Old stories may be the best stories for Christmas

Published 2:59 pm Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Every year I am reminded one way or the other that some of the old stories are the best stories for Christmas.

That happened this past weekend when ETV aired a “Christmas at the Hollywood Palace” production that had an old clip of Bing Crosby telling the story of the “Little Match-Seller,” which was written in 1846 by Hans Christian Anderson. Of course, in Anderson’s story, the event took place on New Year’s Eve, but it is always told about this time of year to remind us of how much we have and how little others have.

Then, of course, there is O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” to remind us about love and giving, and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” about redemption.

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In his forward to “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens wrote “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” I think he got it right.

Today, most of the stories of Christmas are saccharine sweet. Everybody is afraid of hurting somebody’s feelings or making anyone feel anything but good about absolutely everything.

All of the stories mentioned above have morals attached to them that probably are more in the keeping of the spirit of Christmas than “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which originally was created as an advertising character by Robert L. May for Montgomery-Ward towards the end of the Great Depression, was turned into a song by Johnny Marks and went on to sell 2 million records when recorded by Gene Autry in 1949.

The original Christmas story is best of all, of course.

I have to wonder, though, when our stories of Christmas turned from the reflective classics of Dickens, Anderson and O. Henry to today’s rather silly cartoonish ones.

Actually, that turn might be said to have begun before Dickens, Anderson or O. Henry wrote their stories with the publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” written in 1822 by either Clement C. Moore, who gets credit, or Henry Livingston, Jr., who is the prime suspect to some. The poem is better known today as “The Night Before Christmas.” The poem also is credited by some writers as making gift giving to chidden the focus of Christmas, and making stern, skinny, Old St. Nicholas a rotund, jolly elf.

Oh, well, so much for blaming modern commercialism with all that is wrong with Christmas celebrations.

Somehow, though, those older tales, both the reflective and the poem, have become the classics by which all others are measured. The classic of the modern era is probably “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” by Dr. Seuss.

Another classic of the Christmas season is an editorial written in the old New York Sun newspaper by editorial writer Francis P. Church. He received a letter from an eight-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon in September of 1897 asking if there really is a Santa Claus. She wrote that all of her friends said there wasn’t. As the reply Church wrote the editorial, which was published in that newspaper for 50 years afterwards.

Church’s reply was mystical, placing a lot of emphasis on faith and joy. His argument for the existence of Santa Claus is more about the spirit of Christmas than it is about the physical being of the stuff of childhood dreams. In that light, I still believe in Santa Claus myself, and I suspect so did he.

Church wrote of beauty and joy and “how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus? … There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We would have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. … No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and lives forever.”

According to her biography on the Internet, Virginia O’Hanlon grew up to become a New York school teacher, in case you are interested. Personally, I found that little nugget of history quite interesting.

I like these older tales of Christmas better than just about any of the modern ones I have read or seen on television. Even “The Night Before Christmas” regardless of who was its real author is much better than much that has been written in recent years. There’s something gentler and less pushy about those old stories.