Christmas Then And Now

Six features, only some of them merry
7 stories

Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. And wonderful childhood memories. Those are the ideal of Christmastime. Ann Patchett remembered just such a Christmas story. "Toys, presents, letters, I let them go. But there hasn't been a Christmas Eve when I haven't rolled out for myself the story my father read to me, a happy memory of a cherished gift," she writes. "The details of the things that were difficult in life have fallen away from me, but the things I loved have stayed. The story is the best gift I have no record of."

But Christmas isn't a holiday for every American. Samantha Shapiro recalls growing up Jewish at Christmastime. "Christmas non-compliance--I'll call it Non-Christmas--took up far more time and energy than Hanukkah. In the Non-Christmas season, Christmas gifts could be given, parties attended and cookies brought, but all efforts had to be made to ensure that the wrapping paper, party outfits, and gift cookies contained as little Christmas symbolism as possible," she writes. "Frosty the Snowman was frequently a safe bet unless he was wearing some sort of Christmas-tree scarf; manger scenes were to be avoided at all costs. The Christmas windows at Macy's could be admired, but Christmas TV specials were forbidden. During Non-Christmas, if appropriately talked to, my mother would refrain from coming to school with a menorah and Hanukkah gelt and doing something embarrassing, but under no circumstances would she or my father consider a Hanukkah bush."

Adam Gopnik tells the story of the man whose birthday we're celebrating, though his conclusions may not sit well with the faithful.

Bob Worthington recounts a Christmas in Vietnam. "At the end of our two-hour trek, we could look forward to relaxing and enjoying a quiet Christmas Eve and then the next day, a Christmas cease-fire," he writes. "We celebrated Christmas in our bunker, but kept our radios on to monitor the advisory net and the local Marine nets. About midmorning, a Marine rifle company reported standing down in position in the boonies, not far from our camp, waiting out the cease-fire. A short while later, the company suddenly came under attack, and we listened helplessly as its commander repeatedly requested artillery fire on the attackers, only to be denied because of the mutually agreed-upon holiday truce."

Earl Shorris looked at the darker side of domestic Christmas. "There are murders and suicides enough at the Christmas season; the F.B.I. Uniform Crime Report documents the rise in violent crimes in the month of December," he writes. "But it is the violence wished and not done that concerns the clergy and the psychotherapists, for they know the difference between murder wished and murder done is very slim. From the beginning of December, the Sunday sermons try to deal with the problem, describing the season of brotherly love, peace on earth, goodwill toward men, proclaiming the Advent season a time of quiet and joyous anticipation."

George Saunders recalled a Christmas Party. "The way we knew it was festive was the garage had been cleared of dog shit. It had also been cleared of the dog, a constantly barking mutt who even bit Warner," he writes. "He bit Warner, he bit the shovel head Warner thrust at him, sometimes we came in and found him resolutely gnawing the leg of the worktable with a fine sustained rage. Tonight, festively, the dog was locked in the cab of a truck. Now and then, he would hurl himself against the windshield, and somebody, festively, would fling at the windshield a plastic fork or a hamburger bun. The other components of the festivity were a plate of cold cuts on the table where normally the gutters were pre-bent, a garbage can full of iced beer, and a cardboard box holding some dice."

And Paul Theroux visited Christmas Island for a most unusual vacation. "I had taken the once-a-week, three-hour Aloha Airlines flight from Honolulu — Hawaii is Christmas's nearest neighbor of any size. After I got my bearings I headed for the empty interior. I camped and kayaked alone at the eastern side of the lagoon, among the low salt bush. This shrub, a feebler cousin of the mangrove, covers the island but offers no shade. There is very little fresh water, either — persistent droughts are one of the reasons the island remained uninhabited for so long," he writes. "Perhaps it should have remained uninhabited. Christmas is a dazzling place, an arid Eden that even H-bombs could not destroy, a giant bracelet of coral dappled with the hardiest shrubs and a million coconut trees; a lagoon that is not only shaped like a palette, but a palette splashed with every shade of green and blue; and the most fearless and friendly birds I have ever seen."

Merry Christmas Island

Then what to my wondering eyes should appear, but an odd little atoll and great birds with no fear. A slightly unusual holiday in the far Pacific.

Dec 1998
From the Web

Chicago Christmas, 1984

How a holiday party went wrong.

Dec 2003
From the Web

Christmas in Israel

I never liked Christmas until I came to Israel. Certainly I lusted after it as any Jewish child does, a blind, guilty lust, heightened and deepened—like most well-developed desires—by the conviction that indulging in it would lead to the destruction of my soul. I knew almost nothing about Christmas except that it contained everything I wanted—toys and cookies—and could never be had. Christmas was treif, the opposite of kosher, and celebrating it was even more serious than marrying someone not Jewish.

Nov 2000
From the Web

How to Read a Christmas Story

Ann Patchett shares a holiday memory.
Dec 2009
From the Web

The Cowards of Christmas Eve

’Tis the season to be mugged, shot, stabbed, or beaten.

Dec 1973
From the Web

The Night the Viet Cong Stopped the War

Two days before Christmas 1966, a miracle of sorts unfolded in a small South Vietnamese village.

Feb 2010
From the Web

What Did Jesus Do?

Reading and unreading the Gospels.

May 2010