In 1975, The New Yorker published a short story, by Vladimir Nabokov, simply titled “Christmas.” Although the story’s title may have been rather commonplace, its subject was anything but. Nabokov’s tale deals with the ways that memory, loss, and rebirth often encircle one another. While looking through his late son’s belongings on Christmas Eve, the story’s protagonist comes across a journal and makes a startling discovery. “The open notebook shone radiantly on the table; next to it the light went through the muslin of the butterfly net, and glistened on a corner of the open tin,” the novelist writes. “Sleptsov pressed his eyes shut, and had a fleeting sensation that earthly life lay before him, totally bared and comprehensible.” What begins as a story of mourning shifts as it unfolds—transforming, like a chrysalis, into a tale about the unforeseen marvels that can occur when family and hope convene after a long separation.
During this second pandemic year, many of us have experienced lengthy separations from our loved ones, while others have been fortunate enough to be able to come together more frequently. This week, in honor of the season (and even as we face new uncertainties), we’re bringing you a selection of pieces about Christmas and the holiday spirit. In “The Burden of the Feast,” Bobbie Ann Mason recalls the celebratory holiday meals that her mother would assemble at their family farm in Kentucky. In “Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor,” by John Cheever, an elevator operator enjoys seasonal generosity while also experiencing some unanticipated consequences. (“House after house put into the shine of the street lights a wall of black windows. Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall of the city, the end of time.”) In “Year’s End,” by Jhumpa Lahiri, a college student faces challenges when he visits his family in New England over the holidays. In “Christmas Story,” Joseph Mitchell recalls a surprising encounter, when he was a younger reporter, with an unusual couple who had previously resided in a cave in Central Park. In “A New Package of Energy,” E. B. White reminisces about the small everyday miracles of the holiday season, which can materialize even during times of great instability. In “A Visit from Saint Nicholas (in the Ernest Hemingway Manner),” James Thurber parodies the classic holiday verse by Clement Clarke Moore. (“The moon shone on the snow. The moon gave the lustre of mid-day to objects in the snow. There was a miniature sleigh in the snow, and eight tiny reindeer. A little man was driving them.”) Finally, in “My Ex-Husband and the Fish Dinner,” Joan Acocella playfully recounts the unconventional holiday repasts that her ex would painstakingly prepare. “My husband decided to Italianize our Christmas,” she writes. “The people in his grandparents’ generation had followed the old-country custom of eating their feast not on December 25th, but the night before. And it wasn’t turkey; it was a nine-course fish dinner.” After opening all of your gifts, we hope that you’ll spend some time with these classic pieces from our archive. From all of us here at The New Yorker: happy holidays.
—Erin Overbey, archive editor