If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:
1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.
2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.
3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”
4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.
5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.