Christmas is right around the corner and, whether you celebrate it or not, you’re probably being inundated with advertisements, movie marathons, and television shows that portray Christmas at its best. We are shown a constant stream of narratives about people returning home, scrooges transforming into Santa Claus, and families sitting near the fireplace. These Christmas narratives date back to the Victorian era, and are meant to do one thing: make us feel nostalgic.
Emily Kingery, a PhD candidate at Northern Illinois University, is writing her dissertation on the popularity of Christmas narratives. In her research, she has devised a way to tell what Christmas stories are the most popular based on one simple criteria — how often they are anthologized.
In short, she has taken a look at more than 100 Christmas anthologies and counted how many times certain stories show up, and in what form. Often, some of the stories are shortened or appear in pieces. The pieces that are selected for anthologies can be just as telling as the entire stories themselves, because it shows us what we want to see when it comes to Christmas stories.
According to Kingery, our culture is far more interested in Santa than in Jesus. She says of one of her favorite stories, “The Mouse and the Moonbeam” by Eugene Field, “It’s a two-part story, nearly always truncated to the just the first part (“The Mouse Who Didn’t Believe in Santa Claus”) in anthologies. The moonbeam part focuses on the Nativity and life of Christ and is more solemn in tone, and it’s been interesting for me to see how often it’s been left off in favor of the more exciting Santa part.”
Even though it is one of Kingery’s favorites, “The Mouse and the Moonbeam” didn’t make it to the top 5 list of popular Christmas stories according to her research. It may not surprise you to find that the number one most anthologized Christmas story begins with a very familiar line:
Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The number one most popular Christmas story, anthologized 31 times, is “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore. Coming in at number two is, perhaps not surprisingly, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens with 28 appearances. Number three is a Hans Christian Andersen favorite, “The Fir-Tree” which appears 24 times.
There is a tie for number four between excerpts from “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame and an editorial by Francis P. Church entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?”. Coming in at number five is one of my personal favorites, “Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry with 15 appearances.
You probably recognize and have enjoyed at least one of the stories on this list, so what makes them so popular and timeless? We probably remember Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” because we see it so much; it is easily anthologized due to its many genres — it is a carol, a fairy tale, a ghost story, and a conversion narrative all in one.
We take pleasure in others like “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Moore because of its childlike meter and rhyme scheme. According to Kingery, though, the real reason we love these stories is because they portray Christmas as a magical season, “whether that means literal magic (the feats of Santa Claus) or magical in the sense that it has a kind of spiritually transformative power (Scrooge’s conversion). There is a sense in all of these, too, that Christmas is the best time of year for those who don’t have a lot of power — children and the lower classes. Acts of charity and kindness are all the more magical, then, for those who are in a position to feel deep gratitude.”
As a society, we do tend to love stories that portray magic and evoke a sense of nostalgia, but are Christmas stories here to stay? Kingery says yes, though they may take on a different form.
In her opinion, “In the 19th century, there was an explosion of Christmas literature, especially in periodicals, and in the 20th century our attention has turned more toward music and film as technological innovations in other media have become more mainstream. But there is still a ton of Christmas literature produced each year — and an increasing tendency toward memoir. Not sure if any of it will enjoy lasting popularity, but the essence of Christmas is nostalgia; so, if we’re always looking back to Christmas-as-it-used-to-be, we’ll always have stories to tell about how it once was (usually made perfect in our imaginations).”
For a list of the top 20 Christmas stories and more information about Kingery’s research, click here.
Photo Credit: Maurizio Zanetti