Our holiday stories are so cloyingly flavored with sugar plums that Claire Keegan’s Christmas novella tastes especially fresh. At the opening of “Small Things Like These,” one immediately senses that Keegan is breathing something vital into the season’s most cherished tales, until, as gently as snow falling, her little book accrues the unmistakable aura of a classic.

The scene opens in New Ross, on the coast of Ireland. In just a few pages, the town rises up in all its picturesque antiquity with a web of economic and social tensions thrumming beneath the surface. It’s 1985, and New Ross is enduring a grinding decline. With businesses shuttered, the dole lines are long and the houses cold. Those who can leave have already skipped abroad looking for work, life.

Keegan’s Everyman hero is Bill Furlong, whose past and present she sketches with such crisp efficiency that the brush marks of her artistry are almost invisible. Furlong knows he’s fortunate. Though born here into poverty and orphaned early, he became the ward of a wealthy widow — a Protestant, no less! — who set him up with a little money. Now happily married with five daughters, he sells coal and timber around town.

Furlong can’t quite articulate what, if anything, is troubling him. “I’m just a bit weary, is all,” he tells his wife. “Pay no heed.” Maybe he’s just spooked by seeing how quickly financial ruin can strike these days. “It would be the easiest thing in the world to lose everything,” he thinks. “The times were raw.”

Or does his vague unease stem from some existential dissatisfaction? “Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered,” Keegan writes. “He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of headway and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.”

But these are not thoughts this happy husband and father with a good job will let himself entertain. “Furlong felt all the more determined to carry on, to keep his head down and stay on the right side of people, and to keep providing for his girls.”

Besides, it’s Christmastime! Keegan practically dusts these early pages with cinnamon and nutmeg: The townspeople gather in the square to light the tall spruce next to the recently repainted Nativity scene. Santa makes an appearance. Try the gingerbread, but mind the cocoa — it’s hot! You can almost hear Tiny Tim blessing these people, every one! — and, on cue, Furlong recalls receiving an old copy of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”

But Keegan is constantly complicating this jolly holiday. “It was a December of crows,” she writes just before introducing us to the convent of the Good Shepherd nuns. The sisters take in unfortunate girls. “Little was known about the training school,” Keegan explains, but the laundry service provided by the convent is first rate — used by all the area restaurants, wealthy households and priests. If there are dark rumors about the place, well, what do you expect? “People said lots of things — and a good half of what was said could not be believed; never was there any shortage of idle minds or gossips about town.”

Irish readers will hear the ominous undertones of this passage before most Americans. Keegan is working here close to the horrors of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Nickel Boys.” As she explains in a brief note, the Magdalene laundries, which were run for more than 200 years by religious orders, subjected thousands of young women to forced labor, physical abuse, baby kidnapping and even early death.

Whatever terrors are running through the Good Shepherd convent remain largely buried beneath a code of silence enforced by fear and sealed with the presumption of holiness. Still, there’s nothing polemical about “Small Things Like These.” Keegan’s focus isn’t on exposing the church but on examining the conscience of a man when doing nothing is by far the easier and safer course.

How subtly Keegan sets up an early-morning encounter, just before Christmas. It’s then, while Furlong is making his rounds with a delivery of coal that he meets a young woman trapped in the Good Shepherd convent. The past few months have brought him to a place where he can ask with all his heart, “Was there any point in being alive without helping one another?” It’s a moment fraught with the potential thrill of radical action, but Furlong can hear his wife’s advice still ringing in his ears: “If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.”

From the elements of this simple existence in an inconsequential town, Keegan has carved out a profoundly moving and universal story. There’s nothing preachy here, just the strange joy and anxiety of firmly resisting cruelty. Daunted by the choice before him, Furlong envies the town’s river. “How easily the water followed its incorrigible way,” he thinks, while he must pursue his own path — or not.

Grand gestures, extravagant generosity, moments of surprising forgiveness all have their rightful place in our holiday legends. But “Small Things Like These” reminds us that the real miracle in any season is courage.

Get two copies: one to keep, one to give.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.

Small Things Like These

By Claire Keegan

Grove. 118 pp. $20