By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published December 20, 2012
All of us have Christmas traditions we cherish from our childhoods, rituals that we carry with us into our adult lives and pass on to our children. I grew up in a Southern home, so Claxton fruitcakes were a fixture. I’ve always passed on the fruitcake, but when the familiar rectangular box with its faux quilt cover appeared, I always managed to get to it first. I insist that Christmas just isn’t the same without a Whitman’s Sampler box of chocolates. I don’t poke my fingers in them anymore to see which piece is which, but I do know grown men and women who to this day don’t hesitate to take bites of a piece, and if they don’t like it, they put it right back in the box for other unlucky people to discover!
This Christmas, in the spirit of the Whitman’s Sampler, I offer for your consideration five short literary works that I read every Advent and Christmas season. Like the Whitman’s chocolate box, there is a little bit of everything: the essay, the short story, poetry and personal correspondence. I hope you enjoy these works yourselves, and that perhaps you discover something new that becomes part of your own Christmas reading traditions.
Just last night, a graduate student and I met at my house for some conversation and cheer; in fact, we enjoyed some delicious catfish and cold beer. We also enjoyed Thomas Merton, who I think would have appreciated the occasion. The student—the most gifted young writer I have ever taught—and I read together Merton’s essay, “The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room.” The essay is a beautiful twist upon the conventional ways most of us approach the Holy Family’s lack of lodgings. As Merton puts it, “there was no room for them at the inn. Well, then, they obviously found some other place!” But Merton isn’t joking. As he writes, “In fact, the inn was the last place in the world for the birth of the Lord.” The essay goes on to argue, brilliantly, that the inn was full because it was essentially a corridor of power; those who had come to Bethlehem for the census were compelled to do so because of powerful empirical forces. No, there was no room for Jesus in this setting.
Merton writes, “That there is no room for Him is a sign of the end.” You, and Merton, know the rest of the story. All the world missed what Merton calls “The Great Joy.” They missed it because they were consumed with power, materialism, wealth, information, hostility and self-absorption. Instead, the angels came to the shepherds, the lowest of the low, and they alone were able to appreciate the birth of Christ because they could identify with his poverty and humility. In observing the Nativity, the shepherds were actually observing themselves; to paraphrase the Mass, they had a glimpse of their share in the divinity of Christ because he humbled himself to share in the lowly essence of humanity.
Merton’s essay calls us not to lament, however. Instead, he encourages us to understand that when we recognize our own depravity, we are then at last able to understand that “if it is the time of the end, then it is certainly and above all the time of Great Joy.”
The circumstances in which my student and I read this essay were particularly special to me this Christmas. The essay comes from Merton’s book, “Raids on the Unspeakable,” the very book through which my former professor discovered Merton for himself. He read Merton, and through his love of Merton’s work, he taught me decades later, and now I—also decades later—share Merton with my student. It is exactly the process described by Robert Coles as “handing one another along.”
T.S. Eliot, the great Anglo-Catholic poet and critic, also contemplates the mystery of the Nativity in his poem “Journey of the Magi.” The poem recounts the Epiphany journey not in sentimental ways, but in much the same spirit Merton imagines. These wise men report “A cold coming we had of it / A hard time we had of it”; they make their way through a fallen world with “night-fires going out, and lack of shelters, / And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly / And the villages dirty and charging high prices.” It sounds like a trip to the mall on the absurd “Black Friday!” Yet, being wise, the Magi are granted a prophetic glimpse into the future. In a series of symbolic passages, Eliot prefigures the miracles, the crucifixion, and returns his Magi to their “Kingdoms” aware of the paradox of life itself: that birth automatically implies death. Eliot doesn’t spell out for the reader the Christian mystery the Magi no doubt ponder for the rest of their lives; in fact, the wise man who is the voice of the poem says “All this was a long time ago, I remember.” Yet he does demonstrate the difficulty of reconciling doubt to faith.
James Joyce spent most of his life trying to accept both his religion and his nationality; he was Catholic and Irish and often wished to be neither. My favorite book by Joyce is his collection of short stories, “Dubliners,” and my favorite story in “Dubliners” is “The Dead,” the last story written for the collection in 1907. A lot of people will tell you, with conviction, that “The Dead” is the greatest short story in English, and they may be right.
The story takes place at a holiday dinner party, on Epiphany, in Dublin. Two elderly women host the party; they are the aunts of Gabriel Conroy, a smug, self-absorbed man who though he is named Gabriel has nothing to announce or proclaim. In fact, most of the story concerns Gabriel’s difficulty in composing his obligatory after dinner oration, which is only a series of empty platitudes and vague observations, but in Gabriel’s ego it is a momentous occasion. Gabriel has nothing to teach, but he has much to learn, and in the course of the story the lesson comes from out of the past. A song heard at the party moves Gabriel’s wife to a sad remembrance of a lost lover. As she retreats into her past, Gabriel recognizes that “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.”
In the great “Joycean Epiphany” that concludes the story, Gabriel—probably for the first time in his life—feels empathy for another human being. He expresses genuine emotion, rather than empty insincerity. He sees himself as he really is: “a shade,” and desires to “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Yet Gabriel is one man in a world of other men just like him, and in the story’s masterful closing prose, he understands that his own soul is joined to the souls of all the others called to the same end. It is a sad story, but absolutely true in its depiction of human nature and our need for one another.
Mark Richard’s “The Birds for Christmas,” which is in his collection “Charity,” is a more recent story, but it’s just as memorable as “The Dead.” In this story, the patients in a mental institution desire nothing more than to be able to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” on television. They know the movie is coming; they’ve seen it advertised. As Richard writes, “What we did not want for Christmas were bars of soap. We did not want any more candy canes, bookmarks, ballpoint pens, or somebody else’s last year’s broken toy. For Christmas we did not want plastic crosses, dot books, or fruit baskets. No more handshakes, head pats, or storybook times.” No, the patients want “The Birds,” and in the end they get the movie. But in Richard’s wonderfully unique twist, they get a lot more. “When the movie was over, it was the first hours of Christmas Eve.” The patients are put to bed, and they try to go to sleep, but they can’t stop thinking about “The Birds,” and as only short fiction can, a beautiful connection reveals itself between the film and the story of the angels’ “tidings of great joy” delivered to the shepherds.
Finally, as the film version of “The Hobbit” is now appearing in movie theaters, you must read the wonderful “Father Christmas Letters” that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated for his children. For 20 years, each Christmas, Tolkien composed and embellished beautiful and imaginative letters from Santa Claus to his children. They were never meant to be seen by anyone but the children, but happily fans of Tolkien are able to get a different perspective on Tolkien in yet another edition of the complete letters.
Looking at the letters, “postmarked” from the North Pole, one gets a sense of Tolkien’s mischievous creativity and great love for his children. He becomes for the reader not the rather awe-inspiring Oxford don or creator of Middle Earth, but simply a father who delighted in entertaining his children.
At the same time, the reader sees, as in all these Christmas works, the enduring beauty of language, ideas, and imagination that the Christmas season always inspires.