The other day my mom was showing off the pop-up paper art version of a Victorian dollhouse that is the newest Christmas adornment over at my childhood home, and I got to thinking how it's funny that the entire Victorian era somehow seems "Christmasy," due almost entirely (I have to assume) to Dicken's A Christmas Carol. This is especially striking since Dickens wrote so many other famous books as well; I mean, he had Great Expectations, Oliver Twist AND David Copperfield to associate Victorians with orphaned urchins, but A Christmas Carol is only one novel. Very impressive, Charles. Very impressive.
Anyway, this got me thinking about favorite Christmas stories of mine. As much as I like Dickens, his holiday opus is not among them. Actually, I couldn't think of that many cherished holiday tales, which made me a little sad. Granted, I'm not at all religious, and cherish Christmas in a wholely personal, secular way that involves having a leisurely morning sharing hand-crafted and/or lovingly selected gifts with my family, then eating a delicious breakfast involving the kind of sugary pastries in which I normally don't indulge myself. Even so, it seems like there should be some Christmas tale I hold particularly dear. "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote is devastating, and almost makes it into the "cherished" category, but, for some reason, falls just short. It's so, so sad; I can't often summon up the moral fortitude to read it. Then there's that famous part of Little Women that makes everyone think of the book as a Christmas story even though it's really not - the one where Jo cuts her hair and Amy exclaims "Oh Jo! Your one beauty!" But as hilarious as this line is, the scene as a whole is, I have to admit, a little bit saccharine for me.
Which is strange, because, like so many people, I can't get enough of Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life. Equally compelling, though very different, was Paul Auster's Christmas story at the end of the film Smoke, the one the Harvey Keitel character tells so mischeivously to the William Hurt character, and you're not sure if he's made the whole thing up or not. Two extremely memorable Christmas stories on film - so why couldn't I think of any truly astounding Christmas stories in books?
Then I remembered: the prolonged Christmas season section in John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany is definitely my favorite holiday sequence of all time. I empathize so much with serious little Owen, offended at all the petty breaches of orthodoxy in the church pageant. I love his protestations that "NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THE TURTLEDOVES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE" and his indignant response to the persistant casting of the prettiest little girl to play the Virgin: "WHAT DOES PRETTY HAVE TO DO WITH IT? WHO SAYS MARY WAS PRETTY?" I love his audacity in taking control of the entire production through sheer force of personality, and casting himself as the Baby Jesus. I love the sense that Owen was meant for more interpretation of more serious texts and parts in more serious prophecies, but what he gets is the line "The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes," and he insists on lowing cattle because that's what the song says. I love that Mr. Fish, the aficionado of amateur theatricals, is so impressed with Owen's other performance, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the Christmas Carol, that he comes to see Owen play the Baby Jesus even though Fish has never been to a pageant before, and he has to be told that it won't include the crucifixion: "THEY DIDN'T NAIL HIM TO THE CROSS WHEN HE WAS A BABY!"
And then there is all the completely Irving-esque sexual tension between the lumpy girl playing Mary and Owen, and the tyrannical ex-stewardess organizer Barb Wiggin and Owen, and his heartbreaking expulsion of his parents from Christ Church, and Dan's satisfying telling-off of controlling Barb Wiggin after she leaves the poor announcing angel hanging in the rafters, having thrown up on himself. And Mr. Fish's enthusiasm for all of the "barbaric" and "primitive" aspects of the pageant, which everyone else views as disastrous mistakes but which he, with typical English-major acuity, thinks are fascinating interpretations of the story of Christ's birth. The whole thing is just the right mix of hilarious, political and heart-breaking, which is, now that I come to think of it, usually what hooks me on Irving's books in the first place.
'"I'm just not sure when to genuflect, and all that nonsense!" Mr. Fish said, chuckling.
"NOT ALL EPISCOPALIANS GENUFLECT," Owen announced.
"I don't," I said.
"I DO," said Owen Meany.
"Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't," Dan said. "When I'm in church, I watch the other people - I do what they do."
Thus did our eclectic foursome arrive at Christ Church."