A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories – Review

A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories. Ed. Michele Slung. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006. Print.

A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories lives up to its title. In our English-speaking world, the term old-fashioned Christmas story suggests two tales above all: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (a.k.a. “The Night Before Christmas”) and A Christmas Carol. Both of them were written in the first half of the nineteenth century and represent a certain culture and tradition. So the 21 stories in A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories were all written some time between about 1850 and 1920 and evoke some of the same sense as those two classics.

There are a few of the sentimental Christmas stories, always popular, that one could see being adapted for the Hallmark Channel. There are a few that tell of Christmas-related conversions that echo Dickens’ classic. There are a few sad stories as well, notably “A Bird in the Snow” by Spaniard Armando Palacio Valdés that could have been written Ambrose Bierce with some help from Theodore Dreiser. The period that the editor drew from is reflected in some ghost stories involving haunted houses. Some have real literary quality.

Though more didactic than sentimental, William Dean Howells’ “Christmas Every Day” was made into a television film. It also reflects the pre-Coca Cola Santa Claus. Here Santa is still as described by Clement Clark Moore, an elf, not a full-size human. This story was the only one in this collection that the reviewer has seen in other collections. Slung tried to find an eclectic set of stories that readers were likely not familiar with.

One surprise was “Jack’s Sermon,” perhaps the most treacly of all the sentimental selections in this collection. Jack is a dog. It is a Christmas story. Need I say more? The surprise is that its author is Jacob Riis, known as a hard-boiled muckraking journalist. Even tough guys have tear ducts.

Here are a few of the other stories. While some are by writers who are not otherwise well known today, we will be mostly noting those who are.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Christmas Masquerade” is set like most of her stories in a small New England town. However, rather than a realistic tale like most of her work, it is a fairy tale. (One could argue that it is a fantasy, I suppose.) It is perhaps the most imaginative story in the collection, more like a Narnia story than “The Revolt of Mother.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Colonel’s Awakening” is a thought-provoking almost gothic tale of a post-Civil War Southern family trying to hang on to vestiges of the old ways. From the narrator’s perspective, it is both tender and pathetic. The war is over. Your side lost. Let’s move on.

Anthony Trollope’s “Not if I Know It” is fun. Trollope is mostly known for long sets of novels. This short story could fit right in with one of his family sagas of the British upper classes. According to some sources this is the last story Trollope wrote before he died. It has an ultimate theme of “good will to men,” but in a veddy, veddy British stiff-upper-lip manner.

“The Feast by J*s*ph C*nr*d” by Max Beerbohm is a sarcastic satire on—can you guess?—Joseph Conrad. It is all in good fun if you like black humor. Of all the stories, the Christmas setting in this one seems merely incidental or, perhaps, makes the humor that much darker.

W. A. Wilson’s “A Christmas White Elephant” is one of the sweet sentimental stories. Apparently W. A. Wilson is a nom de plume, for the editor could not find out anything about this author’s identity. The story was published in the 1880s, so it is not the same person who wrote The Accidental Hitman. All I could think of was Poe’s story “William Wilson”; that, however, is a creepy horror story. Still, William Wilson may be the name of a doppelganger in the Poe story, so maybe the writer thought it as an appropriate pseudonym.

O. Henry’s “Christmas by Injunction” is different O. Henry Christmas fare. His “The Gift of the Magi” is a Christmas story almost as well known as the two mentioned in the introduction above. This story involves tough guys from a mining town in the Wild West, but it has a typical O. Henry twist.

To this reader probably the biggest surprise and the most subtle story was “Rosa’s Tale” by Louisa May Alcott. The narrator uses the old legend, suggested in the last century by Thomas Hardy, that animals can talk on Christmas Eve. We then hear the story of what the horse Rosa told the narrator during that magic Christmas hour. Rosa has been sold and resold a number of times. She has been in races and survived the Civil War. She has lived with some very appealing families and also had a few cruel masters that she thought would kill her.

I have read some short stories by Alcott. They tend to be didactic. At least twice I have attempted to read Little Women but could not get through it. It is a favorite of my wife’s but must be too much of a chick book for me. “Rosa’s Tale” was really different. When we realize that Rosa’s tale is not so much that of a horse but the tale of an American slave, the story takes on a new and richer meaning.

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