Okay, if you don’t want to just read our books over and over at Christmastime—perhaps not all of you would—here are ten tips for other seasonal writings that have never failed to put us in the spirit. Please do add your own.
1. Christmas at Fontaine’s by William Kotzwinkle
This 1982 novel by the cult-favorite fantasist takes us into and beyond the lives of a Christmas-window designer who cares about everything in the world and the world’s needy who require care and attention at Christmas—and, of course, every other day of the year. Kotzwinkle wrote the novelizations of E.T. and Superman III, and those certainly sold lots of copies, while Fontaine’s probably didn’t. But it is fun, heartwarming and, I would argue, masterly.
2. Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos
An ad man but hardly a mad man in New York City in the 1950s, the protagonist loses his beloved son to violence one Christmas and finds his lifelong arguments with God taking surprising turns. This is a seemingly simple but very deep (and much neglected) novel by the author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and the argument here is that its heart is much larger than that of Hijuelos’ breakthrough book.
3. Christmas Eve on Lonesome and Other Stories by John Fox Jr.
In the early 20th century, Fox was one of America’s bestselling writers, and today he is forgotten. The title story of this collection, sometimes but not often anthologized, is a classic western tale. Any fans of Jack London—and I hope you are many—will cherish “Christmas Eve on Lonesome” and will do just as I do: Pass it along each December to the many of your friends who don’t have any idea who John Fox Jr. was.
4. Old Christmas by Washington Irving
Did you know Irving, the very first internationally famous American author (and, to us, a local, from over in Tarrytown), invented the American Christmas? The claim can be made for him as justifiably as it might be made for Thomas Nast (with his Santa Claus illustrations), Clement Clarke Moore (“A Visit from St. Nicholas”) or any other 19th century promulgator of the many lores and legends. Irving traveled in England and reported back about blazing hearths, groaning boards, yules logs and such, and the veddy English trappings of the holiday season seemed cozy and well worth adopting. Adopt them we did. A straight line can be drawn from Irving’s Christmas in America to Jean Shepherd’s.
5 (and 5A). In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories (and Other Disasters) by Jean Shepherd
The great radio raconteur is best remembered today as the narrator of the movie A Christmas Story, based on his autobiographical short stories depicting a raucous youth in the American Midwest. The stories first appeared, for the most part, in Playboy magazine, of all places, and then were collected in these two volumes. Neither is to be missed. In God We Trust hopes to knit together diverse adventures into an overarching narrative, while Wanda Hickey simply presents stories as stories. Doesn’t matter. The characters and vivid episodes charm in either case, in writing and story-telling that is directly descended from Twain and that continues in America every Saturday night with Garrison Keillor. The Christmas stories makes up only a percentage of these two books, but the joy inherent in all the pieces—be they starring Flick, the Bumpus Hounds or the indispensable Old Man—is perfect for the season.
6. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
A different reminiscence than Shepherd’s—and yet, not all that different—is this warm memoir by the famous Welsh poet. Interestingly, it, too, was first imagined for radio, and Thomas’s own audio performance of A Child’s Christmas is, like Shepherd’s narration in the movie, the only voice you will hear in your head once you’ve encountered it. It is of course an extraordinarily eloquent piece of writing. It is very funny, too. Thomas, in his poems, was not often sentimental, but he is here. I don’t use that word casually; “sentiment” in writing is often sneered upon. In these 7,000 words, sentimentality is redeemed. We should all have such Christmas memories as these.
7. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Or, we should all have such Christmas memories as as these. I see this essay as very much the American partner (in every way its equal) of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It may even be superior—more moving, because there is another person in the story, the narrator’s friend, a woman older, for whom we care. It’s not just about adventures, though it is filled with quiet adventures, but life itself: aging, the passage of time, the passing of friendships, the passing of us all.
8. The Dead by James Joyce
There are many lists of “Best Christmas Readings” that include Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fir-Tree and/or A Christmas Tree and a Wedding by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I collect old Christmas books—I have maybe 200, including some really weird ones (and I’ll do a second list of those one day, including terrific thin books by everone from Alistair Coooke to Ed McBain), and I have one volume I really should just throw away, published about 15 years ago by some self-consciously intellectual New York press. It’s filled with pieces that are, cumulatively, a real drag: purpose-built to bum you out at Christmastime, dripping in cynicism and scorn. The Anderson and Dostoyevsky, too, will put you off your plum pudding; they are desolate narritives. What I prefer is what Kotzwinkle and Hijuelos—and Shep and Capote, for that matter, and Dickens in the Christmas Carol (which, by the way, is not only the most famous but much the best of his several Christmas books) —attempt: Life, in a season when the shortening days and a hovering spirituality ask us to contemplate life, its richness and poverty. All of this is to say that James Joyce’s long short story, “The Dead,” which was the coda of his masterpiece collection Dubliners and which isn’t the least bit a “happy” work, is something I read, along with Thomas and Capote, each and every Christmas. Religiously.
9. Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies
Davies was a film writer, producer and director during Hollywood’s Golden Age. At one point he holed up in some arid clime—I think it was Vegas, if I’m remembering correctly—to write a script about holiday doings at Macy’s department store, and a bearded fellow who may or may not have been Santa Claus. Needless to say, Miracle on 34th Street was a wonderful movie, and certainly it influenced the writings of Kotzwinkle and Shepherd cited above. Much less obviously (in fact, it’s a secret), Davies’ novelization of his screenplay is a terrific seasonal read: as sprightly, sophisticated (hip) and warm as the movie itself. Hard to find, but worth the finding.
10. Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope
Okay, this spot properly belongs to Dickens if this is my true Top Ten. As said above, my urging is that you read A Christmas Carol annually and skip The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes and the others. (Wasn’t it Nabokov who said the only real reading of a novel was the re-reading?) But also: Try Trollope, please. His evocation of the Victorian Christmas in “The Mistletoe Bough,” “Christmas at Thompson Hall,” “Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage,” “The Two Heroines of Plumplington” et ectera did not feature Fezziwig, but they might have. I swear, if you curl up for a few December evenings by the fire with Irving or Trollope, your dog snoozing at your feet and a lap rug in place, you’ll gain ten pounds, just by reading. I don’t know how that happens, but it does. And it’s a good thing.
Happy Holidays to you all!
—Robert Sullivan is author of, among other books, the new memoir A Child’s Christmas in New England (Bunker Hill Press), illustrated by Glenn Wolff, and Flight of the Reindeer (Sky Pony Press), which in 1996 was called by Publishers Weekly “a charming new Christmas classic” and which was adapted as a CBS TV movie called The Christmas Secret.