When Christmas comes around, and I cozy up by my tree with a blanket, I have a long list of Christmas movies to binge on (White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Holiday, Love Actually, Barbie Nutcracker, etc.). I’m even happy to settle down for the most terrible Hallmark Christmas movies. But I realized I don’t know many Christmas books. There’s of course A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but I’m not a huge Dickens fan. I remember loving Let It Snow, a collection of inter-related stories by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle. The style of it is very much like Love Actually, which is why I liked it, but honestly the stories themselves didn’t stick with me enough to want to re-read them each year.
When it comes to Christmas in fiction, it’s not so much a Christmas theme that is enjoyable. It is the feeling of Christmas, coming up in the characters’ lives. That anticipation prior and then the contentment afterwards is what gets me. And of course, the presents. It makes you sound like a better person to say you care naught for Christmas presents. As I’ve gotten older, I don’t look for Christmas presents for things I can’t buy myself; I definitely treat myself more than I should (just ask my bank account!). However, the thought behind a gift is something that grows more important to me each year. Even the simplest gift given with affection and care is meaningful, which is why I love giving and receiving.
So we are not talking Christmas books here. Instead I want to talk about the best Christmases in fiction–the food, the gifts, the love, and the joy of each special Christmas chapter of these five books.
1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
The four March sisters are lower middle class, as their father not only lost the family fortune years ago, but is now away serving in the Civil War. The mother (Marmee) and two older girls (Meg
and Jo) work, while the two youngest (Beth and Amy) are in school. They are poorer than many of their class, most of whom seem to be ladies and gentlemen of leisure, but definitely not in abject poverty, as they do employ a servant (Hannah). They do all right, but things are tight, and when Christmas rolls around it is, as Meg mourns, “dreadful to be poor.” With each a dollar to spend, the girls first plan what they shall get for themselves since their mother said they had no money for a proper Christmas–something “pretty” for Meg, a book for Jo, sheet music for Beth, and drawing pencils for Amy. But while their mother works on Christmas Eve, the girls decide to spend their money on gifts for her–gloves from Meg, slippers from Jo, handkerchiefs from Beth, and perfume from Amy.
Alcott weaves in the girls’ understandable longing for a lavish Christmas with their desire to do good and be unselfish, without making the girls seem either too greedy or too pure-hearted. The sisters are rewarded by beautiful copies of the Bible for Christmas, which may seem like an awful Christmas gift in today’s secular society, but which is appreciated as great literature by the March sisters. Each girl is given a copy in her favorite color–green for Meg, crimson for Jo, dove-colored for Beth, and blue for Amy–which shows the girls and the reader that Marmee is considerate of the unique personalities of each one of them. The girls look forward to their annual Christmas breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, muffins, and cream, but delay eating it till their mother comes home from helping the poor neighbors, a German immigrant family.
When Marmee returns, she tells them about the single mother with seven hungry children all in one bed, and asks if they would share their breakfast with them. The girls hesitate, but agree. In all their most despairing moments, they understand, they have never truly starved or frozen, as the immigrant family has. They bring wood to heat the poor family’s home and serve the children, who pronounce them Engel-kinder (angel-children) and are inordinately grateful for the basic necessities of life. Then upon returning home and putting on a play that Jo has written, the girls are surprised by: “ice cream, actually two dishes of it, pink and white, and cake and fruit and distracting French bonbons and, in the middle of the table, four great bouquets of hot house flowers.”
In a time when ice cream was handmade and had to be stored carefully in an icebox, this is a luxury meal that the Marches could not afford. It is a Christmas gift from the old gentleman next door who has heard about the girls’ charity. It’s a classic Christmas story of sacrifice and unexpected reward that opens up a cozy family story very well–just like a a jolly Christmas is a good start to a New Year.
2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find him quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.
In the world of Narnia, under the spell of the White Witch, it is always snowy winter, but never Christmas. This is a children’s book, so that is meant to convey a sort of awfulness that makes sense to them–all pain, and no gain!–but it also gives an idea of what the White Witch is truly like. She likes everyone to be cold and hungry, and she fears generosity and joy, because that means thinking of others, something she only does as a means to an end.
So when Christmas does come to Narnia, as the Witch’s magic weakens, it is not just friendly gift-giving that begins, but a
return of Father Christmas himself. Three of the Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, and Lucy) are traveling in the snow with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to find Aslan, the true King, before the White Witch does, when they come upon Father Christmas and his sleigh. Father Christmas is other-worldly, but merry, and brings Christmas gifts for the children and Beavers. Mrs. Beaver gets her sewing machine and Mr. Beaver gets his dam, but the most special gifts are for the Pevensies. Peter gets a silver shield with a “red lion, as bright as a ripe strawberry at the moment when you pick it,” and a golden sword in his (early adolescent) size. Susan receives a bow and quiver of arrows, and an ivory horn that will bring help whenever she needs it, wherever she is. Lucy gets a dagger, and a diamond vial filled with “cordial made out of…the fireflowers that grow in the mountains of the sun” that will heal anyone. Each child receives a weapon and something to protect themselves and others, which is a theme in the series: the children are adventurous and brave but struggle to be compassionate and others-oriented.
Finally, Father Christmas pulls a “large tray containing five cups and saucers, a bowl of lump sugar, a jug of cream, and a great big teapot all sizzling and hot” out of nowhere and leaves the Beavers and children to enjoy a proper English tea to complete the Christmas day feel of the scene. As dates are not important in Narnia, it being December 25th is irrelevant. Christmas is giving and sharing and being united (Edmund, who betrays the family, doesn’t get a present or share in the tea). Christmas is (or should be) the joy of coziness and contentment, regardless of the other trials around that one has to face. It’s a brief respite before battling the White Witch.
3. Theater Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Christmas Day in every family is built up on little bits of custom. Something happens one year and it is amusing and gay and Christmasy, and so it becomes part of all future Christmases.
This story takes place during WWII, in a London haunted by bombings and struggling daily with rations and the limits of being at war so close to home. With their father away at war, Sorrel, Mark, and Holly Forbes are sent to live with their maternal grandmother, who they’ve never met, but who is a famous actress and matriarch of a well-known performing family. The war has affected even Grandmother Warren, whose once-grand house is in disrepair, and the children are lucky to have scholarships to a prestigious performing arts school. The Forbes children are the poor relations, surviving on charity, and they have a hard time being humble while being confident. Christmas is particularly trying, as they miss their old traditions: Father singing Good King Wenceslas and giving them all instruments to play along, or even their nanny Hannah singing The First Noel.
But everything is thrown off this year, and Christmas is going to spent with unknown relatives who know the Forbeses as the poor orphan relations. With hardly any money, the the children save up some pennies for gifts: Sorrel, the oldest, is thoughtful enough to give Mark pencils and Holly hairbows, and still have gifts for the servants. Mark ends up buying “drawing pins”, rulers, and thumbtacks for people because it seems useful. Holly wants to buy soap for everyone so she can smell it, but waits till the last minute, and has to buy everyone buns.The three pool their money for a gift for Grandmother: a “white heath in a little pot” that “cost a fearful lot.” They don’t have gifts for the relatives, which is embarrassing. Sorrel also is miserable over her worn velvet dress and its grey patches, which she feels will make them look even more pathetic.
Yet the relatives come in with their dramatic introductions and jokes, each one trying to please snobbish Grandmother, but also trying to make the Forbeses feel comfortable. Uncle Mose gives them each ten shillings, and there is jewelry (for the girls) and a penknife (for Mark) from Aunt Marguerite, a book (for Sorrel) and a flashlight (for Mark) and a game (for Holly) from Aunt Lindsey. There are even toffees from Alice the housekeeper. Dinner itself is “tremendous fun” as it’s “the kind of party where nobody minds how excited you get or how noisy you are.” There is “turkey, and for dessert…mince pies and plum pudding,” the latter of which has special good luck items embedded in it. The family plays games and sings carols, and the Forbeses prove their place in the family when Mark sings for everyone and leaves the adults speechless. It’s all new traditions, but safe in the house with good food and whatever presents can be had, the day is still as “Christmasy” as it can be.
4. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Christmas was coming. …. The days were clear and bright. Laura and Mary stood on chairs by the window and looked out across the glittering snow at the glittering trees. Snow was piled all along their bare, dark branches, and it sparkled in the sunshine. Icicles hung from the eaves of the house to the snowbanks, great icicles as large at the top as Laura’s arm. They were like glass full of sharp lights
Out in the woods, the Ingalls family lives practically, making use out of all they have. At the annual hog butchering, they have uses for the bladder, tail, and head, and every bit of meat and bone. Little Laura’s doll is an old corncob. But Christmas is still a time for splurging and fun.
Food is prepared by Ma Ingalls in advance: “salt-rising bread and rye’n’Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses….vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and…a big jar with cookies.” The girls also make candy by pouring boiled molasses onto clean snow, which hardens into sweet candy that must be saved for Christmas Day, when the cousins come to visit.
There is the night of anticipation, then they know Santa Claus has come in the morning, when their stockings are full. Each child has a “pair of bright red mittens” and a “long, flat stick of red-and-white peppermint candy.” And that is it. To a child today, that may be a lousy Christmas, but the children are “so happy” they can “hardly speak.” Laura is “the happiest of all” because she finally gets a long-awaited rag doll: “She had a face of white cloth with black button eyes. A black pencil had made her eyebrows, and her cheeks and mouth were red with the ink made from pokeberries. Her hair was black yarn that had been knit and raveled, so that it was curly. She had little red flannel stockings and little black cloth gaiters for shoes, and her dress was pretty pink and blue calico.” Laura’s delight is contagious, and no one begrudges her a special gift as she’s the littlest. Uncle Peter teases that they couldn’t have all been so good that Santa Claus brought them all gifts, but the children know that it is “so hard to be good all the time, every day, for a whole year” and they deserve presents.
Then there are chores, which takes away from the moment, but makes all the other pleasures of the day better. Ma makes a “pancake man” for each child, and each one gets to watch while Ma turns the “whole little man over, quickly and carefully, on a hot griddle.” They all can’t stop admiring their gifts and pass the time reading books and playing till the huge Christmas dinner. They don’t ask for second helpings because they are given those without prompting, as “Christmas comes but once a year…and what a happy Christmas it had been!”
5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
On Christmas Eve, Harry went to bed looking forward to the next day for the food and the fun, but not expecting any presents at all. When he woke in the morning, however, the first thing he saw was a small pile of packages at the foot of his bed.
Being an orphan raised by a nasty and inattentive aunt and uncle, Harry Potter has never had a traditional Christmas, until he goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and makes friends. So when he wakes up to presents on Christmas morning, he is shocked. His best friend, Ron, is the sixth of seventh children, so is used to gifts, and remarks, “What did you expect, turnips?” Ron is pleased by his gifts, but doesn’t feel the same awe and gratitude Harry does, as he has expectations enough to complain.
Harry receives a hand-carved wooden flute from his giant friend Hagrid, Chocolate Frogs from his friend Hermione, and even a magical Invisibility Cloak from a mysterious giver. But despite the intrigue of the cloak, the gift that has the most lasting impression on Harry is the “thick, hand-knitted sweater in emerald green” and “large box of homemade fudge” from Mrs. Weasley, Ron’s mom. Ron is embarrassed and groans at Harry receiving a “Weasley sweater,” as he puts on his own hated maroon sweater and his three brothers (Fred, George, and Percy) come in with their Weasley sweaters. The gift is simple–the Weasleys don’t have much money, so it’s easier to make gifts. But to Harry, this is the first time someone has included him in their family. His own aunt and uncle ignored him every Christmas or birthday and made him feel like an intruder his entire life. Mrs. Weasley has heard from Ron that Harry expects no presents, so she sends him a gift she would give to her own child, but personalizes it by making it Harry’s color (green to match his eyes). This practice continues in later books, and becomes more than symbolic as Harry becomes closer to the Weasleys.
Harry and the Weasley boys celebrate Christmas with their classmates and teachers in the Great Hall, which is set up for a feast: “A hundred fat roast turkeys; mountains of roast and boiled potatoes; platters of chipolatas; tureens of buttered peas; silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce–and stacks of wizard crackers every few feet along the table. …Flaming Christmas puddings followed the turkey.” Harry, who also was always given the least amount of food, can choose from all delicacies and can eat as much as he wants. He plays with the crackers, which are filled with magical prizes, but most importantly, he is with friends. There is a snowball fight, a chess game, another lunch, but through it all, Harry is with the Weasley brothers, who are flawed and petty and fight a lot, but care deeply for one another in tough times. “Christmas is a time for family,” George says teasingly to Percy. Harry begins to realize that family doesn’t need to be blood and Christmas is for real family–people bound together by love and care.
I read all these books fifteen or more years ago, but the messages stayed with me. Presents are wonderful and so is good food and Christmas ought to be cozy and lavish (whatever that means to you!). But Christmas is about sacrifice, generosity, compassion, and love. Whatever traditions may have attached themselves to the holiday and whatever you believe to be the historical fact, Christmas was begun to celebrate the birth of a child in a poor family who grew up to serve and die for others. And, if you have read the Gospels, you’ve read that Jesus spent time caring for others, but also sharing meals and good conversation with friends. It’s more than a cute nativity scene. It’s not about the stress of budgeting for gifts. It’s about giving and loving and finding joy in what is already there.
Brittany Ann Zayas