Review: Merry’s Christmas

When your car has just been repossessed, and you don’t know where you can scare up the rent, getting a second job is a very obvious thing to do. A second job as a Christmas coordinator is not so obvious.

Especially for Merry Hopper. Abandoned by her parents on Christmas Day, she had never experienced a real family Christmas. Nor did she ever coordinate a Christmas for anyone besides herself and her cat. When you really consider it, her only qualification for being a Christmas coordinator was that her name was Merry.

And, I suppose, that she loved Christmas.

Merry’s Christmas is a romance. Romance is not my usual genre, but I have enjoyed romance novels when they cross with other genres: historical fiction (Masquerade, by Nancy Moser) and comedy (Boo Hiss, by Rene Gutteridge). Merry’s Christmas is in the style of comedy – and a Christmas tale.

Merry’s Christmas is deeply felt, yet lighthearted; there is no real villain. The characters felt real, and even the third point in the love triangle is ultimately a person who can be understood. I would like to highlight two particular triumphs in this area: first, the nine-year-old boy, because he seems like a nine-year-old boy. It is a challenge for adults to write children, to find that level of intelligence and maturity truly appropriate. Susan Rohrer doesn’t trip on that snag.

The second, much more significant triumph is the heroine of the story, Merry. She’s a thoroughly sympathetic character: highly intuitive on an emotional level, a born nurturer, determinedly sweet – and yet there is something hardy, and almost heroic, in how happy she can be after all her troubles. Angst is prevalent in modern fiction; I appreciate the unfussy sadness of this heroine – and even more that she can pluck up her heart to be grateful and even optimistic.

Merry’s Christmas was first written as a screenplay, and you can tell. The brisk, efficient set-up puts one in mind of a movie. The style is gently omniscient, and does not – as many people say of the omniscient viewpoint – compromise closeness to the characters.

The screenplay-origin may also be seen in the chief failing of the novella: a little too much telling instead of showing. Skilled actors convey emotions and thoughts through tones of voice, expressions, body language, a glance in the right direction at the right time. Novelists, too, must give indirect but clear signals.

Merry’s Christmas is a hopeful story, as all Christmas stories ought to be. Its characters are winning, its plot simple as it aims, straight and true, for the heart. Merry’s Christmas turns on incredible changes of fortune – and that, in a Christmas-tide story, is stirringly appropriate.

I received a review copy of this novella from the author.

The Founder of the Time

I have been continuing my read of Christmas Books of Dickens. There is a genre of Christmas entertainment – songs, movies, stories – that has been called “Christmas bubblegum”: high on sugar, low on substance. Dickens’ stories, for all their sentiment, could never be classed in it. They have too much sadness, and too much religion. (Dickens also has an unaccountable tendency to detour into ghost stories while telling Yule-tide tales.)

Here is a brief passage from “The Seven Poor Travellers” (available in full here):

Going through the woods, the softness of my tread upon the mossy ground and among the brown leaves enhanced the Christmas sacredness by which I felt surrounded. As the whitened stems environed me, I thought how the Founder of the time had never raised his benignant hand, save to bless and heal, except in the case of one unconscious tree. By Cobham Hall, I came to the village, and the churchyard where the dead had been quietly buried, ‘in the sure and certain hope’ which Christmas-time inspired. What children could I see at play, and not be loving of, recalling who had loved them! No garden that I passed was out of unison with the day, for I remembered that the tomb was in a garden, and that ‘she, supposing him to be the gardener,’ had said, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.’ In time, the distant river with the ships came full in view, and with it pictures of the poor fishermen, mending their nets, who arose and followed him, – of the teaching of the people from a ship pushed off a little way from shore, by reason of the multitude, – of a majestic figure walking on the water, in the loneliness of night. My very shadow on the ground was eloquent of Christmas; for did not the people lay their sick where the mere shadows of the men who had heard and seen him might fall as they passed along?

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, in the Name of Him who “made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

Christmas Books of Dickens

Two nights ago, in honor of the season, I picked up Christmas Books of Dickens, a volume I bought at my library’s fall book sale. The first story was, of course, A Christmas Carol.

I last read A Christmas Carol a year or two ago, and reading it again I was struck anew by what a masterpiece it is. I’m not referring only to the ingenuity of the story, or the immortal characters; I don’t mean only Dickens’ wonderful tribute to the Christmas season, or his incomparable excoriation of greed, selfishness, and the love of Mammon. The whole story flows with skill. Dickens’ mastery flashes out in a thousand glints.

There is the eloquence of the dialogue. So much of it is profound. When Scrooge begs Marley to “speak comfort” to him, the Ghost replies, “I have none to give. It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.” You could stack up ten standard Hollywood movies that, all put together, did not carry as much meaning as that one reply.

Where not elevated by truth, the dialogue is still elevated by intelligence. Even Scrooge, irascible old doubter, makes his rejoinders well. “You,” he tells Marley’s Ghost, “may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

There is Dickens’ use of adjectives. An old rule of thumb in writing is that when it comes to adjectives, less is more. Dickens did not obey this rule. Nineteenth century literature is probably more suited to abundant adjectives than twenty-first century literature. But more than that, Dickens was a great writer; he knew better than to waste words. Consider the string of adjectives he applied to Scrooge: “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”

Each word sharpens the portrait of the old sinner.

Then there is Dickens’ ability to give character to almost anything he turns his pen to. There are many excellent examples of this in A Christmas Carol, but I will limit myself to three. For the first, Scrooge’s home, to the extent he could be said to have one: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with the other houses, and forgotten the way out again.”

Second is Dickens’ description of Norfolk Biffins (a kind of apple): “There were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”

Finally, Scrooge himself: “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage to him in only one respect. They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.”

Lastly, there is Dickens’ subtle humor: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot – say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance – literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.”

Now my last quotation, when Scrooge is waiting for the Ghost of Christmas Present to appear: “Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being  only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it.”

As such an old and well-loved story, A Christmas Carol can be read online. Merry Christmas – ’tis the season.

The Pardon of Christmas

Here is a Christmas poem by G. K. Chesterton. Comments at the end.

The Pardon of Christmas

Roofed in with the snows of December

It returns, it is left to us yet

    A day: with one day to remember.

    A day: with long days to forget.

Undeterred, recurring, soft-footed

It comes down o’er the world, as today,

To the work, unfulfilled, uncompleted,

The house where the builders delay.

It sinks from the stars and sits throned

On the roofs, as the angel of snow,

Watching pale, as the prophets are stoned

With the stones that were red long ago.

Though our evangel hedges and palters,

Though the earth-land be rooted in hate,

Though Caiaphas stand at our altar

And Lazarus gasp at our gate.

Though the gold still clings for our cursing,

It returns: it remains to us yet

    A day, with one day to remember,

    A day with dark days to forget.

To forget eighteen centuries wasted

Thick squandered in madness and guilt,

With the wine of love standing half-tasted,

The city of promise half-built.

Join hands. Still we surely may gain it.

The King does redeem and renew.

O kings ye have lauded and slain it!

Ye have failed Him: and have we been true?

Ye have shackled and guarded the door,

Ye have hoarded the key in your grips.

Ye have taken the hope from the poor

And the word of God from his lips.

Ye have spat on and stricken the meek,

Ye have fenced in and rented his way.

Ye are red with the blood of the weak—

Join hands; join hands for today.

Though church councils betray and out-vote Him;

Though His little ones gasp for our gain;

Though the rich, that cried “traitor” and smote Him

Cry “Holy”, and smite Him again.

We have all done the sin: we have spoiled Him,

Thorn-crowned Him, and mocked and defiled,

Join hands, join hands—do it softly,

To-night He is glad, and a child.

I know this is a somber poem for a merry season. Yet I think that Christmas is both more serious and more joyful than we usually remember. It is the terribleness of the world, of our own sin, that makes Jesus’ coming so inexpressibly wonderful. The first Christmas is far away, but its promise, and our need, could not be closer. Christmas doesn’t come in spite of our failures and sins; it comes because of them. That our Savior is born is old news, but it is as good and joyful as on the day the angel proclaimed it.

In Defense of a Commercial Racket

Recently, I’ve been having a recurring thought: Christmas is coming. This is followed by another recurring thought: I have to start Christmas shopping.

Here I am, victim of the commercial racket they’ve made of Christmas.

Every year we hear about the commercialization of Christmas. It’s practically a Yuletide tradition. The sentiment is entrenched in the sixty-year-old classic Miracle on 34th Street: “Make a buck, make a buck…”

This is one Yuletide tradition I don’t join. I can’t get behind the “commercial racket” chorus. For one thing, it’s never been clear to me exactly what the problem is. What is “commercialization”? Material things trumping the spiritual (but wouldn’t that be materialism)? Is it people spending too much money? People making too much money? People making and spending money, period? As C. S. Lewis’ old teacher used to say, “Please clarify your terms.”

Sometimes it seems there’s a subterranean feeling that the junction between commerce and Christmas dirties up the holiday. This is one idea I am ready to completely deny. If we are going to celebrate Christmas, we are going to spend money on it. Someone is going to have to sell us the ham and eggnog and tree and gifts. I see no reason to be unhappy that businesses are angling to provide that service and make that buck. Sure, they’re making a profit on Christmas. And doctors make a profit on sick people, and dentists make a profit on people with toothaches, and grocery stores make a profit on hungry people.

Of course, trying to convince people to buy things they don’t want or can’t afford – the old sins of business – are always with us. And there is no doubt that some marketers can use Christmas rather cheaply. But once we get to specific criticisms, we’ve put down the broad brush of commercialization to please clarify our terms.

What’s even worse than the broad brush of commercialization is the hammer of the “commercial racket”. Rackets are, after all, the province of con men, frauds, and the Mafia. Are people who use the term simply overstating the case? Or do they really mean that the public is bribed, intimidated, or tricked into Christmas shopping by commercial interests? Are they saying that our traditions of gift-giving, feasting, and decorating were invented by capitalists looking for a profit?

There have been people who think the whole holiday is more or less a capitalistic scheme – people besides Lucy van Pelt. And so I end with a quotation:

If a man called Christmas Day a mere hypocritical excuse for drunkeness and gluttony, that would be false, but it would have a fact hidden in it somewhere. But when Bernard Shaw says that Christmas Day is only a conspiracy kept up by Poulterers and wine merchants from strictly business motives, then he says something which is not so much false as startling and arrestingly foolish. He might as well say that the two sexes were invented by jewellers who wanted to sell wedding rings. G. K. Chesterton