Civil War Christmas Thomas Nast
Civil War Christmas, Thomas Nast 1863. Note Santa climbing into the chimney at top left and Santa in a sled pulled by reindeer at top right (public Domain).

Civil War Christmas, Thomas Nast 1863. Note Santa climbing into the chimney at top left and Santa in a sled pulled by reindeer at top right (public Domain).

Christmas holidays: the perfect time to find another reason – if one is ever needed – to settle into a warm corner on a winter’s night with a book. Perhaps with the wood stove on, the tree lights glinting in the corner and a warm mug at my elbow. I’ve been mulling on “the classic” Canadian Christmas story, and have found myself surprised, and then unsurprised, by the difficulty of locating one.

The Welsh have Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” The English have Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – and Twelfth Night. Denmark has Hans Christian Andersen’s somber parable “The Fir Tree.” America has Francis Church’s editorial “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” and O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” To top those off, they have my favourite example of whizz-banging wordplay, the midcentury classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. These are pieces that are read and loved every year, and adapted into different media.

Canada, I have come to conclude, has no overwhelmingly known classic on the same scale. Being someone who spends a good deal of time thinking about Canadian literature, I was brought up short on this one. I thought of a number of episodes, songs, poems and winter stories: Brebeuf’s “Huron Carol,” Anne’s delight at puffed sleeves for Christmas in Anne of Green Gables, Alden Nowlan’s eerie, beautiful poem “Country Full of Christmas,” Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater,” and Thomas Raddall’s “The Wedding Gift.” But surely I was forgetting something. I racked my brain, which refused to divulge a word with all the determination of the well-trained spy.

So, I searched the web. I ordered some Canadian Christmas anthologies from the library, and they are providing marvellous entertainment for myself and my family through the season: I’ve discovered new stories, new authors, and new and old traditions from across the country. I’ve also been reminded of works that hadn’t immediately come to mind: Stuart Maclean’s achingly funny story of Dave cooking the turkey, for instance, or Bridget Murphy’s chaotic Christmas in and out of the psych ward from Lynn Coady’s novel Strange Heaven. Some of Stephen Leacock’s short pieces, like the grotesque “The New Food,” about the baby that ate thirteen Christmas dinners, or “Hoodoo McFiggin’s Christmas,” a useful meditation on Christmas spending from Canada’s funniest economist.

I’ve concluded that, for me, Canada’s best Christmas literature comes from New Brunswick, from the pen of that deeply compassionate, bitingly comic chronicler of rural life and rural poverty, David Adams Richards. I kept coming back to Richards’ screenplay and (adapted) short story “Small Gifts,” which was broadcast as a television special in 1994 on the CBC. Regardless of its mixed media, I wish to claim it as a “national Christmas story” for Canada. It echoes the same themes as Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” but is set in the Miramichi River region, filled with woodpiles, meat pies, night Masses, and engines that just won’t start. The story follows a young couple who struggle with money and their community in the days before Christmas. Bawdy, bleak, wrenchingly funny and suffused with love, it should be read everywhere.

We don’t have one Christmas story, or poem, or play, of course – we have many. I’ve only begun to list them here. I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations for Canada’s best Christmas literature. Happy holidays to everyone, and happy reading.

This blog post is available in French.

Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. If you like Christmas stories about rural Canada, woodpiles, and engines that won’t start, you’ll like Roy Bonisteel’s much-reprinted “A Christmas Story” set in the Trenton, Ontario, area during the 1940s. Here’s a cover illustration from Watershed magazine: Roy reads it aloud every year at an annual local holiday reading and it is a true crowd pleaser.

  2. Susanne Marshall

    Thank you! I’ll check it out, and add it to the “Christmas lit” list. It’s wonderful that Bonisteel’s story is read aloud every year: that’s the best part of holiday literature, the chance to hear it read, or to interpret it yourself – to share it with a community.

  3. Laura Bonikowsky

    Excellent choices Susanne! It seems fitting, in this multi-cultural country where we struggle to define our identity, that there is no definitive Christmas story. I like the array of choices we have in our seasonal tales—there is bound to be something that resonates with everyone, Christmas elves and grinches alike.


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About Susanne Marshall

Susanne Marshall lives in Halifax, NS, where she teaches writing and Canadian Literature. She was educated at Mount Allison University, the University of Toronto, and Dalhousie University, where she completed a PhD in contemporary Canadian literature. Her research interests include redefinitions of regionalism, Atlantic Canadian writing, ecocritical writing and urban writing. Susanne has also worked in the educational publishing industry as a developmental editor, and as a freelance editor. She reads and writes all day, for her profession, for interest, and for the love of it.


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