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Reading Far From the Christmas Crowd

We’re all happy to see the return of holiday traditions this year — at least, insofar as Omicron allows us. For some of us, a holiday tradition is…making new holiday traditions. For example, when I travel, I always get Christmas Tree ornaments as souvenirs. That way, every year’s tree is a new tree, marking another year of a life that, I hope, is well lived.

Another tradition of mine is finding a new Christmas reading. As I’ve done the past few years, I’d like to share this year’s finds with you.

My favorite find of 2021 is Arnold Bennett’s (1861 – 1937) collection of essays on the Christmas season, The Feast of St. Friend. These graceful and witty essays will appeal to readers of every religious and non-religious persuasion (although Bennett is writing from a specifically Christian sensibility). Bennett is almost unknown today, but in his time, he was a very popular novelist, playwright, essayist and journalist.

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Bennett, like Charles Dickens before him, argues for the Christmas of communal celebration and ancient tradition, of metaphor and of primal meaning. He has no use for those who are forever telling us that Dec. 25 was the Roman Saturnalia — which featured much of what we associate with Christmas, including decorated trees — calling such Debbie Downers “disturbing impassioned inquirers after truth, who will not leave us peaceful in our ignorance.”

Bennet advises that the cultivation of “goodwill among men” begins with cultivating it in one’s own heart.

“Until you have started the task of personal cultivation, you will probably assume that there will be time left over for superintending the cultivation of goodwill in other people’s hearts. But a very little experience ought to show…that you have bitten off just about as much as you can chew…Rest assured that any unusual sprouting of the desired crop will be instantly noticed by the persons interested.”

Librivox has an audio version of The Feast of St. Friend beautifully read by Ruth Golding.

W.E. DuBois’ (1868 – 1963) The Sermon in the Cradle takes the familiar story of the Wise Men visiting the infant Jesus and sets it in the context of 19th century European colonialism.

In DuBois retelling, Jesus is born in Nigeria, and the Wise Men go to London to ask the British Prime Minister where they can find the king whose star they’ve followed. DuBois’ parable concludes with a plain people’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are poor folks for they shall go to heaven.”

DuBois’ parable can be found in the collection Treasury of African American Christmas Stories, a collection that includes works by African American writers from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century. Edited by historian Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, the stories put us in mind of the courage that it took for people to have ordinary joys in the face of soul-destroying racism.

The whimsical short story, The Thieves Who Couldn’t Help Sneezing, is an early work by Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) that wasn’t included in any of his short story collections. It’s a tale that will delight children, in which the bad guys get their comeuppance but in a hilarious way.

Canadian writer Lucy Maude Montgomery (1874 – 1942), the prolific author of Anne of Green Gables, was also a prolific writer of feel-good holiday stories. Were she living today, she’d unquestionably be writing scripts for Hallmark channel movies.

Like marzipan, a little Lucy Maude goes a long way. However, there is no denying the charm of her stories for readers of every age. The world would certainly be a better place if her lessons in compassion, love and generosity were more widely taken to heart.

Christmas at Red Butte is one of the more famous of these stories, but two less known stories are A Christmas Inspiration and Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket, both of which illustrate that Christmas doesn’t come by itself. Instead, we bring it whenever and wherever we open our hearts.

To cleanse the palate after the Lucy Maude Montgomery marzipan, consider John Cheever’s (1912 – 1982) Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor.

This sad-comic short story appeared in the New Yorker in December 1949 and tells the story of Charlie, a lonely and alone elevator operator, and his Christmas. The story starts out melancholy, takes a turn into farce, takes a poke at the presumptions of affluent do-gooders, and ends with a revelation of the spirit of giving that Lucy Maude would have loved.

Many of these books are available at your public library in print, audio and eBook versions. Most in the public domain and can be found, free, in audio versions on Librivox.org and eBook versions on Gutenberg.org.

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