Christmas comes but once a year, yet the stories in this dazzling collection are fun to read anytime. They put a speculative spin on the holiday, giving fans of acclaimed author Connie Willis a welcome gift and a dozen reasons to be of good cheer.
Brimming with Willis’s trademark insights and imagination, these heartwarming tales are full of humor, absurdity, human foibles, tragedy, joy, and hope. They both embrace and send up many of the best Christmas traditions, including the holiday newsletter, Secret Santas, office parties, holiday pageants, and Christmas dinners (both elaborate and spare). There are Rockettes, the best and worst Christmas movies, modern-day Magi, Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come—and the triumph of generosity over greed. Like all the timeless classics we return to year after year, these stories affirm our faith in love, magic, and the wonder of the season.
Praise for A Lot Like Christmas
“A perfect stocking stuffer for Christmas—celebrating fans of [Connie] Willis’s humorous SF.”—Publishers Weekly
“A collection of Christmas stories with just the right blend of sugar and spice . . . sweet and sharp, whimsical and heartfelt, funny and warm . . . Fans of Willis’s gently comic speculative fiction will love this collection, and it will also appeal to readers looking to get into the holiday spirit.”—Kirkus Reviews
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There was a Christmas tree in the lobby when Lauren got to work, and the receptionist was sitting with her chin in her hand, watching the security monitor. Lauren set her shopping bag down and looked curiously at the screen. On it, Jimmy Stewart was dancing the Charleston with Donna Reed.
“The Personnel Morale Special Committee had cable piped in for Christmas,” the receptionist explained, handing Lauren her messages. “I love It’s a Wonderful Life, don’t you?”
Lauren stuck her messages in the top of her shopping bag and went up to her department. Red and green crepe paper hung in streamers from the ceiling, and there was a big red crepe-paper bow tied around Lauren’s desk.
“The Personnel Morale Special Committee did it,” Evie said, coming over with the catalog she’d been reading. “They’re decorating the whole building, and they want us and Document Control to go caroling this afternoon. Don’t you think PMS is getting out of hand with this Christmas spirit thing? I mean, who wants to spend Christmas Eve at an office party?”
“I do,” Lauren said. She set her shopping bag down on the desk, sat down, and began taking off her boots.
“Can I borrow your stapler?” Evie asked. “I’ve lost mine again. I’m ordering my mother the Water of the Month, and I need to staple my check to the order form.”
“The Water of the Month?” Lauren said, opening her desk drawer and taking out her stapler.
“You know, they send you bottles of a different one every month. Perrier, Evian, Calistoga.” She peered into Lauren’s shopping bag. “Do you have Christmas presents in there? I hate people who have their shopping done four weeks before Christmas.”
“It’s four days till Christmas,” Lauren said, “and I don’t have it all done. I still don’t have anything for my sister. But I’ve got all my friends, including you, done.” She reached into the shopping bag and pulled out her pumps. “And I found a dress for the office party.”
“Did you buy it?”
“No.” She put on one of her shoes. “I’m going to try it on during my lunch hour.”
“If it’s still there,” Evie said gloomily. “I had this echidna toothpick holder all picked out for my brother, and when I went back to buy it, they were all gone.”
“I asked them to hold the dress for me,” Lauren said. She put on her other shoe. “It’s gorgeous. Black, off-the-shoulder. Sequined.”
“Still trying to get Scott Buckley to notice you, huh? I don’t do things like that anymore. Nineties women don’t use sexist tricks to attract men. Besides, I decided he was too cute to ever notice somebody like me.” She sat down on the edge of Lauren’s desk and started leafing through the catalog. “Here’s something your sister might like. The Vegetable of the Month. February’s okra.”
“She lives in southern California,” Lauren said, shoving her boots under the desk.
“Oh. How about the Sunscreen of the Month?”
“No,” Lauren said. “She’s into New Age stuff. Channeling. Aromatherapy. Last year she sent me a crystal pyramid mate selector for Christmas.”
“The Eastern Philosophy of the Month,” Evie said. “Zen, Sufism, tai chi—”
“I’d like to get her something she’d really like,” Lauren mused. “I always have a terrible time figuring out what to get people for Christmas. So this year, I decided things were going to be different. I wasn’t going to be tearing around the mall the day before Christmas, buying things no one would want and wondering what on earth I was going to wear to the office party. I started doing my shopping in September, I wrapped my presents as soon as I bought them, I have all my Christmas cards done and ready to mail—”
“You’re disgusting,” Evie said. “Oh, here, I almost forgot.” She pulled a folded slip of paper out of her catalog and handed it to Lauren. “It’s your name for the Secret Santa gift exchange. PMS says you’re supposed to bring your present for it by Friday so it won’t interfere with the presents Santa Claus hands out at the office party.”
Lauren unfolded the paper, and Evie leaned over to read it. “Who’d you get? Wait, don’t tell me. Scott Buckley.”
“No. Fred Hatch. And I know just what to get him.”
“Fred? The fat guy in Documentation? What is it, the Diet of the Month?”
“This is supposed to be the season of love and charity, not the season when you make mean remarks about someone just because he’s overweight,” Lauren said sternly. “I’m going to get him a videotape of Miracle on 34th Street.”
Evie looked uncomprehending.
“It’s Fred’s favorite movie. We had a wonderful talk about it at the office party last year.”
“I never heard of it.”
“It’s about Macy’s Santa Claus. He starts telling people they can get their kids’ toys cheaper at Gimbel’s, and then the store psychiatrist decides he’s crazy—”
“Why don’t you get him It’s a Wonderful Life? That’s my favorite Christmas movie.”
“Yours and everybody else’s. I think Fred and I are the only two people in the world who like Miracle on 34th Street better. See, Edmund Gwenn, he’s Santa Claus, gets committed to Bellevue because he thinks he’s Santa Claus, and since there isn’t any Santa Claus, he has to be crazy, but he is Santa Claus, and Fred Gailey, that’s John Payne, he’s a lawyer in the movie, he decides to have a court hearing to prove it, and—”
“I watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas. I love the part where Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed fall into the swimming pool,” Evie said. “What happened to the stapler?”
They had the dress and it fit, but there was an enormous jam-up at the cash register, and then they couldn’t find a hanging bag for it.
“Just put it in a shopping bag,” Lauren said, looking anxiously at her watch.
“It’ll wrinkle,” the clerk said ominously and continued to search for a hanging bag. By the time Lauren convinced her a shopping bag would work, it was already 12:15. She had hoped she’d have a chance to look for a present for her sister, but there wasn’t going to be time. She still had to run the dress home and mail the Christmas cards.
I can pick up Fred’s video, she thought, fighting her way onto the escalator. That wouldn’t take much time, since she knew what she wanted, and maybe they’d have something with Shirley MacLaine in it she could get her sister. Ten minutes to buy the video, she thought, tops.
It took her nearly half an hour. There was only one copy, which the clerk couldn’t find.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have It’s a Wonderful Life?” she asked Lauren. “It’s my favorite movie.”
“I want Miracle on 34th Street,” Lauren said patiently. “With Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood.”
The clerk picked up a copy of It’s a Wonderful Life from a huge display. “See, Jimmy Stewart’s in trouble and he wishes he’d never been born, and this angel grants him his wish—”
“I know,” Lauren said. “I don’t care. I want Miracle on 34th Street.”
“Okay!” the clerk said, and wandered off to look for it, muttering, “Some people don’t have any Christmas spirit.”
She finally found it, in the M’s, of all places, and then insisted on gift wrapping it.
By the time Lauren made it back to her apartment, it was a quarter to one. She would have to forget lunch and mailing the Christmas cards, but she could at least take them with her, buy the stamps, and put the stamps on at work.
She took the video out of the shopping bag and set it on the coffee table next to her purse, picked up the bag, and started for the bedroom.
Someone knocked on the door.
“I don’t have time for this,” she muttered, and opened the door, still holding the shopping bag.
It was a young man wearing a “Save the Whales” T-shirt and khaki pants. He had shoulder-length blond hair and a vague expression that made her think of southern California.
“Yes? What is it?” she asked.
“I’m here to give you a Christmas present,” he said.
“Thank you, I’m not interested in whatever you’re selling,” she said, and shut the door.
He knocked again immediately. “I’m not selling anything,” he said through the door. “Really.”
I don’t have time for this, she thought, but she opened the door again.
“I’m not a salesguy,” he said. “Have you ever heard of the Maharishi Ram Dass?” A religious nut.
“I don’t have time to talk to you.” She started to say, “I’m late for work,” and then remembered you weren’t supposed to tell strangers your apartment was going to be empty. “I’m very busy,” she said and shut the door, more firmly this time.
The knocking commenced again, but she ignored it. She started into the bedroom with the shopping bag, came back and pushed the deadbolt across and put the chain on, and then went in to hang up her dress. By the time she’d extricated it from the tissue paper and found a hanger, the knocking had stopped. She hung up the dress, which looked just as deadly now that she had it home, and went back into the living room.
The young man was sitting on the couch, messing with her TV remote. “So, what do you want for Christmas? A yacht? A pony?” He punched buttons on the remote, frowning. “A new TV?”
“How did you get in here?” Lauren said squeakily. She looked at the door. The deadbolt and chain were both still on.
“I’m a spirit,” he said, putting the remote down. The TV suddenly blared on. “The Spirit of Christmas Present.”
“Oh,” Lauren said, edging toward the phone. “Like in A Christmas Carol.”
“No,” he said, flipping through the channels. She looked at the remote. It was still on the coffee table. “Not Christmas Present. Christmas Present. You know, Barbie dolls, ugly ties, cheese logs, the stuff people give you for Christmas.”
“Oh, Christmas Present. I see,” Lauren said, carefully picking up the phone.
“People always get me confused with him, which is really insulting. I mean, the guy obviously has a really high cholesterol level. Anyway, I’m the Spirit of Christmas Present, and your sister sent me to—”
Lauren had dialed 9-1. She stopped, her finger poised over the second 1. “My sister?”
“Yeah,” he said, staring at the TV. Jimmy Stewart was sitting in the guard’s room, wrapped in a blanket. “Oh, wow! It’s a Wonderful Life.”
My sister sent you, Lauren thought. It explained everything. He was not a Moonie or a serial killer. He was this year’s version of the crystal pyramid mate selector. “How do you know my sister?”
“She channeled me,” he said, leaning back against the sofa. “The Maharishi Ram Dass was instructing her in trance-meditation, and she accidentally channeled my spirit out of the astral plane.” He pointed at the screen. “I love this part where the angel is trying to convince Jimmy Stewart he’s dead.”
“I’m not dead, am I?”
“No. I’m not an angel. I’m a spirit. The Spirit of Christmas Present. You can call me Chris for short. Your sister sent me to give you what you really want for Christmas. You know, your heart’s desire. So what is it?”
For my sister not to send me any more presents, she thought. “Look, I’m really in a hurry right now. Why don’t you come back tomorrow and we can talk about it then?”
“I hope it’s not a fur coat,” he said as if he hadn’t heard her. “I’m opposed to the killing of endangered species.” He picked up Fred’s present. “What’s this?”
“It’s a videotape of Miracle on 34th Street. I really have to go.”
“Who’s it for?”
“Fred Hatch. I’m his Secret Santa.”
“Fred Hatch.” He turned the package over. “You had it gift wrapped at the store, didn’t you?”
“Yes. If we could just talk about this later—”
“This is a great part, too,” he said, leaning forward to watch the TV. The angel was explaining to Jimmy Stewart how he hadn’t gotten his wings yet.
“I have to go. I’m on my lunch hour, and I need to mail my Christmas cards, and I have to be back at work by”—she glanced at her watch—“oh, my God, fifteen minutes ago.”
He put down the package and stood up. “Gift-wrapped presents,” he said, making a “tsk”-ing noise. “Everybody rushing around spending money, rushing to parties, never stopping to have some eggnog or watch a movie. Christmas is an endangered species.” He looked longingly back at the screen, where the angel was trying to convince Jimmy Stewart he’d never been alive, and then wandered into the kitchen. “You got any Evian water?”
“No,” Lauren said desperately. She hurried after him. “Look, I really have to get to work.”
He had stopped at the kitchen table and was holding one of the Christmas cards. “Computer-addressed,” he said reprovingly. He tore it open.
“Don’t—” Lauren said.
“Printed Christmas cards,” he said. “No letter, no quick note, not even a handwritten signature. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. An endangered species.”
“I didn’t have time,” Lauren said defensively. “And I don’t have time to discuss this or anything else with you. I have to get to work.”
“No time to write a few words on a card, no time to think about what you want for Christmas.” He slid the card back into the envelope. “Not even on recycled paper,” he said sadly. “Do you know how many trees are chopped down every year to send Christmas cards?”
“I am late for—” Lauren said, and he wasn’t there anymore.
He didn’t vanish like in the movies, or fade out slowly. He simply wasn’t there.
“—work,” Lauren said. She went and looked in the living room. The TV was still on, but he wasn’t there, or in the bedroom. She went into the bathroom and pulled the shower curtain back, but he wasn’t there, either.
“It was a hallucination,” she said out loud, “brought on by stress.” She looked at her watch, hoping it had been part of the hallucination, but it still read 1:15. “I will figure this out later,” she said. “I have to get back to work.”
She went back in the living room. The TV was off. She went into the kitchen. He wasn’t there. Neither were her Christmas cards, exactly.
“You! Spirit!” she shouted. “You come back here this minute!”
“You’re late,” Evie said, filling out a catalog form. “You will not believe who was just here. Scott Buckley. God, he is so cute.” She looked up. “What happened?” she said. “Didn’t they hold the dress?”