Charles Dickens started it all when he wrote about the slow unclenching of the miser’s heart when infused with the real spirit of Christmas, that “… good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely …”
Ebenezer Scrooge’s story, like that of so many Christmas tales that followed once Dickens set that particular market trend (!), is one of redemption—a man brought up hard against his own selfish shortcomings and who changes for the better as a result. Now then, I am not religious or spiritual, so I’m separating from the word ‘redemption’ any sense of being saved from sin. But redemption from error and mistakes and being saved from a general turning away from life and hope and possibility? Oh yes. That sort of redemption, embracing new opportunities and letting shut-up hearts open, seems to me to be the theme of every Christmas story I’ve ever read.
Any story worth its salt will have at its core something that tests the main character(s), something against which they must struggle to find a resolution, and which will push them to change: the character arc. By asking a series of questions, a writer charts the internal transformation of the character. What problem does Character X have to solve? How does it affect them? What to they have to do to solve it? How will it change them? How much will they have changed, who will they be, at the end of the story?
Christmas stories are no exception except the character is surrounded by all the trappings of the season, with Christmas trees and sparkly baubles, holly and ivy, silver tinsel and fairy lights, festive food and drink. All the things that go to make up that “good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time”. And, usually, no matter what the external plot, the character arc is about the opening up of a once-clenched heart. Will determinedly-single Joe respond to Simon’s admiration when they meet during the search for the perfect Christmas tree? Will career-driven interior designer Jenny reconnect to high-school lover Alice, when she’s called back to her home town to redecorate an upscale hotel in time for a Christmas opening? Will local sheriff Jake, lonely after the death of his husband, fight his attraction to Ben, when Ben’s the main suspect in the Unseasonable Murder of Father Christmas?
Yes, there’s a certain sameness about what’s happening to the characters. They’ve been a little damaged by life, closed themselves off from it, and their arc during the course of the story is to redeem themselves from that error, to see that isolating themselves equals more damage and to open up their hearts. So far, so very Charles Dickens.
And you know, I love it. I love reading Christmas books. I am, I admit, a romantic. There’s something immensely satisfying about taking that journey with the characters, sharing the freeing of hearts and minds to a more hopeful future. And when that character’s journey is spiced with winter, with the scent of evergreen and gingerbread and cinnamon, and accompanied by twinkly lights on the Christmas tree, then even this Scrooge has her heart forcibly unclenched and can feel the warmth and happiness.
You don’t have to be religious—of *any* religion—to find those sorts of story a perfect antidote to this (sometimes quite horrid) world. They allow us to put it to one side for an hour or two, and right at this moment that’s the perfect Christmas gift for many of us. Good stories, well told. Good stories that offer hope and peace. Good stories that are full of understanding, generosity and healing. Good stories that engage the emotions of the readers. Good stories that entertain.
I don’t know any author who doesn’t aspire to achieve that with their work. I certainly do!
So, which Christmas stories do you love and recommend? Share titles here. I’ll start with a few I’ve enjoyed recently:
Serena Yates’s “Mistletoe Science”
Sarah Madison’s “Holiday House Swap”
BG Thomas’s “Grumble Monkey and the Department Store Elf”
And one cued up on the Kindle that I’m looking forward to: Joe Cosentino’s “A Perfect Gift”
Do share your favourites in the comments. And in the meantime, I hope you’re having a great holiday, however you choose to celebrate it.
Anna was a communications specialist for many years, working in various UK government departments on everything from organizing conferences for 10,000 civil servants to running an internal TV service. These days, though, she is writing full time, mainly old-school science fiction and steampunk. She lives deep in the Nottinghamshire countryside with her husband and the Deputy Editor, aka Molly the cockerpoo.