Poems and storytelling

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton shares some of his favorite Christmas stories and poems.

(Slayton) “A Christmas Carol” is undoubtedly the most famous of all
Christmas stories. I’ve always liked Dickens’ description of the Cratchit
Family’s Christmas Day – a modest working-class holiday feast that leaves a large, poor family well-fed, for once.

In words that bring some of my own lovely, often quite simple past Christmases to mind, Dickens describes the Cratchits:

“There was nothing of high mark in [them]. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another and contented with the time….”

Imperfect but happy, the Cratchits capture the Christmas spirit for the ages.

That’s one of the things that the best Christmas literature does – it brings the ideals of Christmas down to the humble realities of today. For me, perfect Christmases are the least interesting. It’s the imperfect ones where the spirit shines through worn sleeves and simple hearts that resonate most deeply.

Perhaps that is because Christmas itself, the great pagan holiday made Christian, though simple at heart, is a complex mixture of light and dark, proud and humble, want and need and hope all rolled into one. Carl Sandburg catches that spirit in his poem “Star Silver,” where he writes of

“…a baby, slung in a feedbox
back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum…”

“Why does the story never wear out?” Sandburg asks.

I think it’s because, for one thing, as told in the Gospel of Luke, the story is beautifully written; and, for another, it tells of hope and new life being born into a dark world that needs them.

Toys and baubles may wear out, but good stories never do. And so, I search frantically every year for my tiny copy of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas, which is funny and profound – and somehow new each December.

I like Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Oxen,” about wanting to believe. And W.H. Auden’s bittersweet morning-after Christmas poem “Well, so that is that…” and many others.

And I still love Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

This Christmas, for the first time, I’ve discovered, thanks to the recommendation of a friend, Truman Capote’s sweet, lovely story, “A Christmas Memory,” about his youth in Alabama, making holiday fruitcakes with an elderly cousin and hoping for a Christmas tree that will shine “like a Baptist window.”

Here’s my little bit of unsolicited advice for Christmas Day: find your favorite story, and read it. Read it out loud. If you can corral a family member or two to listen, so much the better.

And fear not! It may be imperfect, but it will be immeasurably better than the latest televised Christmas special. My guess is you’ll remember it a lot longer, too.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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