Every year in November or December I spend a few hours rereading one of my favorite Christmas novels: “The Joyous Season,” by Patrick Dennis. It’s the tale of a pair of Manhattan siblings whose parents’ marriage implodes over one Christmas in the mid-1960s, and over the years it has had me laughing aloud on planes, trains, and all alone at coffee shop counters. It was published in 1964 and I discovered my mother’s copy when I was 12 or 13. It’s narrated by a precocious (perhaps implausibly precocious) 10-year-old named Kerry, which – he informs us – “is short for Kerrington, for cripes sake, spelled with a K and an E and not a C and an A.” Imagine Holden Caulfield from “The Catcher in the Rye” with a sense of humor. Dennis is known best for “Auntie Mame,” which was the inspiration for the musical, “Mame,” but “The Joyous Season” is an underappreciated gem.
The novel is not precisely my childhood because Kerry’s family lives in Manhattan and I grew up in suburbs of New York City and Miami, Florida. But there are moments that capture perfectly the universal chaos that can mark Christmas morning, especially those Christmases from the “Mad Men” era when some parents (no names, please) just might have had too much to drink on Christmas Eve and the toys were less likely to have been vetted for safety. Here is one of the presents that Kerry and his six-year-old sister, Missy, open before awakening their parents:
“It was a genuine Martian Outer Space Squirt Gun. It holds a pint of water and, depending on which knob you turn, shoots either a hundred Instant Locomotor-Paralysis Rays or one full-pint Gamma Death Ray, which means curtains for Earth Mortals.” Inevitably, Missy surprises their half-asleep, badly hung over father in their parents’ bathroom: “Missy did something with her squirt gun and Daddy got it up and down his whole front with a full pint of ice-cold Gamma Death Ray. There was a bellow like he’d grabbed a live wire and then a stream of language like even I have never heard.”
The book is one of those Proustian madeleines that catapult me instantly back to any one of a hundred childhood memories. I never surprised my father with a genuine Martian Outer Space Squirt Gun, but I did nail him accidentally with a dart from a toy robot that shot small projectiles – including number two lead pencils – from its eyes. Another Christmas morning, I thought it would be great to wake up my parents with a toy train engine I found under the tree. I wasn’t old enough to tell time, but it was still dark outside and I can’t imagine they were thrilled to feel a metal locomotive rolling over their shoulders and backs and heads, especially since “the night before” had only ended for them a few hours earlier.
My sense is that these are the sorts of recollections that draw us to contemporary Christmas novels, and why we have affection for such tales as “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham or “Wishin’ and Hopin’” by Wally Lamb – or the chaotic, raucous living nativity in John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
Of course, Irving’s narrator also reminds us of another reality: “Any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas,” he says. Indeed. The modern Christmas novel – the modern Christmas itself – is often more about popular culture than the virgin birth of the Son of God. The original Christmas story, the one with a star and shepherds and a psychotic king named Herod, is often presented as a comic set piece in a church or school auditorium. There are exceptions, of course, such as when Charles Schulz masterfully brought Linus van Pelt to the stage to explain the meaning of the holiday – reciting the key verses from the Book of Luke – in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
But this time of the year it remains important for me to separate out the Christmas novel from the Christmas story: Pop sentimentality from profound faith. I hunger for the healing powers of each, especially this December when we are all grieving for the lost children of Newtown, Connecticut. In some ways, we will be mourning them forever. And among the precious, possible gifts of the season – of this season in particular? Sometimes the soul can find both. Certainly that will be among my prayers tomorrow night when I am lighting my candle with my wife and my daughter at the Christmas Eve service here in Lincoln.
To 2013: May, somehow, the New Year bring us. . .peace.
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This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 23. 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on July 16, 2013.