Few holidays conjure up sentimentality and nostalgia more than Christmas. And while perhaps just a supporting “character” in many instances, the novels below include enough images and scenes around Christmas and New Year’s to warrant a reading this holiday season. In other words, calling these books “Christmas novels” is more of a stretch than calling Dan Brown a literary genius.
But these books all have elements of the Christmas and New Year’s spirit in them. For me, Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way” will forever remind me of the one Christmas I spent away from home, reading the pages in my Japan apartment while snow fell in my rock garden outside. I think that’s another element of a list such as this: the best part about books is their ability to remind us of a time and place, transporting us not only with the story, but with the memory of when we last enjoyed the book. Hopefully one of these titles can do that for you.
‘The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen
My love for this book is well-documented. Set in the Midwest and revolving around the exploits of a dysfunctional family looking to get together for one last family Christmas, it would be hard to find a book that better encapsulates this haphazard list. This isn’t “good tidings and cheer” so much as “great depression and lots of whiskey.” But Christmas needs some of that to truly round it out. Think of “The Corrections” as a Christmas novel that a sardonic, adult Tiny Tim Cratchit would’ve written if Ebenezer Scrooge didn’t take an interest in the boy.
“Snow Country” by Yasunari Kawabata
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” From the first sentence of Kawabata’s stunning and beautiful tale of an affair between a wealthy Tokyo man and a small-town geisha, we are transported to the cold, snowy mountains of early-20th c. Japan. There are some deep themes here—exploring how the west influenced Japan and how rural Japan dealt with modernity. The best part is how subtle and simple Kawabata’s writing is. He doesn’t need to use the word “modernity” to sound intelligent.
“Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
To be honest, I’ve never read it. But when I mentioned this list, my lady friend insisted this title be included. She told a quick story about how the girls acted out Christmas stories—or something to the effect. This is the same woman that loves Haruki Murakami, so she needs to be trusted.
“The Dead” by James Joyce 1
This novel takes place in the first week of January in Dublin. It’s funny how Joyce’s most famous novel, “Ulysses,” celebrates a specific date. I believe that most books that point out a specific date do so on purpose. In Joyce’s case, the day Leopold Bloom has his adventure, June 16, is the same day Joyce met his wife. One notable book that uses a specific date is “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry, which occurs on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1938. It’s about a man in the grips of alcoholism and death is lurking throughout the novel. 2
In the case of Joyce’s “The Dead” the reader is given an introspective protagonist who is pondering life and analyzing death. It seems only fitting to set a story such as this at the beginning of a new year, a time when everything is fresh, when mankind is keen to celebrate all that is great within them and their fellow man. Or maybe Joyce just wanted to have some snow in the story.
“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
“The Thin Man” by Dashiell Hammett
I wrote a little bit on this novel back when Bro Jackson was taxiing to the runway. It takes place over Christmas and New Year’s in New York City. There’s a lot of nostalgia for many of us in a New York City New Year’s Eve. Most of us grew up watching the “time ball” drop while Dick Clark pretended to still be young, clutching to relevance despite “American Bandstand” having been irrelevant for decades. America is funny. And so is Hammett’s book, though it also has plenty of action and there’s a dog. What else could you want?
“Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale” by Thomas Bernhard
A good friend of mine from Austria sent me this book last year for Christmas. It’s strange and wonderful. The art resembles something that an acid-chomping Ralph Steadman would render if he were locked in my grandparents’ basement and told to make collages. But it’s the story—which is creepily Poesque—that grabs the reader by the throat. I read it every winter, because I’m an unusual sort of fellow.
“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway
This book won’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as Bradley Cooper points out in “Silver Linings Playbook,” and from what I remember there’s only one snippet of a Christmas scene, but if you’ve never read this than you probably shouldn’t be allowed to leave your house. It’s masterfully melancholic and has everything that makes Hemingway great: drinking, sex, and war. Honestly, though, I can’t take you seriously as a human being if you haven’t read this book. Merry Christmas.