There are few Christmas stories that begin with a scene so ragged and rich as a threadbare, moth-gnawed Santa Claus who, returning to his flat after hearing the desires of adoring urchins, pulls bottles of chianti from his boots for himself and an old friend on Christmas afternoon. Christmas stories are all about the shabby and the glorious, for heaven’s glory is often hard to perceive through the world’s rags. Sometimes, all one can see clearly is the trash and the tragedy, like Eliot’s melancholy Magi. Despite the joy of Christmas, there is often something inexplicably sad about it. “The Worst Christmas Story” by Christopher Morley takes up this mystery in the vein of Andersen’s Matchgirl and Fir Tree. It is not the best Christmas story, but it is certainly not the worst either, for it challenges the tired symbols of a secularized season to something solid, yet sad, far beyond the hollow platitudes of Hallmark.
As founder of the Baker Street Irregulars—arguably the most prestigious Sherlock Holmes society in the world—American journalist, essayist, and novelist Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was a man who appreciated a good mystery; and, as any discerning intellect (and heart) will recognize, a better mystery never was than Christmas, when God became Man in the mystery of mysteries. Even Mr. Holmes, though not so much an appreciator of the mystery of things as much as the mystery in things, contributed to the canon of Christmas with “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” when a miserable thief was forgiven and given a second chance on Christmas Day. But even with such earthly lustrations, there is always an element of shadow. Not all are forgiven. Not everyone is given a second chance, as Ebenezer Scrooge was. One of the grandest aspects of the mystery of things lies in the tragedy of things—in the tears of things, lacrimae rerum, as Virgil put it. As heartwarming as Christmas connotations are for most, it is, mysteriously enough, the heartbreaking that Morley meditates over in his 1939 sketch, “The Worst Christmas Story.”
The so-called “worst Christmas story in the world” is told over the wine by the man in the Santa suit. He had been an aspiring writer once upon a time—a time when he was in love with a young girl who was an aspiring artist. But the Great Panic of 1907 had New York in financial freefall and there was no work, especially not for aspiring writers and artists. In desperation, he accepted a commission to write a series of greeting-card poems for a company in Chicago, even though the mawkish hogwash he produced was repugnant to him and his ambitions. He felt mocked by the muses as he scratched out silly, saccharine rhymes about warm hearths, happy hearts, slushy-gushy Yuletides, and holly-jolly Christmases as he shivered and starved in his icy, misanthropic apartment.
His chagrin and dejection over this syrupy “metrical cheer,” which he kept secret out of humiliation, eventually led to an estrangement between him and his lady. In spite of their growing bitterness, however, he held firmly to a desire to earn his pay and buy her a fur collar for Christmas. Finally, one terrible day, the young man unexpectedly came across the young woman in the street and saw her wearing the very accessory that he intended to buy for her. Renouncing her for leaving him for one with money, he rushed to his dismal garret in rage and despair.
There he found a handsome paycheck waiting for him, together with a written offer to take up a permanent position writing holiday jingles in Chicago. He flew to his love to make amends and promise to provide for her more than her new lover ever could. He reveals the source of his fortunes and foul temper to her, and, in return she reveals the name of the man who furnished her collar. The truth and its outcome are too tragic to spoil in a review. “The Worst Christmas Story” follows a plot line similar to O. Henry’s classic “The Gift of the Magi,” but its conclusion is far more devastating. One might say it is more down to earth with its grime and grit, and that is only appropriate for fiction that is connected with the greatest Down-to-Earth Thing.
The glitzy trends of the “Happy-Holidays” Christmas is the Achilles heel of this story about clear-eyed and clear-souled artists whose sensibilities render them star-crossed lovers. It is that nebulous, Christless Christmas that infects even as it scratches on the surface of the central, sacrificial mystery of Christmas. Yet, as the modern world tends to do, it settles for the superficial even while its poison runs deep. Christmas has been reduced and relegated to giving and getting, a problem sugared over with “good-will-toward-men” clichés that attempt some guise of secular comfort dressed in scriptural clothing. The real problem is that the spiritual element of the season has been relinquished, which is why Morley’s bootlegging Santa carries spirits in his boots.
As can be seen in other holy days boiled down into holidays, the things that the heavens have established as upright are the very things the world turns topsy-turvy. Instead of Easter commemorating the most significant point in human history, it is about a most insignificant pastel bunny. Instead of Valentine’s Day commemorating the patron saint of love, it is about the patron saint of sentimental greeting cards. Instead of St. Patrick’s Day commemorating the victory of religion over pagan revelry, it is about the victory of pagan revelry over religion. Instead of Halloween commemorating the holy triumph of life over death, it is about the horrific triumph of death over life. Instead of Christmas commemorating peace on earth, it is about pressure and worth. But Christmas means a great deal more, and the altruistic balm of the PC culture is insufficient to assuage the pangs of the hungry soul. In the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present from Dickens’ Carol:
There are some upon this earth of yours… who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.
Christopher Morley’s “The Worst Christmas Story” is a tragedy that stands in contrast to the joy of the Word Made Flesh. And that is an important stance, for in making men more sensible to their need to be saved, the more will they seek a Savior and rejoice in the mystery of salvation. That God became man is a tremendous mystery. That God became man to die a violent death for the sins of mankind is a terrible mystery. That His Birth, Passion, Death, and Resurrection will play out for all in one way or another is yet another mystery. It is the mystery of the Incarnation. It is the mystery of faith. It is, all at once, the best thing about Christmas and the worst thing about Christmas. And the human drama plays these themes out over and over in a constant echo and reminder of the mysterious ways of Providence and the mystery of every person’s redemption. Christopher Morley’s “The Worst Christmas Story” points to the best things about Christmas in a tale that, at the same time, brings out the worst things about our nature and our culture. And it is worth the read, so long as one goes in prepared for the worst.