Putting aside the obvious and very traditional, what literary work do you urge to be read aloud on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Why?
Clarinda Harriss is chair of the Towson University English Department. She has published three collections of poetry and contributed to scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many magazines. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.
"The Cherry Tree Carol" -- an anonymous song, medieval, alive and well in Appalachia and audible on any number of bluegrass or roots recordings. Donkey-borne Mary gets a craving for cherries (in midwinter, of course); Joseph, footsore, weary and more than a little testy from the whole paternity situation, loses it for a moment and tells Mary, "Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee," and hey the Father gives him a good comeuppance (the trees bow down so Mary doesn't even have to reach up). Now here comes the best part: The last stanza ends, "And Mary gathered cherries while Joseph stood around." Pretty much sums up a guy's sense of cosmic uselessness while his consort is having a baby; you don't have to belong to any particular religion, or even be religious, to appreciate it.
Terry Teachout is the author of The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, just out from HarperCollins.
Were I to find myself at a very literary party, I'd read a story from Max Beerbohm's A Christmas Garland, in which the best of all possible parodists imagines how an assortment of famous and once-famous authors might have written about Christmas.
The funniest piece in the book is "P.C., X, 36," by "R*d**rd K*pl*ng," the tender tale of how two over-zealous bobbies caught Santa Claus climbing out of a chimney on Christmas Eve and hustled him off to the station house: "It's my dooty ter caution yer that wotever yer say now maybe used in hevidence against yer, yer old sinner. Pick up that there sack, an' come along o' me." I love Kipling, but Beerbohm had a pitch-perfect ear for his various flaws, and "P.C., X, 36" nails them all with eerie skill.
Paul Duke is a senior commentator for public broadcasting and a veteran political reporter. He began his career as an Associated Press writer and later was congressional correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and NBC. For 20 years, he was moderator of PBS' Washington Week in Review. He recently received the John Chancellor award for lifetime journalistic excellence.
My offering for a favorite Christmas reading of a literary work is The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, a truly lovely tale that dramatizes the holiday spirit. This is what I would say: This is a story that warms the holiday heart because it demonstrates a struggling young couple's deep devotion to one another. In a touching act of sacrificial love, and unbeknownst to the other, each gives up a treasured possession to make the other happy.
Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for The Hudson Review and The New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar.
As an antidote to too many Hallmark cards and a reminder that changes of heart can begin anywhere, I recommend "Sir, no man's enemy, forgiving all" from W. H. Auden's first book, Poems (1930). It is also listed as #7 in the Vintage Selected Poems. Here it is, in full:
Sir, no man's enemy, forgiving all
But will his negative inversion, be prodigal:
Send to us power and light, a sovereign touch
Curing the intolerable neural itch,
The exhaustion of weaning, the liar's quinsy, And the distortions of ingrown virginity.
Prohibit sharply the rehearsed response
And gradually correct the coward's stance;
Cover in time with beams those in retreat
That, spotted, they turn though the reverse were great;
Publish each healer that in city lives
Or country houses at the end of drives;
Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at New styles of architecture, a change of heart.
Steve Proctor is The Sun's deputy managing editor for features and sports.
Stories that beg to be read aloud on Christmas Eve -- beyond the tried and true -- are rare finds, but the tiny Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co. delivers one with Howard Bahr's Home for Christmas. This little gem was published in 1997, the same year Bahr made a sensation with his debut novel The Black Flower. In 49 pages of lush, lyrical prose it tells the story of two children orphaned by the Civil War and their emotional journey to understanding what it means to be home for the holidays.
Ken Fuson is a former staff writer for The Sun, and has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at The Des Moines Register.