Reading aloud on Christmas Eve is a tradition for many families, with Clement Clarke Moore’s poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (a.k.a. ’Twas the Night Before Christmas), the opening chapter of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol among favorite choices.
If you’re looking for more contemporary readings, there is a wealth of choices. My own taste runs toward listening to the audio version of David Sedaris’ sardonic Holidays on Ice, but that’s rather on the dark side for family gatherings (depending on your family).
Here are three 21st century holiday readings to consider.
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
In this smart, funny 2012 novel by the beloved author of The Poisonwood Bible and Pigs in Heaven, a young woman named Dellarobia Turnbow is struggling to get by as a wife and mother of two little kids living in an economically bleak Appalachian town. One day, up in the mountains, she happens upon a valley blanketed in countless monarch butterflies — an event that is variously interpreted as everything from a harbinger of climate change (by a group of scientists who arrive pronto) to a miraculous sign from God (by Dellarobia’s mother-in-law).
The novel includes a chapter called "Global Exchange" that’s set at Christmastime. It begins with Dellarobia and her less-than-mature husband, Cub, going to the dollar store to Christmas shop for the kids — a task that devolves into an epic and hilarious running argument that has her wondering "how many divorces could be directly traced to holiday spending." Dellarobia persists, though, throwing a merry improvised Christmas party — much to her own surprise.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Holiday feasts at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are among the most entertaining scenes in Rowling’s world-conquering series of novels. Sorcerer’s Stone is the first book, and it introduces the celebration of Christmas in the wizarding world.
In the chapter titled "The Mirror of Erised," Hogwarts students are eager for the holiday break, even the ones who will spend Christmas there instead of going home — a group that includes Harry. He expects it to "probably be the best Christmas he’d ever had," not much of a stretch after his early years stuck living with the dreadful Dursley family.
What he doesn’t anticipate is the Great Hall decorated with a small forest of trees and hundreds of floating candles, the enormous rollicking feast or the modest but satisfying pile of gifts that includes not only a sweater hand-knit by Molly Weasley but an invisibility cloak of mysterious provenance. And, of course, he’ll encounter the dangerously fascinating mirror of the title.
Sabbath by Oliver Sacks
Sacks was a neurologist, professor and author of many bestselling books on medicine and science, including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
His essay Sabbath, originally published in the New York Times in August of 2015, just weeks before his death at age 82, also appears in his posthumously published collection Gratitude. The essay is not specifically about the holidays but begins as a warm reminiscence about Sacks’ childhood in Cricklewood, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of London, where the observation of the Sabbath brought together not only families but the entire community. World War II fragmented that community, and, as Sacks recounts, his own realization as a teen that he was gay fractured his family.
But the essay moves the story across six decades to another Sabbath, one that reunites him with family members in a community just as loving and filled with grace as the one he recalls from boyhood: "The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time. ..." It’s a heartwarming story, and beautifully told.