Christmas is reading time, and at best, reading aloud

December 20, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I have a necktie with a Christmas legend - the same words, over and over: "BAH HUMBUG." I have worn it, seasonally, off and on for perhaps 20 years. Many people don't notice. But those who do have always recognized the quote - its origin, who spoke it, and what it portended.

Is there a more widely known pair of words in all of literature? Or a better known declaration of the spirit of Christmas? The immortality of the ultimately good Ebenezer Scrooge rests, of course, on the fact that he, like billions of others, found his spirits uplifted, his heart nourished, his faith kindled, by Christmas. But the phrase's virtually universal recognition is, above all else, testimony of the truth that Christmas is a time for stories.

Do read this season. Read aloud, if only to yourself.

When I was a boy there was a lot of reading aloud. I remember it best around Christmas time, though it went on year around, with my father reading stories, novels and sometimes poetry, always with a sense of delight.

Much of that happened against the roar of a wood fire in the living room of a big, old house about 60 miles northwest of New York City. Now suburbanized, the territory then was surrounded by family farms and Appalachian forest, a fitting site for fantasies - and Christmases.

I remember a lot of Sherlock Holmes and a good deal of Dickens. There were other novelists and story-tellers - Maupaussant, Kipling, Waugh and many others.

I, and I believe my sister as well, were led to read this way, long before school schedules would have us do. But it never seemed educational or directive. It was joy, if occasionally that included some dozing off - a lapse that produced a degree of guilt but never criticism.

Among the short stories I best remember were those of H.H. Munro, who wrote as Saki, and William Sydney Porter, who signed himself O. Henry - and who was responsible for the story that beyond even "A Christmas Carol" came to epitomize Christmas reading in my childhood.

Doing hard time

For some reason, no fuss was made about Saki's pseudonymity. O. Henry was a story himself. Our father related, historically but not censuriously, that Porter wrote his earliest 14 stories in a Texas prison, serving hard time for bank embezzlement, and that he had died at 48 only 10 years out of jail, having never recovered from the shame. (He died of drink, of course, as had his father before him, but somehow I don't remember that part from childhood.)

So he wrote for not much more than 10 years, and in that time became probably the most popular short story writer in American history. There is a terrific amount of condescension these days about O. Henry's work, among literary lions and line-drawers. It doesn't fit well in culture theory or political purposefulness. But that doesn't matter to readers who love a good story, driven by O. Henry's wonderfully convincing humanity.

The O. Henry Christmas story that we never tired of hearing and rereading was, of course, "The Gift of the Magi." I asume you know it well. It is tattooed in the brain and heart of everybody I have ever talked with who has read it.

Most of us remember it, if not word for word (yes, I have known people to recite it - it's only about 2,500 words long), at least gesture for gesture, moment for moment. The concision of O. Henry's writing, and the daring of his endings are unforgettable, striking readers almost physically.

"The Gift of the Magi" is a simple story, of two young, naive and foolish people who were so generous of heart, so lovingly sacrificing, that they - their story - written in the first decade of this century, immediately became a classic Christmas text.

Any decent book store should have hard and soft cover collections of O. Henry's stories. If you read nothing else aloud this season, and haven't already memorized it, read that gift to the world.

But there is much else.

"A Christmas Carol" cannot practically be read aloud in one sitting. But it is immensely readable if taken in three evenings or so, depending on the natural attention span of the listeners and the artistry of the reader. It is not a crime to read from the beginning and then from the end, with a narrative bridge in the middle.

Seek your own

But be adventuresome. Shops are full of seasonal volumes.

This year, Andrew M. Greeley, who must be the most prolific priest in history, has a new edition of his modern Christmas fable out: "Star Bright!" (Forge/Doherty, 127 pages, $13.95). It's a book that will be more moving for believers than skeptics, but it's charming - Greeley has a fluent, beguiling pen.

On the other side of the spiritual divide is a remarkable exploration of Christmas symbols and rituals by Roger Highfield, "The Physics of Christmas" (Little, Brown, 224 pages, $20). Highfield is a distinguished British science writer. He brings both affection and wit to the subject - which is everything you have ever thought of about Christmas except what all the other books are about.

The thermodynamics of cooking a Christmas bird, the chemistry of overindulgence, the physics of snow, the psychology of post-Christmas depression - all are pursued entertainingly and respectfully - including how Santa Claus manages to get to 842 million households in one night, at a rate of two ten-thousandths of a second each.

Though delightful, Highfield's is not the ideal book for reading aloud by the tree on Christmas Eve. For that - well, embrace your own classic favorites.

Or, even if you are a nonbeliever, you would do well to read the first 14 verses of the second chapter of St. Luke - in the King James version. There may be pious and compelling reasons for the contemporary retranslations of the Bible, but none of them is literary. And Christmas is a time for literature.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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