Essays & Opinion

Seven Bad Literary Christmases

We found seven Christmases from literature that, whatever your plans this festive season, you'll be glad aren't yours...

Christmas can be a fraught time of year, particularly if you’re a fictional character. Here are seven Christmases from literature that, whatever your plans this festive season, you’ll be glad aren’t yours…

Kicking things off with a classic…

  1. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

Bathsheba Everdeen’s husband – Sergeant Troy – is missing, believed dead, and has been for some time. Mr Boldwood, a wealthy, local landowner is obsessed with Bathsheba and is convinced that she will agree to marry him and make good on a half-hearted promise she made several years ago, if he throws the best Christmas party EVER. However, even during the party preparations, things do not seem right: 

‘Intended gaieties would insist upon appearing like solemn grandeurs, the organization of the whole effort was carried out coldly by hirelings, and a shadow seemed to move about the rooms, saying that the proceedings were unnatural to the place and the lone man who lived therein, and hence not good,’ (pg. 419)

It’s all a bit try-too-hard. Boldwood is in such a state about it all that he can’t tie his own neckerchief and has to ask Gabriel Oak, the novel’s good-guy-long-suffering-hero, to tie it for him. Of course, Oak is also in love with Bathsheba, was turned down in the early pages of the novel, and has to endure Boldwood’s twittering about his hopes for the future, how it’s all going to work out this time. 

            Then the party happens. The fact that Bathsheba turns up in mourning dress pretty much sets the tone. Just when she thinks she’s stayed long enough to be polite and is about to make a quiet exit, Boldwood confronts her in a quiet room, coerces her into saying she’ll marry him after six years if Troy does not turn up. Of course, then Troy turns up in uniform, demands Bathsheba return with him. Boldwood shoots him, which is one way of winning an argument. He’s about to turn the gun on himself when his servant grabs it from him. 

            ‘There is another way for me to die,’ Boldwood says and walks out into the darkness. 

            Believe it or not, Far From the Madding Crowd is among the chirpier of Hardy’s novels. Not so hot on Christmas spirit, though. 

Veering off into the realm of fantasy now, we spend a fairly unmagical Christmas with everyone’s favourite boy-wizard…

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling

We’re in the seventh book now so, by this stage, we’ve read six descriptions of the amazing Christmases at Hogwarts. This time, Harry isn’t at Hogwarts. He’s freezing, in a tent with Hermione and everything’s terrible.

            They’re in the middle of their quest for Horcruxes; Ron has abandoned them and they’re about to hit Godric’s Hollow. They have to go in disguise as Voldemort now knows what they’re up to so they nick hairs from ‘innocent Muggles who were Christmas shopping’ so that, when they apparate, they won’t look like themselves. 

            It’s only when they arrive at the scene and hear a carol start up in a nearby church that Hermione realises it’s Christmas Eve. Harry has a moment by his parents’ grave and visits the ruined cottage where they died but then things take a turn when they meet Bathilda Bagshot and it turns out that Nagini, Voldemort’s snake, is actually living inside her. There’s a fight and Harry passes out, is forced to relive the moment his parents died. He wakes up on Christmas morning, drenched in sweat, to find that Hermione rescued him from the scene but that, in the process, she broke his wand. She’s crying and he’s mad but trying not to be because he’s a good guy and she didn’t mean to but nOW THEY’RE A WEAPON DOWN AND HAVE TO CARRY A SOUL-SUCKING HORCRUX EVERYWHERE

As far as Christmases go, it’s pretty bad. 

Next, a trip through time and across the pond. 1990s Vermont: ice, murder and a really bad Christmas…

  • The Secret History – Donna Tartt

In his first year at Hampden College, protagonist Richard Papen decides to spend his winter break in an unheated apartment building. ‘My quarters were uncomfortable, certainly,’ he says. ‘They were foully dirty and bitterly cold; but it never occurred to me that they were actually unsafe.’ There’s a hole in the roof and the cold is like nothing he has ever experienced before: ‘In the morning when I woke I was as stiff and sore as if I’d been beaten.’ He makes mandolin struts for his landlord (as you do) and, when he tries to repair the roof, almost falls off. He cuts his hand on a tin tile and has to get a tetanus shot. 

            After this, Richard Isn’t Very Well. He doesn’t tell anyone about his situation because he’s too ashamed – his friends are extremely wealthy and Richard is pretending to be wealthy too. He hops from one warm, public building to another:

‘Christmas came and went without notice, except that with no work and everything closed there was no place to get warm except, for a few hours, to church. I came home afterwards and wrapped myself in my blanket and rocked back and forth, ice in my very bones, and thought of all the sunny Christmases of my childhood…’ (pg. 135)

He throws rocks into the river to prove to himself that he exists and, after a time, considers throwing himself in. ‘One night, in a dream, I saw my own corpse, hair stiff with ice and eyes wide open,’ (pg. 139). It turns out he has ‘chronic hypothermia, with bad diet and a mild case of pneumonia’ on top. It’s only way into January – the coldest on record – that friend Henry turns up and effectively air-lifts him out of the trauma and into hospital. 

            ‘If there is a place where lists are kept and credit given,’ Richard says. ‘I am sure there is a gold star by his name.’ 

            Interesting, considering the other marks that must be there too… 

Continuing with our stint in the US, this next Bad Christmas involves an after-dinner Christmas activity that you might want to consider suggesting to the most irritating of your young cousins…

  • This Boy’s Life – Tobias Wolff

Tobias, who at this point is going by ‘Jack’, and his mother have recently moved in with a guy called Dwight and his two children. Dwight is trying to convince Jack’s mother to marry him and has an interesting way of bonding with his prospective stepson over the Christmas period: 

‘Dwight had filled several boxes with horse chestnuts from a stand of trees in front of the house, and now I was given the task of husking them… Dwight would dump a pile of nuts on the floor of the utility room and put me to work with a pair of pliers until he judged that I’d done enough for the night. The husks were hard and covered with sharp spines. At first I wore gloves, but Dwight thought gloves were effeminate. He said that I needed bare hands to get a good grip on the husks, and on this point he was right, though he was wrong when he told me the spines weren’t sharp enough to break skin. My fingers were crazed with cuts and scratches. Even worse, the broken husks bled a juice that made my hands stink and turned them orange. No amount of borax could get it off,’ (pg. 80)

This is the only time his step-siblings see him, crouched over nuts in the utility room of their shared home. Sometimes, Dwight comes in to check on him. The smell is ‘deadly’. His hands grow the ‘colour and glow of well-oiled baseball mitts’. Local boys pick on him and eventually he gets into a fight, but ‘…by then the nuts were all husked anyway.’ 

            And Christmas is over. 

Christmas is a time of love and joy, for kisses under mistletoe. Unless you don’t like the guy. Then it’s time for really awkward carriage rides back to your country estate…

  • Emma – Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse spends the first part of the novel trying to hook her friend, Harriet Smith, up with eligible bachelor Mr Elton. She thinks it’s going pretty well until the Weston’s Christmas party, where she has to share a carriage home with him. It’s then that he starts ‘making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping – fearing – adoring – ready to die if she refused him…’ (pg. 100) 

            Hold the phone. Mr Elton is not in love with Harriet but with Emma herself. The carriage ride gets increasingly awkward as it becomes clear that Emma really does not return the sentiments and that Mr Elton is a terrible snob: ‘No doubt there are men who might not object to…Everybody has their level…’

            When the carriage pulls up at his house, he storms out without as much as a ‘good-night’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ – the Regency England equivalent of a bitch-slap. Season’s Greetings to you too, pal. 

All families have tensions but this next novel takes the cake. It takes the cake, whips it in the front yard, psyches it out, hangs it from a tree and then eats it in front of its next of kin. It is, of course, the most gothic of all the gothics, the ghoully window-scratcher itself…

  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë 

Cathy has been at Thrushcross Grange for five weeks and returns to Wuthering Heights on Christmas Eve. She’s had something of a makeover in that time. Before she left, she was a scruffy troublemaker that enjoyed getting into all kind of scrapes with her servant-friend Heathcliff. One of these scrapes involved sneaking onto the Thrushcross estate and spying on the insipid kids that live there – Edgar and Isabella Linton. While there, however, Cathy gets attacked by a guard dog and tells Heathcliff to run, which he does. The Lintons take Cathy in for five weeks and, when she returns, she’s quite the young lady. 

            Things are tense. It’s Christmas Eve and Nelly – the narrator and maid – has gone to a lot of trouble to show off for the Lintons, who will be staying the night. She’s shined the pans, baked a cake. Cathy turns up, all dolled up, and laughs at Heathcliff for being dirty: ‘How very black and cross you look! And how – how funny and grim!’ 

Heathcliff takes offense and won’t shake her hand, storms off across the moors and even leaves the cake Nelly has put aside for him. He has a think though, while he’s out and when he comes back on Christmas morning, he plucks up the courage to ask Nelly if she’ll ‘…make me decent. I’m going to be good.’ 

Nelly spruces Heathcliff up and feels pretty pleased with herself. BUT THEN: when he goes down to dinner, Hindley (Cathy’s horrible brother) says he doesn’t want Heathcliff around because ‘he’ll be cramming his fingers in the tarts and stealing the fruit…’ Rude. Nelly says she’s sure Heathcliff won’t, that he’s on his best behaviour, but by then Hindley is on a roll: 

‘He shall have his share of my hand, if I catch him downstairs again till dark. Begone you vagabond!’ 

Then Edgar Linton joins in and says Heathcliff’s hair is really long and looks like a horse’s mane so Heathcliff grabs a tureen of hot apple sauce and tips it up over Edgar’s head. Way to prove you’re civilised, Heathcliff. 

Hindley whips Heathcliff and then later, mulling it all over, Heathcliff vows to Nelly that one day he will have his vengeance: ‘while I’m thinking of that I don’t feel pain.’ 

A fair few of the later disagreements can be traced back to this scene, to this Christmas and the apple sauce. 

Heathcliff might have tipped a tureen over Edgar’s head but at least everyone left the table with their heads still attached to their bodies. If only the same could be said for the folks in the next tale…

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – the Pearl Poet

Strictly speaking, this one isn’t Christmas but New Year. It’s still part of the festive season, however, so we think it still counts. 

            At King Arthur’s court, there is a tradition that on New Year’s Day the king will not eat until he has seen some great feat. This particular New Year, people are getting pretty hungry – no great feats are forthcoming. BUT THEN: the doors of the great hall swing open and in rides a massive green man on a massive green horse, swinging an axe. 

            The green man explains that he has come to test the bravery of the Knights of the Round Table, having heard tales of their adventures. He has a challenge. He dares any one of them to cut his head off, right there and then on the flagstones of the hall. He will let them do this on the proviso that he can return the blow in exactly one year’s time. 

            Sir Gawain is a young knight at the table, still yet to cut his teeth on a dangerous quest. He springs to his feet, says yeah sure, he’ll cut the guy’s head off. There’s no coming back from that, right? Except there is. Gawain lops the man’s head off only to have the man get up, headless, and snatch it back. 

            ‘Great,’ says the Green Knight. ‘See you in a year, loser.’ 

            And so, Gawain’s fate is sealed. In one year, the Green Knight will return the blow. By accepting the challenge, Gawain has walked straight into the jaws of death… or has he? 

We think these seven make pretty bad Christmases. We’re glad we’re not pulling crackers with Hindley Earnshaw. If you can think of any others worthy of mention, comment below or tweet us at @NITRB_Tweets

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