‘A Christmas Gift’ by TF Powys

‘A Christmas Gift’ is the story of a man with van – but also a quietly heretical resetting of the Christmas story. (For a start, it seems to have merged with the one about the Good Samaritan.) The man in question is Mr Balliboy, a recurring character in the West Country fables of T. F. Powys. Mr Balliboy operates a service that, we would now say, connects isolated rural communities to the local market town of Weyminster. From the beginning, pride is in the air: both Mr Balliboy’s, and his customers’. Many people (or at least “a number”) take pride, for example, merely in seeing their names written down. The lonely Mr Balliboy would like to see his own name written on a gift label. He knows this much well before he knows to whom to give a gift, or even what the gift will be. And so “A Christmas Gift” turns out to be a story of pride being brought low – or being redirected, at least. I like its ostensible simplicity but suspect that something more is going on, as its last line, only three words long, perhaps suggests. Powys’s fiction is often like that: biblical in tone, yet somehow off-message. “A Christmas Gift” wasn’t the first of his works I read – my introduction to him being Unclay, a tattered revelation of a novel about Death taking an unlikely holiday, in this same eerie region of Wessex. But it is one I return to, and include in my imaginary anthology of his stories.

First published in An Anthology of Christmas Prose and Verse, Cresset Press, 1928; subsequently published in Powys’s collection The White Paternoster, 1930. Available to read online here. Chosen by Michael Caines

‘Christmas Fugue’ by Muriel Spark

I suppose I should really be including Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales as my seasonal selection, as that’s the book that comes out with the decorations every December, with its wonderful illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, but I couldn’t resist this weird late intervention by Dame Muriel. ‘Christmas Fugue’ has a British woman called Cynthia flying home from Australia to the UK on Christmas Day, having just split up with her boyfriend. There is a weird atmosphere on the half-empty plane, and Cynthia gets chatted up by Tom, a co-pilot on the flight with seemingly not much to do. Unusually for Spark characters, they have sex (during a stopover in Bangkok): “They made love in a beautifully appointed cabin with real curtains in the windows – unrealistic yellow flowers on a white background. Then they talked about each other, and made love again.” That last line, to me, is utterly characteristic of Spark’s writing. To read her is to find yourself, over and over again, teetering on the brink of an abyss that opens up without warning between the reader and the characters they have been tricked into believing in. She induces vertigo, is the best way I can think of to put it. Tom proposes to Cynthia on the flight, but when she gets back to the UK there is more than one surprise waiting for her. Not Christmassy in the usual sense, but very in tune with the weird out-of-time spirit of the time of year when you’re not in the bosom of your family.

First published in Country Life in 2000. Available in The Complete Short Stories, Viking, 2001. Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs

From ‘Under The Greenwood Tree’ by Thomas Hardy

Christmas in a village is best. In a village flooded by bright stars and dusted with snow and silence.

I grew up in one and it’s here that every Christmas Eve with stockings set, family safe and a warm bed calling, that I still wish I was, instead, heading out with the Mellstock Quire from Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, who from time immemorial have beaten the bounds of their village during the first four hours of Christmas morning, singing and playing in sweet harmony at the door of every house and cottage. I can see them winding wisps of hay around their ankles to keep out the frost, see their breath in the winter air, hear them tune their instruments before they bid their families goodnight, lift the latch, and head out into the darkness. Oh to be with them!

They gather shortly after ten at the tranter’s cottage, young men and old, grandfathers and sons, brothers and friends one by one coming out of the cold to argue over which songs they should sing and taper their lanterns. The routine is set, but the excitement is palpable. The thrill of sacrificing sleep to a communal act of kindness and hope. The same stories are told, the same hands warmed, the same last minute instructions issued, the same route agreed and in the middle of the hustle and bustle, the thrill, the anticipation, the cider glow, a director’s note as subtle and beautiful as Hamlet’s advice to the players: “keep from making a great scuffle on the ground when we go in at people’s gates; but go quietly, so as to strike up all of a sudden, like spirits.”

It matters not to the Quire whether they receive welcome or not, theirs is a sacred act holding the village safe and blessed before the dawn on this the most holiest of days. It is simultaneously a Christian duty and a pagan worship, a restoration of the good that Christmas might bring. Somewhere they know this, for we know it, but the talk as they criss cross through the fields and feel their way carefully around the hidden tree roots on the wooded footpaths is in remembrance of previous nights, of how different instruments perform in the cold and whether or not they’re truly needed any more.

And when they’re done, having failed to rouse a living soul at their final destination, the leader brings the show to an end.

‘In a clear loud voice, as he had said in the village at that hour and season for the previous forty years —“A merry Christmas to ye!

 (1872). Chosen by Mark Griffin

‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O Henry

This, by O Henry, is an American classic Christmas story. He wasn’t a fabulous writer, but he was a potent writer, famous for his ‘surprise’ endings. Even as I winced at its clunkiness, I found a little tear forming in my eye at the finish.

First published in The New York Sunday World in 1905 and widely collected. Available to read online here. Chosen by Lee Randall

‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’ by John Cheever

An excellent test of a Christmas story is to read it out of season. It was a rare close and scorching British summer when I first read Cheever’s Collected Short Stories. In ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’ Cheever opts to bludgeon his readers from the outset: “Christmas is a sad season”, “Christmas is a sad season for the poor”, “Christmas is a very sad day of the year”. As Christmas Day dawns upon a lavish New York apartment building, we are introduced to elevator operator, Charlie; a man on the margins of society trapped within the working confines of a gilded cage, within the confines of an elevator – “He held the narrowness of his travels against his passengers…as if they had clipped his wings”. Humour with a moral twist is best served gin-dry in Cheever stories; although there is a “loneliness” to our protagonist, there is also a balancing air of “petulance”. No one is above or below mockery and censure.

Charlie fabricates a lie: one that can – and should – be judged on a variety of levels by the reader. It is this lie that morphs from a comedy of manners into a strangely elevated (pun intended) chain reaction spreading far beyond the confines of the elevator shaft and class boundaries of the apartment block and onto the streets of New York. The affluent in the story are – on the surface – defined by their trappings, yet it is middle-man Charlie’s hubris – in the form of greed and an abundance of alcoholic Christmas cheer – that pinpoints the vital moment in the narrative arc as romp gives way to reality. Often it takes a dose of Christmas spirits to remember Christmas Spirit in Cheever Land; and it appears the longest journeys can be undergone in the ups and downs of a simple elevator. What is poverty? What are riches? Who is content? Who is alone? If these questions are only posed at Christmas, then it is indeed “a very sad day of the year”.

One sentence that sums up the underlying bittersweet mood of the story – and almost resonates louder than the title itself: “…and she knew that we are bound, one to another, in licentious benevolence for only a single day, and that day was nearly over.” With this Christmas short story, Cheever confirmed himself – to me, at the height of summer – as a writer for all seasons.

First published in The New Yorker, 24 December 1949, and available in Vintage Cheever: Collected Stories, 2010. Chosen by Jane Roberts

‘Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story’ by Paul Auster

Once, several Decembers back, it turned out I’d be spending Christmas alone.  The idea didn’t bother me too much; I saw myself hunkering in with a couple of thick blankets, a box of mince pies and some new books while steadily drinking my way through a bottle of Jura Superstition.  As it happened, following a drunken expedition to steal a tree late on Christmas Eve, I didn’t end up spending the day alone.  But that is another story.

I feel about Paul Auster much as I do about Christmas itself:  the idea of it often better than actually having to live through it.  But this story, filled with chance and accident, all about tales and their telling, reminds me of that Christmas I never quite got to spending alone.

First published in The New York Times on Christmas Day, 1990, and then as a standalone title from Faber & Faber. You can listen to it read by the author here. Chosen by CD Rose

‘Dancing Dan’s Christmas’ by Damon Runyon

Are the hoods, gorillas, wrong gees and git-’em-up guys of Damon Runyon’s Broadway sentimentalists, as many allege? Sure, they tend to be soft on winsome young dolls and needy orphans. There are hearts of tarnished gold beneath the three-pieces. But there are also, as EC Bentley pointed out, stories like ‘Sense Of Humor’, which ends with a gangster being tricked into shooting dead his sweetheart Rosa while she’s tied up in a sack (is there, Bentley asked “anything ghastlier in modern fiction?”). And then there’s ‘Dancing Dan’s Christmas’: not ghastly, exactly, and in fact rather sweet, but nevertheless a festive tale of bootlegging, robbery, alcoholism and attempted murder.

From A Christmas Carol to ‘Fairytale of New York’, Christmassiness is better with a rough edge; here, Dancing Dan (a personable crook who “always seems to be getting a great belt out of life”) narrowly escapes being cut in half by sawn-off shotgun fire, like John Ridgely’s character at the end of The Big Sleep, because the hoods sent to kill him (“under orders not to miss”) mistake him for the “old rum-dum” Ooky. How is this Christmassy? Well, it’s Christmas Eve; Dancing Dan, speakeasy proprietor Good-time Charley Bernstein and Runyon’s ever-anonymous narrator are singing Christmas songs and knocking a few hot Tom and Jerrys behind closed doors (“This hot Tom and Jerry is an old-time drink that is once used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is once so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerrys, although of course this is by no means true”).

The caper kicks off when Dan, festively soused, appropriates Ooky’s Santa Claus outfit in order to deliver the booty from a jewel heist into the stocking of his sweetheart’s grandmother. Sentimental? Well, all right. But when you throw in mobster Heine Schmitz (who “will just as soon blow your brains out as look at you. In fact, I hear sooner”), the bootleg booze and those “nice little sawn-offs”, it’s clear that this isn’t kids’ stuff; this is Christmas with a kick.

First published in Collier’s Weekly in December 1932, and collected in Blue Plate Special, Stokes, 1934). Chosen by Richard Smyth