Readers who remember my Halloween-themed posts from past Octobers know that I love to match my reading to the season. As much as I love Halloween, I love Christmas even more, but for whatever reason, I’ve always had more trouble finding Christmas books than Halloween books. I think it’s a matter of the genres I’ve traditionally steered toward: while ghost stories and fantastical horrors have been part of my reading life since I was a child, the types of stories one typically associates with Christmas have not really been something I’ve explored (I’ve only recently begun reading romance, for example, a genre that is FILLED with Christmas stories).
Another part of my problem, I think, has been striking the right balance to match my own feelings about Christmas. I love Christmas fervently and without irony. I’ve always believed in its example, seeing it as the apogee of the year that can and should encourage the best from all of us. And also, of course, I love the aesthetic of Christmas, the carols and the decorations and some of the best episodes of my favorite television shows (you’ve seen the stop-motion Christmas episode of Community, right?). And yet, like many people, I think the point of Christmas, a season that celebrates compassion and charity, needs restating often, especially once we’ve become so bogged down in to-do lists and credit card charges that we start snapping at strangers on the street. “It’s Christmas, everyone’s miserable” is a fairly bleak but accepted assumption sometimes.
But I do still love it, and yet, despite this (and my burgeoning love of the romance genre), I don’t tend to go for overly sentimental writing; on the other end of the spectrum, though, I don’t want too much cynical, “real-world” darkness infused in my Christmas stories, not when I can’t bring myself to roll my eyes at it yet. In terms of finding something to read, it leaves one a bit stuck.
That’s why I was so excited when I learned about Connie Willis’s collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Willis is a science fiction writer, and she has given Christmas a unique genre treatment in this completely charming book. I knew that I was in good hands as soon as I read her opening essay, in which she speaks to her own love of Christmas and what it means to her. (She also thinks Miracle on 34th Street is better than It’s A Wonderful Life, and agrees with me that the Muppets put out one of the most faithful adaptations of A Christmas Carol. It’s so nice finding a kindred spirit in an author!) Willis approaches the holiday with the perfect balance of sentiment and sharpness, and the resulting collection provides almost a prism of new ways to think about the season, with many different angles given to both genre and Christmas staples.
I was expecting most of the stories to have a strong science fiction bend, but actually, the stories represent a variety of speculative genre subcategories. Some of the stories are more genre-specific–including, as I recall, one horror story and one mystery–while others are Christmas stories with hints of fantastical elements. This could have been a risky move, because it means while there is something for everyone, there is likely also something that isn’t as much of someone’s cup of tea in there. (For me, that came in the form of the more straightforward mystery, the genre that remains my least-explored; if you love mystery stories and have suggestions for me, leave them in the comments!). However, I think the diversity of these stories pays off. It makes the collection fresh and engaging all the way through, and even though I liked some of the stories more than others, it was nice to not have an entire collection of the same thing. Not to mention that Willis’s skill makes each of the stories enjoyable–even the ones I worried I would struggle to get through on the first page had me turning them eagerly before long.
This breadth carries over into the kinds of Christmases depicted in the stories, as well, which was also something I really liked. A couple of the stories work with the religious origins of the holiday, featuring biblical mythology in really inventive ways (that readers of any amount of religiosity could enjoy). Other stories take a more contemporary approach, often drawing from the pop-culture staples that have become their own part of the modern Christmas mythos. One story even took on the classic archetypes from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, managing to carry over the themes and characters of a tale that is pretty much acknowledged to be the best Christmas story in the western canon and, consequentially, pretty much done to death. And yet, this story ended up being my favorite for its originality, as well as its perfect balance of earnest sweetness and honest reflection of the way we treat each other, especially around the holidays.
As broad as the collection is, the stories do have some common threads. They all have a good sense of humor, as well as a rich grounding in literary and folkloric tradition. They are also bubbling over with Christmas atmosphere. All of these things combined made this the perfect collection to kick off a month of holiday reads. And good news: the book has just been re-released this year as an updated collection called A Lot Like Christmas, with new stories added to these originals. It would make a great gift for anyone who loves Christmas, but is looking for something a little different than the traditional Hallmark-channel fare (no shade intended–the world can and should have both!). It’s hard to imagine I’ll find a new Christmas read to top this one, but luckily for me, Willis provided a reading list at the end of her book, so I know I have a trustworthy place to start.