The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories: from Hans Christian Andersen to Angela Carter

An anthology of great and not-so-great short stories

I finished this book on 30 December 2019, the very last book of the year, and the decade indeed. My reading journey of this book was a combination of being deeply moved, excited, and bored altogether. There are a lot of the stories that I love and would like to read it again next Christmas and the stories that I wish I would not spend my precious time on them.

However, it was a good book to read during Christmas time and I was not, in fact, a ruler that has an ultimate say of the value in each work. Some of you might enjoy a piece that I find boring; that is how human works.

So now, I would like to introduce you to my favourite stories in this anthology and give a brief note to each work to clarify the reason why I like it.

The favourites (ranked by the order of appearance in the book)

1. The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen
Here, Andersen turns the bright, heart-warming, and wonderful celebration into a quite dark and sad one. I was surprised that Jessica Harrison chose this story to be the first one. But it does make the reader second guess the cheerful nature of Christmas.
The story follows the fate of a fir tree who wishes to be used as a Christmas decoration but it is not pretty as the tree thought it would be. With this unfortunate life of the tree comes a valuable moral lesson for children as many of Andersen works are intended for the young reader. And it makes me wonder of how a child that was reading this would grow up to be?

2. A Christmas Party and a Wedding by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This, quite like the preceding story, does not convey much of the joyful celebration. It uses the celebration to shed light on a dark corner of the society, or to be precise, of Russian upper class. Dostoyevsky uses a Christmas party as a background and let his depiction of certain ways of interaction between people of different classes: a poor being picked on by a rich man, a snobby elite trying to impress a wealthier elite, and a very rich getting what he wants by using his influence. Christmas for Dostoyevsky was surly cold and dark.

3. Midnight Mass by Joaquim Maria Machado De Assis
This story is so deep that I don’t fully understand its sophisticated meaning at first. I mean, I know how the story goes and thought that it was just a conversation between a woman and a younger man. But when I searched for an analysis of the piece, I suddenly saw the hidden subtext of what’s really going on. And that amazed me so much.

4. The Legend of the Christmas Rose by Selma Lagerlöf
This is finally a Christmas story I expected to read! It is told in the form of a fairy tale. It’s a story about giving another chance to those rejected by society and deemed too evil to change. It has a memorable scene of magical tropical garden suddenly emerging in dark, cold winter night. It’s the story about redeeming oneself and has a new beginning. It’s a perfect Christmas tale!

5.   Noël by Irène Némirovsky
Némirovsky takes on a writing technique I seldom see. She tells the story as if she is describing a film. She cooperates film elements, the intro, the slow panning of the camera, the song in the background, the sudden changes of scene mid-conversation. It’s so refreshing and new to see a new way to tell a story. Though the plot is for me a little bit cheesy, I love the way this cheesy story is told.

6. One Christmas Eve by Langston Hughes
Christmas is a joyful time of the year indeed. But did African-American people in the period of segregation agree to that statement? One Christmas Eve will tell how hard it is to keep the spirit of Christmas while being a black person.

7. The Christmas Turkey by Mário de Andrade
This. Everyone. This. This short story touches me so much. As a son who loves his mother so much and always insists she having nice things when all she has ever got are second best/ hand-me-down stuff, I do sympathize with the narrator. In the story, the women of the house who always serve as housewives have to cook a turkey for Christmas but never get to taste it, for they were women. After the death of the father, head of the house, the good-for-nothing son suggests they have turkey for Christmas and encourage, despite their reluctance, them to eat, because he wants them to be truly free from his father patriarchal dominance in the house, and be happy for once. Christmas here is used as the moment when toxic masculinity is lifted off this family. What a merry celebration!

8. Christmas Morning by Frank O’Conner
An autobiography covering the event when O’Connor unexpectedly transgresses the border of childhood. One Christmas Morning will change the way he lives his life and his perception of his mother, and eventually, himself.

9. The Gift by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury projects a depiction of Christmas in the age when space travelling is common. Though it is a different time in a long future, Christmas preserves the love, care and warmth of a family still.

10. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
I cried while reading this. The short story is a real tear-jerker, a child’s memory of a warming past with someone important, and joyous mundane events. And boys, nothing shots right to your feeling like a happy childhood reminiscence narrated with a slight hint of an urge to go back to the good old days.

11. Christmas Eve by Sophia De Mello Breyner Andersen
It was a magical reading for me. A story of passing what you have forward during Christmas time tied with elements of the nativity. The scene in the forest painted by the author was so heavenly beautiful that while I was reading the final part, there was no sound but the song of We Three Kings ringing in my ears.

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