We feel a powerful, sentimental attachment to books with personalized inscriptions. In terms of Thoughtful Holiday Gifts, these rank near the top. To rediscover a dust-covered novel and read your favorite aunt’s sprawling cursive from Christmas 1999 is to take a step back in time. I want you to experience this story, these hiding-behind-the-dust jacket
I am a total sap for Christmas, a season that begins for me while I am still eating Halloween candy. My traditions aren’t so different from anyone else’s: several weeks of Olympian champagne and toffee consumption, a few viewings of Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown, which moves even a heathen like me, and a reread of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Let’s get something out of the way right now: the dramatic versions of this story are never as good. Tiny Tim is always some sappy, hollering child and the Ghosts of Christmas Past in particular cannot match Dickens’ dazzling, discomfiting description of a gleaming and silvery being that is ungendered, muscular, faintly elfin, ancient yet childlike. (Come on, casting directors, how hard is that? Actually, they came kind of close with Carol Kane.) I’m not saying this book abounds in subtlety; it doesn’t. And I’m not saying it isn’t blatantly sentimental; it is. But where other equally beloved classics like the screechy It’s a Wonderful Life leave me unmoved, somehow A Christmas Carol gets me every time. Maybe it’s the way the book’s moments of lightness stand out against such nasty, dreary human darkness, for here is the rare Christmas tale to feature a corpse-robbing scene. So many holiday stories skip that darkness all together, but Christmas itself is a much needed glow amid the shortest days of the year, so no wonder it works just as well in literary form. A Christmas Carol is just peculiar enough, fantastical enough, and macabre enough to endure.
Michelle Wildgen is an executive editor at Tin House Magazine and the author, most recently, of the novel Bread and Butter, as well as You’re Not You, But Not For Long, and editor of the anthology Food & Booze.
When I was very young my mother gave me a copy of Mary Mapes Dodge's Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates. I fell in love with two aspects of the story. First, that people skated on canals in Holland. As a kid in New Jersey, I had only skated on ponds and small lakes, and the thought of having a seemingly endless stretch of ice in front of me became my greatest desire. Second, a significant plot point was that Hans only had poor wooden skates. To win the speed skating race, he needed silver skates like everyone else. This resonated with me because I, too, had skates that were less than ideal. Mine were hand-me-downs and so many sizes too big that I needed to wear three pair of socks for them to fit comfortably. I identified with the main character’s longing–and yes, I eventually received skates that fit me, although I’ve not yet skated on a canal.
Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine. Her chapbook of five essays, Elements, was released by Sweet Publications.
Leigh Allison Wilson
"The Blue Carbuncle" by Arthur Conan Doyle is my nostalgic favorite for the winter holidays. Once in fourth grade I wasn't allowed to go to a magic show put on for the whole school. I had a suspect blotch on my forehead that my teacher thought might be the beginning of chicken pox but turned out later to be a tiny piece of cranberry muffin. I felt fine, of course, and read the Conan Doyle story—my first Sherlock Holmes story—curled up in my teacher's big chair. It was a luxurious hour, and I fell in love with the magic of Holmes and Watson and with what I imagined Christmas to be like in 19th century London. But what I really fell in love with was the act of reading itself, and I have never felt sequestered from the world again.
Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award in short fiction, Leigh Allison Wilson has published two collections of short stories—Wind: Stories and From the Bottom Up. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Mademoiselle, The Southern Review, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction has been read on NPR's Selected Shorts. She teaches at SUNY Oswego.
Jeremy John Parker
While it would be tempting to tout my love of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather as a holiday favorite (because it is—how often do you see Death and Santa Claus team up?), I have to go serious and sad and say that I find Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections one of my all-time favorite holiday tales. And it is a serious book and it is a sad book and you can't read it and not feel that Franzen hates families and holidays and especially his poor mother and father. But what I see when I read it is not a hatred of all those things we espouse to love about holidays, but a hatred of the artifice and expectations that lead us toward vacant-eyed, veneer-smiled holiday cheer. Franzen is an ornery Holden Caulfield, spitting invectives at phonies. What is underneath all of this cheery artifice, what the Lamberts ultimately get for their one last Christmas, is that loving acceptance that family is supposed to provide. Or maybe I'm remembering it all wrong, maybe none of that is under the surface, maybe nothing whatsoever is discovered that last Christmas but my own wishful thinking that there's real love underneath even the most dysfunctional families.
Jeremy John Parker is Fiction Co-editor at Barnstorm Literary Journal.
I have spent my semester break thus far in awe of Lorrie Moore’s mastery of the short story. I’ve been savoring stories from Birds of America between wrapping gifts and discouraging my own felines from kidnapping low-hanging ornaments. And if anyone can adeptly juggle both heartbreaking cat detail and the psychological stressors of the holiday season, then wrap it up with the kind of wit and biting dialogue that you want to read aloud to all of your writer friends, it’s Lorrie Moore. In “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens,” a woman reeling from the death of a beloved pet seeks solace from a therapist who “specializes in Christmas.” This story extends a hand—or maybe a paw—to those struggling with loss and stale relationships amid the festive cheer, while never dipping into clichéd territory. “A good cat had died—you had to begin there, not let your blood freeze over,” Moore tells us. This is a story about love, family, dysfunction, and grief—the perfect landscape for a short story, and a satisfying read before Christmas.
Paige Belisle is a second year MFA student at the University of New Hampshire. She is the Managing Editor and Fiction Co-editor for Barnstorm Literary Journal.
Kate Ver Ploeg
I always think first of O. Henry's story, “The Gift of the Magi.” As a child, I remember staring at Lisbeth Zwerger's delicately earthy and quiet illustrations as my mother read aloud. At that age, I didn't yet understand O. Henry's language—the “imputation of parsimony” or the “ravages made by generosity added to love”—nor appreciate the pacing of his sentences or his subtle wit. What I did understand was that my mother loved this book, and I loved my mother, and love could be that simple, selfless, and pure.
Kate Ver Ploeg is editor in chief of Barnstorm.