Coming so close behind the celebration of Thanksgiving in late November, Christmas in the United States might end up being a second-best holiday. While many Christmas traditions originate from central Europe, the Americans were responsible for turning the literature of the festive season from slightly sinister ghost stories and morality tales into something altogether more saccharine and family focused. So, if you are looking for something different to read while recovering from time spent with your family, try these. Alternatively, you can just read the AUK guide to American Christmas stories and relax safe in the knowledge that we read them, so you don’t have to.
Charles E. Carryl – The Admiral’s Caravan – 1892
This is one of many imitations of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ that appeared around the turn of the 20th century. Dorothy lives in a Pub with a wooden statue of an Admiral outside. On Christmas Eve she dreams that he comes to life and takes her on an adventure, along with some other local statues. They sail around in a boat made from an umbrella and meet all sorts of creatures in unusual locations. The admiral is clearly the White Rabbit from Carroll, and you will find plenty of other Wonderland characters thinly disguised. A curiosity but not essential reading it is available to download at Project Gutenberg.
Valentine Davies – Miracle on 34th Street – 1947
As this is a novella length work it covers most of the same ground as the films that appear each December. Davies wrote the story for the original 1947 film which was turned into a screenplay by the director, George Seaton. It does cover some parts of the story in more depth than the films. I found it a light engaging read, and while it does read a bit like a movie treatment, unsurprisingly, if you want something to share with slightly older children, or as a bit of nostalgic reading then this works very well. It’s still in print in all possible formats.
John Grisham – Skipping Christmas – 2001
Yes, that John Grisham. It calls itself “a classic tale for modern times, ‘Skipping Christmas’ offers a hilarious look at the chaos and frenzy that has become part of our holiday tradition.” And, as a parody of the rush to meet outside expectations that we all fall into at Christmas, this was good fun. I’ll not spoil the story, but as I also gave up 90 minutes to watching the film version ‘Christmas with the Kranks’ I would say don’t judge the book by the awful film. Once again available in every conceivable format.
Dr Seuss – How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 1957
I’d not read the book before, mainly because when she was 5 my daughter was terrified of the film. Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote over 60 books of which this one of the best known. He used his books to promote social and political issues. ‘Horton Hears a Who!’ Is an allegory for the American post-war occupation of Japan. This one was used to criticise economic materialism and consumerism of the Christmas season. He told interviewers that he was “subversive as hell”. This subversion included going to court to stop pro-life groups using parts of ‘Horton Hears a Who!’ to promote their cause.
Barbara Robinson – The Best Christmas Pageant Ever – 1971
This was called ‘The Worst Kids in the World’ elsewhere in the world. If you want American Christmas writing at its most syrupy then this is the place for you. It tells the story of the six children from the Herdsman family, who “volunteer to star in their town’s Sunday school Christmas pageant and end up teaching the town the true meaning of Christmas.” Somehow these children have never heard the Nativity story before. Robinson uses their harsh upbringing to focus on some of the less pleasant aspects of the story. That part of the book is quite clever, but towards the end when the “misfit” children are being redeemed by acting in the play the schmaltz all becomes a bit too much to bear.
Davis Grubb – A Tree Full of Stars 1965
A depression era story of the Dance family who keep their Christmas lights on all year round. This annoys their neighbours who eventually force them to leave town. Strangely current for Trump’s America, with the true meaning of Christmas, and Christianity, buried under rhetoric from self-serving conservative politicians, religious fundamentalists, and rampant consumerism. Grubb’s writing is great, with a poetic style and a way with a descriptive passage not unlike Willy Vlautin. This needs to be a film…
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez – The Three Kings – 2010
‘The Three Kings: A Christmas Dating Story’ is set in New Mexico. The story of a woman, re-entering dating after a divorce, it references the self-help books ‘The Rules’ and ‘Love in 90 Days’ frequently. She starts to see three cousins who are named after the three kings of the bible. The later parts of the plot help themselves to Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ generously. The Christmas theme is tenuous to say the least, and the negative stereotypes of Hispanics, men, and teenage parents, as well as a faint whiff of homophobia make this one to send to the charity shop if it appears in your present pile.
And there you have it. A guide to some of the books set in and about the American Christmas. However, all the best Christmas stories finish with a song, and here are two of Americana’s contributions to the subgenre “they could only get away with this after too much mulled wine”. Merry Christmas everybody!