The best Christmas stories selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
This is a somewhat unseasonal post for us, appearing in July as it is. But we’ve recently turned our thoughts towards Christmas literature for a whole host of reasons, so thought we’d offer ten of the greatest short stories about Christmas. These are stories set around Christmas time, or during the Christmas holidays, which reflect the jubilation as well as the turmoil of that season.
For a good, affordable collection of classic stories about the festive season, we recommend The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories: From Hans Christian Andersen to Angela Carter (Penguin Classics Hardcover).
1. Washington Irving, ‘Christmas Eve’.
As we approached the house we heard the sound of music, and now and then a burst of laughter from one end of the building. This, Bracebridge said, must proceed from the servants’ hall, where a great deal of revelry was permitted, and even encouraged, by the squire throughout the twelve days of Christmas, provided everything was done conformably to ancient usage. Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids…
Before Charles Dickens became the literary laureate of Christmas, Washington Irving was introducing American readers to a whole host of now ubiquitous Christmas traditions, including Christmas carols on people’s doorsteps, mistletoe, and the famous Yule log – traditions which Irving had to explain in footnotes, so unfamiliar were they to his original readers in 1820. This story is worth reading not least because it offers such an early example of all of these Christmas features in one story.
2. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there?—Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.
“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”
Long enough to qualify as a ‘novella’, this is perhaps the most famous Christmas story of them all (well, after the one in the New Testament, of course!), so we’ve chosen to include it here. Ebenezer Scrooge’s road to redemption following a visitation from the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, and three spirits, has gone down in modern folklore.
Dickens’s rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, called the book ‘a national benefit’, while fellow novelist Margaret Oliphant said that although it was ‘the apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding’, it ‘moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel’. The book was more or less single-handedly responsible for the tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story, which remains with us to this day.
3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘The Christmas Banquet’.
He devised a considerable sum for establishing a fund, the interest of which was to be expended, annually forever, in preparing a Christmas Banquet for ten of the most miserable persons that could be found. It seemed not to be the testator’s purpose to make these half a score of sad hearts merry, but to provide that the stern or fierce expression of human discontent should not be drowned, even for that one holy and joyful day, amid the acclamations of festal gratitude which all Christendom sends up…
This story might be regarded as the inverse of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (and it was written just three years after Dickens’s novella was published): every Christmas, so a wealthy man’s will decrees, ten of the most miserable and misanthropic people in the land will be invited to a Christmas banquet where the idea is for them to try to outdo each other in how bitter and miserable they are.
If this doesn’t sound like much fun, the story does raise some of the same issues that we see in Dickens’s more famous story, and forms a good companion-piece to Scrooge’s change from miser to philanthropist.
4. Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Fir-Tree’.
Andersen wrote a number of fairy tales with wintry settings – ‘The Little Match Girl’ and ‘The Snow Queen’ (the basis for the film Frozen) spring to mind – but ‘The Fir-Tree’ is the most Christmassy of all of Andersen’s fairy stories.
The story uses the fir-tree as a symbol for the child impatient to grow up, with the result that the tree-child is never content to live in the moment. Of course, when the fir-tree gets old and big enough, it is chopped down and taken inside to be used as a Christmas tree … but we’ll offer no more spoilers here.
5. Anton Chekhov, ‘At Christmas Time’.
Chekhov, who took the short story form in a new and more experimental direction, focusing on character and mood rather than plot, wrote this story in 1900. It focuses on an estranged daughter writing to her parents, who never receive her messages, and the daughter’s relationship with her husband.
6. O. Henry, ‘The Gift of the Magi’.
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas…
First published in 1905, this short story by the American master of the form is about a husband and wife, Jim and Della, buying Christmas presents for each other, without much money to spend on them. It’s short and has a nice ironic twist at the end.
7. George Ade, ‘The Set of Poe’.
The holiday season approached and Mr. Waterby had made a resolution. He decided that if she would not permit him to spend a little money on himself he would not buy the customary Christmas present for her…
This short story earns its place on this list because it’s about buying a set of complete works by a writer as a Christmas gift: the titular ‘set of Poe’, namely Edgar Allan Poe. Like O. Henry’s story it focuses on a husband and wife buying gifts, and there’s also a twist here – perhaps a predictable one, but it’s a charming little story all the same.
8. Saki, ‘Reginald’s Christmas Revel’.
On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English fashion. The hall was horribly draughty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect. A young lady with a confidential voice favoured us with a long recitation about a little girl who died or did something equally hackneyed, and then the Major gave us a graphic account of a struggle he had with a wounded bear. I privately wished that the bears would win sometimes on these occasions; at least they wouldn’t go vapouring about it afterwards…
Saki, real name Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), is one of the wittiest and funniest writers of short stories in the English language. If you haven’t read his stories before, treat yourself to a cheap bumper edition of them – we recommend The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics) – and sit back this Christmas and bask in his brilliant turns of phrase.
He wrote several very short stories or vignettes set at Christmas time, and this one, about enduring Christmas Day in the company of dull people, is perhaps the best – although ‘Reginald’s Christmas Presents’, about unsuitable and undesirable festive gifts, is also worth checking out.
9. Anne Enright, ‘Here’s to Love’.
First published in 2007 in the Guardian, this Christmas story by the author of The Gathering is the most recent story on this list. It’s about friends getting together for a reunion every Christmas once they’re middle-aged, and all of the disappointments and realisations that such reunions bring.
10. James Joyce, ‘The Dead’.
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead…
Set during the Christmas holidays but shortly after New Year – probably on or around Twelfth Night in early January – ‘The Dead’ is the longest short story in James Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, a series of tales about life in turn-of-the-century Dublin. It is also the last story in the collection, and focuses on a party attended by Gabriel Conroy and his wife.
This is a short story where plot takes second place to character and detail, as Joyce adeptly builds a picture of Gabriel’s failed life, building to a revelation at the end of the story. Its closing descriptions of falling snow are Joyce at his very best, and seem like a fine place to conclude this pick of the best short stories set at Christmas time.
If this post has whetted your appetite for more Christmas stories, we strongly recommend The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories: From Hans Christian Andersen to Angela Carter (Penguin Classics Hardcover). It has a raft of classic short masterpieces about the season!
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.