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.