Christmas! Somehow, whether you celebrate it or not, it’s a time when thoughts turn to a scene of love and charity, family and friends, and – of course, this being Malaysia – delicious feasts.
To get us all into the mood, Star2 asked around among arts and literary personalities what they remember reading about the season that stands out to them. And the findings are all rather heartwarming!
The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (1950)
Author: C.S. Lewis
Scene: A visit from Father Christmas
Chosen by: Anna Tan, author
At first, the Pevensies don’t understand what it means, but when Mr Beaver explains, “Didn’t I tell you that [the White Witch had] made it always winter and never Christmas?”, there’s this sudden shift from fear and fright into wonder and hope. It’s like the good thing you’ve always been waiting for is finally coming.
Father Christmas’s appearance is just the first sign that the White Witch’s evil spell is beginning to break. But he doesn’t just leave it there. He also gives them gifts that equip them to face the battle ahead: Peter’s sword and shield; Susan’s bow, arrows and horn; and Lucy’s bottle of healing cordial.
To me, that encapsulates the message and the meaning of Christmas: that no matter what you’re running from or where you’ve been, there’s hope. The Light is coming. And more than that, you’re now equipped to fight your battles and face the future with hope.
The Little Match Girl (1845)
Author: Hans Christian Andersen
Scene: The Little Match Girl strikes her matches to see three heart-warming but ultimately temporal visions of a warm stove, a roast goose, and a Christmas tree.
Chosen by: Christopher Ling, theatre director
The beloved tale of the little match girl and her increasingly grander visions of Christmas juxtaposes innocence and maternal love with the inescapable spectre of death. It is the bitterness of these themes that I personally respond to.
There are no happy endings here. Only the hard, honest reality of death in stark contrast to the cheer of the season. Beauty in death, life in the warm embrace of a loved one.
Two Under The Indian Sun (1966)
Authors: Jon Godden & Rumer Godden
Scene: Two British children experience two styles of Christmas in India: a personal family celebration and a more formal colonial style one.
Chosen by: Dipika Mukherjee, author
I love this scene because it is broken up into two parts: the children begin by hunting for presents that are hidden in the garden. The second part would be the giving of dollies, where the “dolli” is not a doll but from the Indian word dali, meaning an offering or a gift. There was a very Indian courtesy to this ritual “which meant every giver had to call personally and make his salaams”.
Christmas is presented as an “orgy of wonder” for the two British girls, but this scene is full of ethnographic details of the time. The rank and honour of the persons being saluted is coded in the mannerisms, and the clothes are described in gorgeous detail.
The British children are not allowed to keep the gifts they have been given from the community, but have to regift everything to the neighbourhood children. When the girls resist, their mother makes this into a learning moment: “As well as a time for getting, Christmas is a time for giving,” said Mam, and “You must not only learn to give, you must love giving”.
Wombat Divine (1995)
Author: Mem Fox
Scene: Wombat auditions for the Christmas play.
Chosen by: J.K. Asher, author
In the sunburnt Australian bush, the animals are auditioning for the Nativity play.
Author Mem Fox’s story breaks the mould of the usual commercial entrapment surrounding the birth of Jesus.
I absolutely love this delightful tale of how Wombat tries to audition for the parts of Angel Gabriel – he’s too heavy – Mary – too big – the Three kings – nah, too short … and so the rejections go on and on. Wombat’s heart begins to break but his lovely friends rally and the Christmas Spirit rises. “Cheer up Wombat, don’t lose heart….”
How true it is when Christmas comes upon us, our failures lurk behind the facade of gaudy lights, frenetic gift-giving and oh! such merry-making. This heart-warming anecdote steers us gently back to the true meaning of Christmas and the central character of this season, Baby Jesus.
That Mem Fox’s Wombat was based on a Down’s Syndrome child makes it even more poignant.
Christmas Eve (The New Yorker magazine, 1972)
Author: Maeve Brennan
Scene: The whole of this short story.
Chosen by: Marc De Faoite, author
Maeve Brennan is a reclaimed Irish writer, almost unknown in Ireland until after her death. Like most female Irish writers her work was long overshadowed by the reputation of her male compatriots, but hers doubly so since she lived most of her life in the United States.
On the surface Christmas Eve is a story of a Dublin family preparing for the arrival of Santa Claus. There is an almost fairytale simplicity to the writing, but that simplicity is deceptive. The story is deeply layered. Even though not a lot seems to happen and there is a huge amount going on.
Christmas Eve is evocative and nostalgic without being cloying or saccharine. It’s a story that invites reflection, fittingly part of what Christmas represents. That it was first published in 1972, the first Christmas I have any memory of, and set in Dublin to boot, give additional layers of personal resonance and significance to my reading of the story.
Goodnight, Mister Tom (1981)
Author: Michelle Magorian
Scene: Mister Tom opens up to young Willie Beech about his wife.
Chosen by: May Chong, poet and writer
This book made a great impression on me even if I was a little out of the target audience when I picked it up.
After young war evacuee Will/Willie Beech signs up for the school play, his widower guardian, Mister Tom, volunteers to play the organ for the adult carollers and opens up briefly to Will about what happened to his wife.
One discovers a hidden talent; the other returns, no matter how reluctantly, to a community he’d shut himself away from.
And at that point in the book, while things aren’t fully fixed yet, it’s one in many significant changes leading them both to become better, happier people.
Warm fuzzies for Christmas – who can ask for more?
Little Women (1869)
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Scene: Christmas morning in the March household.
Chosen by: Suzanne Marie Lazaroo, Star2 writer
This scene always sticks in my mind for its meaningfulness.
The Marches are not well off now that Father has left to fight in the war, so this Christmas lacks the bounty the four sisters have become used to.
Instead, Jo slips her hand under her pillow to find a book bound in crimson “… that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey”.
It’s never spelled out if it’s a Bible, or a copy of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, but I think it’s the former. All four sisters get a copy of the same book – Meg’s is green, Amy’s blue, and Beth’s, dove-coloured.
And then, to really add that warm glow: As they’re ready to sit down to Christmas breakfast, in comes beloved Marmee, to tell them of a poor family with just about nothing. And after just a second’s pause, all gladly give up their much-anticipated meal for this family.
I can’t think of a better snapshot of the real meaning of Christmas than that.
Gift Of The Magi (1905)
Author: O. Henry
Scene: When Jim and Della receive their Christmas gifts from each other.
Chosen by: Terence Toh, Star2 writer
When I first read this scene, which happens at the story’s end, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I don’t know if I want to spoil this story, but basically, this couple end up paying a price for the gifts they choose. It’s a wonderful ending that manages to be sweet, ironic, tragic and beautiful all at the same time.
What I’ve always taken from the story, however, is that it’s the people we spend time with that are really important, not presents. And that the best kind of giving is to give without any thought for yourself.
Anne Of Windy Poplars (1936)
Author: L.M. Montgomery
Scene: Anne invites bitter spinster Katherine Brooke home for Christmas, and they become friends.
Chosen by: Zen Cho, author
Makes for very cosy reading!