt over Arthur’s attack. Not exactly a joyous occasion.
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
All Enid wants is to have her whole family together again for the holidays. Unfortunately for Enid, her husband’s health is rapidly declining due to Parkinson’s, her oldest son can’t convince his wife or children to make the trip, her daughter is in the middle of an affair, and her youngest son’s life is falling apart. Undaunted by resistance on every front, Enid sets about to advance her mission, armed with nothing but a serious ability to guilt trip. After all, nothing says Christmas like desperately trying to make your life appear perfect in front of your closest relatives.
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Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations opens on Christmas Eve, as orphaned Pip visits the graves of his parents and siblings. While there, he’s accosted by a recently escaped convict, who bullies Pip into stealing food and a file to get rid of his handcuffs. Later, instead of thanking Pip for his help, the convict gets violent, and Pip runs home to spend Christmas Day stewing in guilt over the whole affair. Life gradually improves when Pip starts visiting creepy Miss Havisham, falls in love with her ward Estella, and starts receiving money from a mysterious benefactor, but still. Not the best holiday memory for a seven-year-old.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
When Richard joins an eccentric group of close-knit Classics students at an elite college, he doesn’t expect to wind up complicit in the death of a classmate. The Secret History is Richard’s memories of the year leading up to his classmate’s killing and the splintering that occurs in the aftermath. But woven into the middle of the story is an account of Richard’s terrible Christmas, spent alone on campus in a freezing warehouse, where he nearly dies of hypothermia before being hospitalized—a miserable holiday to precede an even more miserable spring semester.