The great­est fes­tive sto­ries pivot around three points: past rec­ol­lec­tion, present rev­elry and fu­ture hope – and for those of us who love Christ­mas, this is how we re­pro­duce its emo­tional po­tency for our own chil­dren

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be­cause of his plight, the con­trast be­tween past and present seems fierce. “I wish I could sell my body to a rich widow,” he wrote to friend and publisher James Laugh­lin in 1949, “but it is fat now it trem­bles a lit­tle.” How con­sol­ing it is to soak in the cle­ment wa­ters of a Christ­mas me­mory when adult life can be so very chas­ten­ing.

But here’s the thing, no mat­ter how pow­er­ful is the nostalgia of Christ­mases past, for the child Christ­mas is al­ways this very Christ­mas. The story of the first manger, or even lis­ten­ing to a hard-drink­ing, phi­lan­der­ing, im­pe­cu­nious poet’s rec­ol­lec­tion of a snow-blan­keted Wales, rarely makes a child feel like an epigone, a late­comer to his or her own Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion.

Those who re­coil from Christ­mas of­ten find in it melan­choly emo­tions, sens­ing, that is, in Christ­mas more “-al­gia” (pain) than “nos­toc-” (re­turn­ing home). But the spirit of Christ­mas is not, I think, founded solely on sweet ret­ro­spec­tives. Rather, Christ­mas draws its power from a potent co­a­lesc­ing of rec­ol­lec­tion (of the past), rev­elry (in the mo­ment) and firm res­o­lu­tion (about the fu­ture), the last named be­ing the least ob­vi­ous but ar­guably the most sig­nif­i­cant. These three mo­ments – that to­gether I call, some­what grandiosel­y, the “tem­po­ral­ity of Christ­mas” – can be used to cat­e­gorise the mo­tifs of most sto­ries about the sea­son. These sto­ries in turn – as we have al­ready seen to be the case with nos­tal­gic re­flec­tions upon the past – lend their heft to Christ­mas’s dis­tinc­tive in­ten­sity.

That the spirit of Christ­mas teth­ers past, present and fu­ture is the core in­sight from that in­escapable Christ­mas tale, Charles Dick­ens’s A Christ­mas Carol (1843). An hon­est rec­ol­lec­tion of the past, a tak­ing note of the rev­elry of the present pleas­ing day – this Christ­mas day – and clear-sighted prog­nos­ti­ca­tion about a pos­si­ble fu­ture shep­herds Scrooge to his res­o­lu­tion to be a bet­ter per­son. Hav­ing re­solved to re­form his be­hav­iour, Scrooge en­joys, fi­nally, his Christ­mas Day.

Adding a de­li­cious ten­sion

If nostalgia works by cast­ing its sepia glow about the sea­son, it is a child’s in­ter­est in gifts, both re­ceiv­ing them and se­lect­ing them for oth­ers, that adds a de­li­cious ten­sion to the hol­i­day. That is, it is the prospect of presents that pro­vide (for­give me) the present tense of the Christ­mas sea­son. If the pi­quancy of the pre-Christ­mas sea­son has a crown prince, this must surely be Calvin – of Bill Wat­ter­son’s Calvin and Hobbes (1985- 1995) fame – who spends his Ad­vent fret­ting about Santa’s largesse. Has he, Calvin, been good enough to de­serve gifts, he won­ders? In other moods, Calvin de­fi­antly rails against the in­jus­tice of Santa sit­ting in judg­ment upon him.

The ex­change of gifts has an an­tique past, and is a psy­cho­log­i­cally fraught busi­ness. Each year, for ex­am­ple, I se­lect with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess, a gift for my beloved. Dur­ing our most im­pov­er­ished years, we set very strict mon­e­tary lim­its on our pur­chases. One year as we laid our gifts un­der the tree, and based upon the lit­tle hints we dropped, we had seem­ingly pur­chased iden­ti­cal gifts for one an­other. In­deed, when the gifts were unwrapped we had ex­changed iPods. Hers, from me, was a beau­ti­ful 5GB Nano. Mine, from her, was a 60GB monster. Rarely is the awk­ward asym­me­try in gift-giv­ing quite so ap­par­ent.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, some of the most pop­u­lar sto­ries about Christ­mas con­cern the busi­ness of gift ex­change.

The Broth­ers Grimm’s The Elves and the Shoe­maker (1806) may be for many chil­dren their first in­tro­duc­tion to the no­tion that though gifts may be given for their own re­ward, such ges­tures are of­ten re­cip­ro­cated. In that story, the elves’ self­less noc­tur­nal labours help grow the shoe­maker’s busi­ness and make him wealthy. In re­turn, the shoe­maker and his wife make for the elves – who in the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the story are de­scribed a “two pretty lit­tle naked men”– nice suits of clothes and pairs of shoes. A pleas­ant, though ad­mit­tedly mod­est, of­fer­ing in re­turn for set­ting the shoe­maker up for life. The lit­tle men dance off, and the shoe­maker pros­pers. If there is a trou­bling asym­me­try in this gift-ex­change, then the Broth­ers Grimm do not make a fuss about it.

O Henry’s beau­ti­ful, if sen­ti­men­tal, story Gifts of the Magi (1905) – re­told for chil­dren in a num­ber of edi­tions – de­lights be­cause it re­minds us that it is the giv­ing that is most im­por­tant. Nei­ther hus­band nor wife are ma­te­ri­ally re­warded by their gift ex­change (she cuts and sells her hair to af­ford her hus­band a chain for his watch, he sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair) but as O Henry writes, “of all those who give gifts these two were of the wis­est”. And in Christina Ros­setti’s beau­ti­ful poem, Christ­mas Carol (1872), to give a fi­nal ex­am­ple, the im­pov­er­ished nar­ra­tor asks what can I give Him, con­cludes “Yet what I can, I give Him,/Give my heart.”

The act of gift-giv­ing forces all of us, chil­dren and adults, to re­flect upon our lives as they are right now – what do we de­serve? – and, just as im­por­tantly the act calls on us to re­flect upon our re­la­tion­ships: how do we give to oth­ers with love? As we gather around the hearth, with fam­ily and friend, of­fer­ing a gift both re­veals, and when per­fectly cho­sen, con­sol­i­dates our bonds.

Christ­mas is a feast ori­ented to­ward the fu­ture in the im­por­tant sense that at its core is the pos­si­bil­ity that Christ­mas can make us feel that the world is young again and full of prom­ise. Christ­mas is the sea­son when we take stock, and re­solve to be bet­ter peo­ple.

The res­o­lu­tion of Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christ­mas! (1957) comes with a change of heart about the fu­ture: “And what hap­pened then? Well . . . in Whoville they say, That the Grinch’s small heart Grew three sizes that day!” For Scrooge, also, Christ­mases of the fu­ture are also a mat­ter of a re­newed heart. Af­ter his or­deal, Scrooge an­nounces, “I will hon­our Christ­mas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Fu­ture. The Spir­its of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the les­sons that they teach!”

So, Christ­mas has re­turned. Many of us will open a worn copy of The Night Be­fore Christ­mas (A Visit from St Nicholas) (1823) and wait for the re­turn of the right jolly old fel­low to round out the year and pre­pare our hearts for the next.

Liam Heneghan’s lat­est book is Beasts at Bed­time: Re­veal­ing the En­vi­ron­men­tal Wis­dom in Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture (Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 2018). He is pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence and stud­ies at DePaul Univer­sity. He tweets @DublinSoil

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