Grinches and reindeer may dominate our annual holiday folklore, yet celebrated American writers also produced seasonal gems less well known today. While these authors’ definitive literary works often overshadow minor prose, resurrect their unusual holiday tales to refresh your December reading list.
Commence the Christmas countdown with the following twelve stories.
The horror fiction author, known for his bloodcurdling pulp stories, produced much cheerier poems during the holiday season. In fact, he often wrote silly Christmas poems for his neighbors (and their cats!), embracing his sentimental side:
The cottage hearth beams warm and bright, / The candles gaily glow; / The stars emit a kinder light / Above the drifted snow. / Down from the sky a magic steals / To glad the passing year, / And belfries sing with joyous peals, / For Christmastide is here!
While The Wonderful Wizard of Oz immortalized the children’s book author, Baum also wrote extensively about the mythology of Christmas. In 1904, he published this magical short story in the women’s magazine Delineator. It begins:
Santa Claus lives in the Laughing Valley, where stands the big, rambling castle in which his toys are manufactured. His workmen, selected from the ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, live with him, and every one is as busy as can be from one year’s end to another.
The Little Women author wrote a counterpart of Ebenezer Scrooge in the form of a young girl who learns lessons ingratitude akin to the infamous Charles Dickens character in “A Christmas Carol.” Published for schoolchildren in 1908, the mystical parable opens with its surly heroine:
“I’m so tired of Christmas I wish there never would be another one!” exclaimed a discontented-looking little girl, as she sat idly watching her mother arrange a pile of gifts two days before they were to be given
The Jazz Age writer of The Great Gatsby proves his theme of pitting moral values against affluence emerged in his prep school years. At sixteen, he published this short story about an aristocrat’s comic struggles to give away twenty-five dollars to charity:
Miss Harmon was responsible for the whole thing. If it had not been for her foolish whim, Talbot would not have made a fool of himself, and–but I am getting ahead of my story. It was Christmas Eve. Salvation Army Santa Clauses with highly colored noses proclaimed it as they beat upon rickety paper chimneys with tin spoons.
The Breakfast at Tiffany’s author details an autobiographical portrait of a peculiar, yet heartwarming friendship and their holiday rituals. Seven-year-old Buddy spends fours days baking fruitcakes and sipping whiskey with his distant cousin, the elderly Miss Sook Falk:
Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”
The Pulitzer Prize winner known for her depictions of frontier life published this yuletide short story under her pseudonym Elizabeth L. Seymour in an 1896 issue of Home Monthly. The narrative chronicles a thief’s path to forgiveness with a twist ending. It opens with:
TWO very shabby looking young men stood at the corner of Prairie avenue and Eightieth street, looking despondently at the carriages that whirled by. It was Christmas Eve, and the streets were full of vehicles; florists’ wagons, grocers’ carts and carriages. The streets were in that half-liquid, half-congealed condition peculiar to the streets of Chicago at that season of the year.
The American humorist describes his gig as Crumpet the Elf in an essay he read on National Public Radio in 1992. He later published it in his collection Holidays On Ice. The modern classic riffs on the department store’s holiday frenzy from his character’s vantage point:
I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform. I’ve spent the last several days sitting in a crowded, windowless Macy’s classroom, undergoing the first phases of elf training.
The three wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem dominates the traditional biblical plot, but Van Dyke traces the steps of the elusive fourth wise man in his story. Reminiscent of Homer’s Odyssey, the priest of the Magi embarks on a long journey through foreign lands:
The many-coloured terraces of black and orange and red and yellow and green and blue and white, shattered by the convulsions of nature, and crumbling under the repeated blows of human violence, still glittered like a ruined rainbow in the morning light.
The author of The Good Earth strays from her Chinese canon in this short story published in 1955. The main character, now an adult, recalls his youthful trials to give his father the perfect Christmas gift in a reckoning of familial love’s endurance:
Fifty years ago, and his father had been dead for thirty years, and yet he waked at four o’clock in the morning. He had trained himself to turn over and go to sleep, but this morning it was Christmas, he did not try to sleep. Why did he feel so awake tonight?
An icon of Chicana literature and The House on Mango Street author also wrote this 1990 short story about theGonzalez family celebrating Christmas in Texas. They receive a large present, and their imaginations swirl to predict its contents while waiting to open it:
Each night he imagined the box held something different. The day before yesterday he guessed a new record player. Yesterday an ice chest filled with beer. Today the papa sat with his bottle of beer, fanning himself with a magazine, and said in a voice as much a plea as a prophecy: air conditioner.
The New Yorker and noted satirist published this Christmas vignette alongside “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He documents his eccentric English hosts to encourage his Puritanical American contemporaries to adopt endearing Victorian holiday traditions:
We were ushered into this banqueting scene with the sound of minstrelsy, the old harper being seated on a stool beside the fireplace and twanging, his instrument with a vast deal more power than melody. Never did Christmas board display a more goodly and gracious assemblage of countenances; those who were not handsome were at least happy, and happiness is a rare improver of your hard-favored visage.
Although his famed Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi” continues to enchant generations of readers with its surprise ending about love and sacrifice, Henry wrote another lesser-known holiday tale with an equally unexpected end. His witty account addresses the tradition:
Now, a Christmas story should be one. For a good many years the ingenious writers have been putting forth tales for the holiday numbers that employed every subtle, evasive, indirect and strategic scheme they could invent to disguise the Christmas flavor.
– Jennifer Draper