●The “Christmas at Dingley Dell” section of Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers.” A yuletide in the country, with ice skating, hot grog and a ghost story.
●“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” by Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes, Watson and the stolen jewel found in a Christmas goose.
●“The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry. Sentimental, yes, but also perfect.
●The “Dulce Domum” chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” Ratty and Mole snug in the latter’s warm burrow on a cold winter’s night when the snow was so deep.
●“The Mote in the Middle Distance,” by Max Beerbohm. To peep into one’s stocking or not — Christmas, Henry James style, in this best of all literary parodies.
●“The Story of the Other Wise Man,” by Henry van Dyke. A true tear-jerker, now somewhat forgotten.
●“The Box of Delights,” by John Masefield. An underappreciated masterpiece, featuring magic, English folklore and time travel: “The wolves are running!”
●“A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by Dylan Thomas. Read it or, better still, listen to the poet’s unforgettable recording.
●“A Christmas for Shacktown,” by Carl Barks. Donald Duck and his nephews struggle to bring seasonal joy to the poor of Duckburg.
●“A Christmas Story,” by Jean Shepherd. Ralphie and the BB gun. Made into a beloved 1983 movie.
●“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” by Barbara Robinson. The hilarious children’s favorite.
●“A Christmas Carol at 221B,” by Thomas Mann. Sherlock meets Scrooge — a holiday mystery story by a retired Washington reference librarian.
Hoping to add to the above list, this year I decided to reread the nine fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. A few of these first took shape as bedtime stories for the great wit’s two sons, but others resemble the adult parables and anecdotes with which Wilde effortlessly charmed London dinner parties. There are many editions available, often illustrated. Just last month, Nicholas Frankel, of Virginia Commonwealth University, brought out an exceptional, scholarly compilation, “The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Selection,” which reprints the five best fairy tales, as well as Wilde’s sprightly early fiction.
First published in “The Happy Prince and Other Stories” (1888) and “A House of Pomegranates” (1891), these short fantasies aren’t set at Christmas, though they all emphasize what should be vitally important at this time of year — love, kindness, help for the unfortunate, self-sacrifice. They also remind us how often the rich and physically attractive can be heartless, vain and cruel. Not least, “The Selfish Giant,” “The Young King,” “The Star-Child” and all the others are written in exquisite, entrancingly musical prose.
Perhaps the story that best exemplifies the Christmas spirit is “The Happy Prince.” A bejeweled and gold-encrusted statue called the Happy Prince stands high above the city. One day a swallow, already late on its migration south to Egypt, takes refuge at its base. The next day the Happy Prince asks the bird to pluck out a ruby from his sword’s pummel and carry it to a starving widow. The swallow initially hesitates — he really must be flying south — but finally agrees. Day after day the prince agonizes over the suffering around him; day after day, the swallow, at the statue’s insistence, gradually strips his new friend of all his splendor, from the jewels that make up his eyes to the shining gold leaf of his skin.
By this time, winter has arrived. The swallow, who has come to love the prince, falls dead after a final mission of mercy just as the statue’s heart, made of lead, snaps in two. The following morning the town’s councilors notice how embarrassingly shabby the Happy Prince now looks. Why, not only does he resemble a beggar, there’s even a dead bird at his feet! So the statue is melted down for its metal, except for the heart, which is tossed on the same trash heap as the swallow’s body. There follows an ending impossible to read without tearing up:
“ ‘Bring me the two most precious things in the city,’ said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.
“ ‘You have rightly chosen,’ said God, ‘for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.’ ”
Alternately wistful and satirical, Wilde’s tales are suffused with biblical phraseology and an Arabian Nights atmosphere, even as they explore the dualities of beauty and ugliness, body and spirit, appearance and reality. In fact, “The Fisherman and His Soul”— my own favorite — might almost be a preliminary run-through for “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Some, though, are even more shocking or heartbreaking than the darker works of Grimm or Andersen. Little Hans dies helping the hypocrite who claims to be his “devoted friend.” The nightingale gives its lifeblood to create a perfect red rose. The misshapen dwarf imagines that the callous little princess loves him.
In the end, Wilde’s stories all stress the same moral: Human beings should act with compassion toward others. And isn’t that the Christmas message? “Love,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “is holy because it is like grace — the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” No doubt Wilde’s pathos-rich fairy tales won’t do for every Christmas, but they strike me as just right for the final days of exhausting, sorrowful 2020.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.