While Christmas in literature is nearly synonymous with A Christmas Carol and Little Women—and, to be fair, I’m an avid rereader of each mot holiday seasons—to neglect the equally powerful holiday scenes sprinkled elsewhere throughout literature is to miss myriad wryly observed, bittersweet, and often piercing visions of this emotionally turbulent season. Below, I’ve included five of my favorite holiday moments from classic and contemporary writers. From Sedaris’s sadistic SantaLand and Capote’s “brave, handsome brute” of a Christmas tree, to Fitzgerald’s “chatty frozen breath” in a St. Paul train terminal on a dark December eve, there’s something here for readers of many genres.
From Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris
Lately I am feeling trollish and have changed my elf name from Crumpet to Blisters. Blisters—I think it’s cute.
Today a child told Santa Ken that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those Turtles.
Last year a woman decided she wanted a picture of her cat sitting on Santa’s lap, so she smuggled it into Macy’s in a duffel bag. The cat sat on Santa’s lap for five seconds before it shot out the door, and it took six elves forty-five minutes before they found it in the kitchen of the employee cafeteria.
From A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote
Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry.
From Wishin’ and Hopin’, A Christmas Story, by Wally Lamb
Madame handed Bridget’s baby doll to Zhenya. That was when the big fight started. Because Rosalie, who was still wearing her Wise Man costume, went kinda cuckoo and started screaming at Madame. “It’s not fair! I work harder than anyone in this whole class and you never appreciate it! And why her of all people? She’s an atheist, and a Communist, and she’s only been in our class since November! And you’re just a stupid substitute so I don’t care what you say! I’m Mary!” And with that, Turdski made a grab for Baby Jesus.
But Zhenya, who’d told me she was “Russian Ortudox” not “no beleef in Gud,” was not about to relinquish the Christ Child to her chief critic. She held fast to the doll’s feet as Rosalie pulled it by its head. The rest of us, Madame included, stood there stunned. Something had to give, I figured, and then something did.
As the doll’s head ripped away from its torso, Rosalie fell backward and let go. In horror, I watched the head bounce bumpity bump bump bump down the backstage stairs. Now, like Lonny a few minutes earlier, it was me who was wincing and doubling over. Joseph Cotton, Jesus: I would probably never, ever get to sleep again. And when I finally was able to look up at something other than the floor, I found myself looking into the wild eyes of Madame Frechette.
“Monsieur Dondi!” she said. “Remove your hat, chemise, and pantalons.”
I began to shake. “My what?”
“Your shirt! Your pants! Depechez-vous! There is very little time!”
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m the little drummer boy!”
She shook her head furiously. “No more! Now you have a much more important part. You are our Baby Jesus! Hurry!”
From “Christmas on the Roof of the World,” an essay for the Toronto Star, by Ernest Hemingway
Chink had spent every Christmas since 1914 in the army. He was our best friend. For the first time in years it seemed like Christmas to all of us.
We ate breakfast in the old, untasting, gulping, early morning Christmas way, unpacking the stockings, down to the candy mouse in the toe, each made a pile of our things for future gloating.
From breakfast we rushed into our clothes and tore down the icy road in the glory of the blue-white glistening alpine morning.
Later in the essay, he describes the aching beauty of Paris at Christmas:
Paris with the snow falling. Paris with the big charcoal braziers outside the cafés, glowing red. At the café tables, men huddled, their coat collars turned up, while they finger glasses of grog Americain and the newsboys shout the evening papers.
The buses rumble like green juggernauts through the snow that sifts down in the dusk. White house walls rise through the dusky snow. Snow is never more beautiful than in the city. It is wonderful in Paris to stand on a bridge across the Seine looking up through the softly curtaining snow past the grey bulk of the Louvre, up the river spanned by many bridges and bordered by the grey houses of old Paris to where Notre Dame squats in the dusk.
It is very beautiful in Paris and very lonely at Christmas time.
From The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.
What are some of your most cherished stories to pull off the shelf this time of year?