By Katie Lewis
Whether you personally celebrate it or not, Christmas is undeniably ubiquitous. The Halloween decorations come down, and the Christmas lights go up. Store speakers across the land pump out carols, new and old, and the sight of Santa Clause himself crops up everywhere. Though I know this post will go up after the holiday in question, I still find myself fascinated by the foothold the Holiday Season has on our culture.
Don’t Be a Scrooge!
Love it or hate it, Christmas dominates much of the last two months of the year. Beyond the nearly endless catalog of movies, just about every long-running television series puts out a holiday episode every year. Likewise, while there are whole books dedicated to the holiday, I find myself hard-pressed to think of an author who hasn’t at least mentioned Christmas, even in passing.
To examine what keeps bringing us back to this one holiday above all others, there’s one word that birthed the modern holiday craze. That’s right, I’m talking about Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. We all know the story. It’s been adapted more times than I care to count—including by both Disney and The Muppets! A curmudgeonly man with no “holiday spirit” is visited by three ghosts who convince him to change his ways.
But that’s not the whole story. When Dickens penned the novella, interest in Christmas had waned in Victorian England. Like many modern-day authors, Dickens’ main impetus for the story was to make money. Or that was how it started. Dickens is quoted as saying that he “wept and laughed, and wept again during the writing process.” He even circumvented the original purpose of turning a profit by paying out of pocket for the book’s publication and lowering the price. By the time A Christmas Carol hit print, he wanted to spread the spirit of it more than rake in the wealth.
Luckily for Dickens, the story was an instant success. Today, it’s intrinsically entangled with the holiday season. To be a “Scrooge” has become a noun in its own right in much the same way as “Google” became a verb. As a child, I was enchanted by Tiny Tim and even wanted to be him (never mind his crippling illness). Amazingly, the reason why Dickens and readers alike have been intrigued by this story for over 170 years is simpler than you might think.
Merry Christmas, Joseph Campbell
That’s right, the Hero’s Journey rears its head once again. Scrooge is our hero (though today, some would call him an anti-hero) and is guided on his journey to a better life by the three Christmas ghosts. The truth is, though, that the Hero’s Journey is the perfect blueprint for far more tales than just Dickens’.
Rudolph is bullied and outcast, only to guide Santa’s sleigh through the fog. Ralphie lusts after a Red Ryder BB Gun though he almost fulfills the “you’ll shoot your eye out prophecy.” The Grinch, another anti-hero, sets out to destroy Christmas entirely. In the end, he not only can’t go through with it but is forever changed as his “heart grew three sizes that day.”
The holiday stories that stick with us almost always have critical elements of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in them. The main character is chosen because their nose glows, stumble upon something magical, or simply view themselves as superior. Admittedly, not every Christmas story has mentors like A Christmas Carol. Still, they often shift to a more magical world and go through a series of trials. In the end, they surmount the final ordeal and emerge overjoyed by the “holiday spirit.”
Christmas is not a spiritual holiday for me. That said, my brother and I can recite Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story by heart. Every year I return to that story, and I have yet to grow tired of it. In that respect, there’s more than just the familiarity of the Hero’s Journey at work here. These stories not only speak to us but continue to do so for a lifetime. There’s a certain nostalgia imbued in them that allows us, as adults, to recapture the magic of the holidays as a child. In fact, in other countries, that nostalgia isn’t even reserved solely for stories about Christmas.
The Christmas Book Flood
In recent years, you might have heard of the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod. The word literally translates to “Christmas Book Flood” and refers to the practice of giving books on Christmas Eve. Family members gift books to each other and then spend the evening cracking the pages of their new gifts. In fact, this “book flood” is responsible for most of the Icelandic book purchases for the whole year!
Now, Jolabokaflod is undoubtedly a new tradition you might think about incorporating next year, but that’s not why I bring it up. Instead, I mention it because the unspoken thesis of this entire post has been how much reading is linked with the holiday season.
Dickens made a profit-taking risk he couldn’t actually afford on A Christmas Carol despite all odds. Most of us have memories of a parent or a grandparent reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas or even The Polar Express. Or maybe you read one of those books to your own children or grandchildren last week. Dickens revived the interest in Christmas for the Victorians, but he also started a revolution of sorts. One that carries on to this day as more and more authors are inspired to add their mark on Christmas literature.
As of writing this, I haven’t written anything revolving around the holidays myself, but I’m sure I will at some point in my career. If you’ve ever written a holiday tale or just want to share a seasonal favorite you like to read, please let me know!
Happy Holidays to all, and have a wonderful New Year!