Timothy Collins offers a list of seasonal literature that illuminates the holidays’ deep connections to rural and pastoral history. And, best of all, placing these books under your tree is one free click away.
The holiday season that includes Christmas and Solstice is deeply embedded in our lives, an expression of our fears and worries about the dark and our hopes and dreams about the light.
Even a culture dominated by technology, commercialism and widespread discontent can create possibilities for myth, mystery and magic, and, for some, deep religious meaning. Whether you view the holidays through the lenses of Christianity or some other perspective, these days are a time of stories that reveal something about human struggles, imagination, potential and triumphs.
The deepest wellsprings of this season flow from our rural and pastoral history. As time has passed, holiday stories have incorporated different traditions of faith and fantasy.
One of the beauties of the ever-present technologies in our lives is the ready access to antique holiday literature on the web. My tablet is loaded with old, public-domain holiday stories.
Reading is a great way to pass the dark nights of the season in the Northern Hemisphere. Maybe you’ll want to share one or two of these short books with your family or friends. I’ve included a short bibliography at the end. Many, but not all of these books, have rural and small-town settings. Here are some I’ve read. Enjoy:
The First Christmas Tree, Henry Van Dyke, 1897
It is 722 in Europe. The Western Roman Empire is long gone. Yet, the influence of the Church at Rome is spreading throughout the Frankish Empire and its wild regions, which are inhabited by pagans who worship ancient Gods such as Thor. St. Boniface, who will become the patron saint of woodsmen, is a Benedictine monk. He seeks out the pagans on the Solstice to show them the ways of Christianity and demonstrate the power of his God. Meanwhile, he also co-opts the evergreen for his religion.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, L. Frank Baum, 1902
Necile, a wood-nymph, raises a foundling human child in the great Forest of Burzee. The child, named Neclaus (the “little one” of his adoptive mother) has no contact with humans until Ak, the Master Woodsman, takes him on a magical journey around the world. Claus, who witnesses so much human suffering on the trip, decides to dedicate his life to making children happy. With the help of the mythical forest creatures, he moves to the Laughing Valley of Hohaho and becomes a toymaker.
Seriously, Claus is a conservationist. At the beginning of the second section, when it is time to build his house, he
… selected a number of fallen tree-trunks, which he began to clear of their dead branches. He would not cut into a living tree. His life among the nymphs who guarded the Forest had taught him that a live tree is sacred, being a created thing endowed with feeling. But with the dead and fallen trees it was different. They had fulfilled their destiny, as active members of the Forest community, and now it was fitting that their remains should minister to the needs of man.
Sequel: A Kidnapped Santa Claus
Christmas: A Story, Zona Gale, 1912
Ebenezer Rule’s factory in Old Trail Town closed more than a year ago, and it doesn’t look like it will reopen soon. Concerned that so many people went into debt buying unneeded and extravagant items last Christmas, a citizens’ group decides not to celebrate the holiday this year. And then, a child whose mother has died unexpectedly comes to town to live with his Aunt Mary Chava, who has never celebrated the feast.
The Wise Man’s Story, Albert Edward Bailey, 1916
Caspar, one of the three Wise Men, tells a tale of the prophecies that foretell the Christ child and meets the grown man again at the end of his life.
The Story of the Other Wise Man, Henry Van Dyke, 1895
Araban is the fourth Wise Man:
You know the story of the three wise men of the east, and how they travelled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem. But have you ever heard the story of the other Wise Man, who also saw the star in its rising, and set out to follow it, yet did not arrive with his brethren in the presence of the young child Jesus? Of the great desire of this fourth pilgrim, and how it was denied, yet accomplished in the denial; of his many wanderings and the probations of his soul; of the long way of his seeking, and the strange way of his finding, the one whom he sought — I would tell the tale as I have heard fragments of it in the hall of dreams, in the palace of the heart of Man.
Little Merry Christmas, Winifred Arnold, 1914
A surprise visit from Uncle Lemuel’s great niece brings happiness to a small town and a family.
Sample of Other Christmas Literature
Christmas Eve: A Legend of Little Russia, Nikolai Gogal, 1832
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843
The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang and Old Year Out and a New Year In, Charles Dickens, 1845
The Cricket on the Hearth, Charles Dickens, 1846
The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, Charles Dickens, 1848
A Christmas Tree, Charles Dickens, 1850
Christmas at the Beeches, Isabel Thompson Hopkins, 1866
Polly: A Christmas Recollection, Thomas Nelson Page, 1897
A Hired Girl, Edwin Asa Dix, 1900
Lace Camisole, L.B. Walford, 1900
While the Automobile Ran Down, Charles Battell Loomis, 1900
The Gift of the Magi, O.Henry, 1905
The Spirit of Christmas, Henry Van Dyke, 1905
For Christmas and the New Year, Edward Everett Hale, 1906
Little City of Hope, F. Marion Crawford, 1907
Broken Wings, Henry James, 1909
Beasley’s Christmas Party, Booth Tarkington, 1909
Sonny, A Christmas Guest, Ruth McEnery Stuart, 1911
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.