We’ve covered a variety of straight up Christmas books, but what about all those books where a chapter about Christmas just sneaks up on you and gives you a little insight into the Christmas traditions of other places and times past? That, my friends, is an incidental Christmas, and here are some books where you’ll find them!
Emma, by Jane Austen (1816): Set in the early 1800s in Highbury (Surrey), England, Christmas appears in the form of the disastrous Christmas Eve party at the Westons’. With wintry weather beginning and Harriet unavailable for the evening’s festivities due to a bad cold, Emma is forced to endure Mr. Elton’s obsequious attentions and evident lack of care for the absence of his presumed beloved, and his real inclinations toward her are revealed as they travel together on the trip home afterwards. Apart from Emma’s uncomfortable thoughts and experiences, the evening seems to consist of a good deal of conversation in small groups interrupted only by dinner and again by the weather threatening to make travel difficult. It is also suggested that, were it not for the weather and her father’s subsequent objections, they would have attended church on Christmas morning.
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (1868): Set during the Civil War in New England, the book actually opens with Christmas preparations. The four girls are gathered together bemoaning the fact that they aren’t going to have gifts at Christmas this year because their father is serving as a chaplain on the front lines of the Civil War and their mother doesn’t feel it’s right to spend money on pleasures when the soldiers are lacking so much. They first debate buying themselves what they want before deciding to use their money to buy gifts for their hard-working mother instead, and they make big plans for a theatrical production on Christmas night. After reading a letter from their father, they resolve to work to make themselves better to make him proud. On Christmas morning, their mother asks them to join her in giving away their special breakfast to a poor immigrant family nearby. They and some (unidentified) friends put on the play (somewhat disastrously), and a wealthy neighbor rewards their good deed of the morning with an elaborate Christmas dinner surprise.
Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932): Set in the late 1800s in the woods of Wisconsin, the Christmas portion of the story takes place relatively early in the book. Pa spends a lot of time carving an ornate shelf to give to Ma for Christmas, and Ma and the girls work at the festive foods (including molasses candy made in the snow). Their aunt, uncle, and cousins come to spend Christmas with them, and the cousins teach them the Big Woods version of snow angels–climb on a stump, then fall face first into the snow to make a snow “picture” of themselves. They go to bed early–all the girls in one big bed–to sleep and wait for Santa to come, and they hang their stockings by the fireplace. Pa plays for them on his fiddle to get them to sleep, and they wake to find mittens and a peppermint stick in each stocking. Laura also receives a rag doll she names Charlotte. The adults exchange their own homemade gifts (“Santa Claus had not given them anything at all. Santa Claus did not give grown people presents, but that was not because they had not been good. Pa and Ma were good. It was because they were grown up, and grown people must give each other presents.”) After chores, Ma makes pancakes shaped like little men for the children, and the children spend the day looking at pictures in the Bible and animal pictures in another book. Their parents allow them to indulge at Christmas dinner, and then the cousins have to bundle up to head back home in the bobsled, and Laura reflects that it was a very happy Christmas. (This Christmas story and others from the series can be found in the anthology A Little House Christmas: Holiday Stories from the Little House Books.)
Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery (1908): Set in the late 1800s in a small town on Prince Edward Island, Canada, the Christmas part of the first Anne story doesn’t really talk much about Christmas itself at all! Anne and her classmates are preparing for a fundraising concert on Christmas night, and Anne will have several significant pieces to perform. Matthew notices that Anne isn’t dressed like all the other girls, and he decides to buy her a nice dress with puffed sleeves for Christmas, and their neighbor, Mrs. Lynde, helps by choosing the fabric and sewing the dress to surprise her. Anne wakes on Christmas morning to snow on the ground (“I’m so glad it’s white! Any other kind of Christmas just doesn’t seem real, does it?”) and Matthew’s surprise gift which brings her to tears. (No other gifts or special celebrations are mentioned, and that seems fitting with Marilla’s spartan way of approaching life.) The performance, which has nothing to do with Christmas, goes well, and both Matthew and Marilla are proud of Anne and begin to see that she has gifts that will need more than a local school to fully cultivate. (Anne, with her zest for life and the kind of personality that I envy, was my favorite literary character growing up–I even gave my GirlChild her name as a middle name!)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis (1950): Set in the English countryside during WWII and then, of course, in Narnia, the Christmas story in the land where there is “always winter and never Christmas” takes place in the chapter called “The Spell Begins to Break.” Now that the White Witch’s spell is failing, Father Christmas arrives and distributes useful gifts and a fully prepared tray of tea things to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and the children. He is not just “funny and jolly” like he is depicted in our world, but his true self was “so big, and so glad, and so real that they all became quite still.” The episode is a short one, but it is a vital turning point in the story.
Ramona and Her Father, by Beverly Cleary (1977): Set in Oregon in the middle of the 20th century, the Quimby family is experiencing hard times around Christmas because of Ramona’s father losing his job. Ramona is willing to give up a lot to make Christmas easier for her family, but having to wear a pair of faded pajamas as her sheep costume in the church pageant because her mother is too busy with work to sew her a proper costume is almost more than she can bear. A big girl steps in and saves Ramona’s confidence by painting a little black nose on her with eyeliner, and Ramona looks at her parents in the audience and sees her father’s love and once again feels secure despite the difficult times they’re coming through.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling (1997): Set in England in the 1990s, this Christmas episode is the first positive Christmas experience Harry has had. Staying behind at Hogwarts is by far more pleasant than returning to the Dursleys and their hand-me-down “gifts.” Hogwarts is decorated festively with holly and mistletoe and evergreens decorated magically. Expecting nothing but the celebratory food and fun on Christmas morning, Harry is delighted to find that he has received gifts from Hagrid (a hand-carved wooden flute), Mrs. Weasley (a hand-knitted sweater and homemade fudge), Hermione (a box of Chocolate Frogs), and the Cloak of Invisibility from an unknown giver. The Christmas dinner includes turkey, potatoes, chipolatas (pork sausages), peas, gravy, and cranberry sauce, and there are special “wizard crackers” (wizard versions of the classic British party favors). Dinner is followed by Christmas puddings and snowball fights outside.
A couple other books with Christmas events that I didn’t have a chance to read thoroughly to summarize:
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, by Jean Shepherd (1966): Unclear if memoir or fiction, an adult book set in Indiana sometime in the early-mid-twentieth century–A Christmas Story (the “You’ll shoot your eye out!” movie) was adapted from a segment of this book.
The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper (1973): Part of a fantasy series, set in modern (at the time) England.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry (1993): A dystopian novel set in the future.
If you know of any others, please feel free to leave the title in the comments!