Home for Christmas

Revisiting favorite Christmas stories

Christmas tree
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You remember the scene of the schoolchildren—field-mice schoolchildren, naturally—caroling in "Dulce Domum," the Christmas chapter in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows?

And then they heard the angels tell,
"Who were the first to cry nowell?

Animals all, as it befell,
In the stable where they did dwell!
Joy shall be theirs in the morning!"

I read that 5,200-word chapter again this year and found myself wanting to say that Grahame had produced a perfect reading for the season—except that I'm not sure what it would mean to say that something is a perfect Christmas story. The more we read and write, the more we know the hard truth of language: Words always let us down.

One proof is that good stories can be found in second-rate writing. With his tearjerker of a 1905 Christmas tale, "The Gift of the Magi," O. Henry gave us a tiny master-class in plot construction, but no one ever described his prose as more than pedestrian.

For that matter, beautiful writing can lack much of a plot. "One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner, now out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six," Dylan Thomas begins "A Child's Christmas in Wales," his 1952 masterpiece of run-on sentences. And all you can do is surrender to the music of his words and the flashing images of his magic lantern.

On and on we could walk through one wonderful piece of Christmas writing after another. Sonorous as the King James translation is, the power of the Nativity narrative in the Gospel of Luke is the perfection of its subject, not the perfection of its prose. Even the very good can pall. For a few years, my family would read aloud Thomas Hardy's lovely 1915 "The Oxen" on Christmas Eve, but after a while we just let it slip away, the small poem somehow worn out for us. Muriel Spark's 1956 "The Leaf-Sweeper" is a funny, clever thing, written in Spark's trademark dry prose: "In the Christmas holidays Miss Geddes gave me her nephew's pamphlet, How to Grow Rich at Christmas. It sounded very likely, but it turned out that you grow rich at Christmas by doing away with Christmas, and so I pondered [the] pamphlet no more." But the story just won't last under the pressure of annual rereading.

In the proper mood, the sappiness of Kate Douglas Wiggin's 1886 The Birds' Christmas Carol can make the book seem the exemplar of the season. (If you're willing to dive down into the true depths of the sentimental, try Sophie Swett's 1885 "How Santa Claus Found the Poor-House.") In a more cynical mood, Paul Auster's 1990 story "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" might be the one that breaks through for us. In yet another droll mood, Damon Runyon's "The Three Wise Guys" will do. In previous years, I've mentioned Lillian Smith's 1962 remembrance of a Southern childhood in Memory of a Large Christmas, Dr. Seuss's 1957 How the Grinch Stole Christmas, T.S. Eliot's 1927 "Journey of the Magi," and even Henry van Dyke's 1895 social-gospelizing of the Nativity, The Other Wise Man. Oh, and Charles Dickens's 1843 A Christmas Carol, of course: the inescapable classic, leaping for our throats every Christmas.

Still, even as moods swirl and over-familiarity sets in, I find that every few years something reminds me to take a look again at the Christmas chapter, Chapter V, in The Wind in the Willows. The more one reads and writes, the better seems the writing that Kenneth Grahame managed in his 1908 book. It's a delicate, autumnal kind of Edwardian prose—like the end of summer, greeny-gold. And for all the action in the book, from the dangerous hike through the Wild Woods to the battle for Toad Hall, the overall tone of the book is set at the beginning, when Ratty peers out the window of his riverside house to see Mole, a creature who's abandoned the spring cleaning of his underground home to see the sunshine of the world above.

The story does not return to Mole's home until well into the winter. As "Dulce Domum" opens, the Mole and the Rat are trudging through a small village in the snow. And they pause to look at the illuminated window of a house—and if you want an example of Grahame's near perfect prose, try this:

Close against the white blind hung a birdcage, clearly silhouetted, every wire, perch, and appurtenance distinct and recognizable, even to yesterday's dull-edged lump of sugar. On the middle perch the fluffy occupant, head tucked well into feathers, seemed so near to them as to be easily stroked, had they tried; even the delicate tips of his plumped-out plumage penciled plainly on the illuminated screen. As they looked, the sleepy little fellow stirred uneasily, woke, shook himself, and raised his head. They could see the gape of his tiny beak as he yawned in a bored sort of way, looked round, and then settled his head into his back again, while the ruffled feathers gradually subsided into perfect stillness. Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as from a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way.

Past the village, as they wind their way toward Ratty's house, Mole suddenly catches a whiff of his home. Grahame catches exactly a children's kind of sadness, as the Rat won't stop and the Mole's heart almost breaks in two as he turns to follow his friend. But the goodhearted Rat at last realizes what's wrong, and he turns back to visit the Mole's long abandoned home.

What follows is a small Christmas setting, as perfectly judged as anything in The Wind in the Willows. The caroling field-mice appear at the door, ale is mulled, Ratty takes charge of laying out a meal for the visitors. "And Mole, as he took the head of the table in a sort of a dream, saw a lately barren board set thick with savory comforts; saw his little friends' faces brighten and beam as they fell to without delay; and then let himself loose—for he was famished indeed—on the provender so magically provided, thinking what a happy homecoming this had turned out, after all."

Homecoming. The first Christmas came at the end of a journey, but it was in its way a homecoming, as Joseph returned to the place of his ancestors in David's town of Bethlehem. And the divine part, too, was a reestablishing of the home denied us since Adam. The Wind in the Willows is in part a tale of houses: the grandeur of Toad Hall, the strength of Badger's underground den in Roman ruins, the Rat's smart riverbank house. But The Wind in the Willows begins with the Mole leaving his home to meet these new and wonderful characters, and Kenneth Grahame seems right to let him return for Christmas.