Christmas Stories

George Mackay Brown, whose centenary it is this year, was a talented poet who wrote six novels, including the James Tait Memorial Prize winning The Golden Bird and the Booker short-listed Beside the Ocean of Time. The majority of his fiction, however, was in the form of the short story, with nine collections published between 1967 and 1998. Now Galileo Publishers have collected all of his Christmas stories in one volume. But how many Christmas stories can one writer produce? Dickens wrote at least five, but Mackay Brown apparently amassed thirty – nine of which go as far as having ‘Christmas’ in the title – many of them originally published in newspapers such as The Scotsman and the Catholic magazine The Tablet.

Mackay Brown’s contributions to The Tablet suggest one reason why he was so prolific: in these stories the presence of Christmas is not mere decoration, and the majority of stories possess a religious, or at least spiritual, core. A number of them are set during the original Christmas. ‘Herman: a Christmas Story’ for example, begins with a young German boy being captured by a Roman Legion. Eventually, a soldier himself, he is sent to Judea during a census, and it is there, left alone on guard duty, that he sees:

“The man and the girl on donkey-back passed through, into the midnight village dappled with candle-flames and lamp-flames and so on along the noisy street towards the inn.”

‘The Lost Traveller’ tells of a man who cannot settle to life as a monk and instead falls in with a group of shepherds. Left to look after the flock at night while the others go to the inn, one of his companions returns talking of meeting “three foreigners” leading “laden camels” and looking for a lamb to take back to the town to exchange for wine. The man joins him:

“So it was that the God-seeker who had lost his way went down at midnight to the inn.”

Other stories, set in Mackay Brown’s native Orkney (where he lived most of his life), echo the Biblical story. In ‘Three Old Men’ a sailor, a shepherd and a miller meet on the road into town, each having set off with no clear purpose. The night is dark and the snow is deep, but, just as it seems they are lost:

“…the snow cloud was riven and in a deep purple chasm of sky a star shown out…”

And so they find their way to the inn.

The influence of A Christmas Carol can also be found, most obviously in the character of Rolf Scroogeson in ‘A Christmas Story’, a rather desultory adaptation that Mackay Brown limits to two pages (“We all know the rest of the story…”). More successfully, Dickens’ influence can be seen in ‘The Children’s Feast’ where, with all the shops closed, the general merchant still seems to be open for business, “the old skinflint.” Mackay Brown soon reveals what is actually happening:

“A boy ran past along the street, and the scoop of his jersey that he held out with both hands was weighted to overflowing with apples, oranges and bananas.”

As a character complains later when he is refused a bottle of whiskey, “only the bairns are getting served today.”

Kindness stands out in many of the stories, not always entirely intended, as in ‘The Box of Fish’ where a group of fishermen send a young boy, Sam, to swap a box of fish for a half bottle of rum. When he doesn’t return, they inquire at his home only for Sam’s mother to tell them, “You needn’t worry…

“Sam’s done exactly what you told him to do. Old Ezra’s had his fish. And blind Annie, and that cripple boy at the end of the village.”

Young boys are often used to represent goodness. In ‘Anna’s Boy’ the title character is judged too frail to go to school and is seen by no-one but the doctor on the island. Yet when a storm traps the children and their teacher during the Christmas party, it is Anna’s boy they find at the door, “who had carried a lighted candle through the storm.” In ‘Miss Tait and Tommy and The Carol Singers’ Miss Tait is feared as a “very severe old lady” and Tommy excluded as “he had a voice like a crow.” Yet when the singers arrive at Miss Tait’s door, they see Tommy sitting in Miss Tait’s armchair eating an apple. In ‘The Old Man in the Snow’ six-year-old James tells his family that Old Josiah has fallen in the snow, but he doesn’t know where. A search party fails to find him, but we later discover James has saved him after all as he lay in a drift happy to stay there:

“He just looked at me for a while, very serious, and went away.”

The look is enough to set Josiah thinking of the future and struggle up and on his way.

Christmas Stories is (slightly more than) an advent calendar of delights. Written with a poet’s voice, with sly humour but a serious heart, these stories are the perfect antidote to seasonal cynicism and fatigue.

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7 Responses to “Christmas Stories”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    What an intriguing collection! And the spiritual side is perhaps unexpected, since most Christmas stories seem to focus on the superficial trappings (at least nowadays). The settings sound unusual too – I may have to look this out as a possible future seasonal read!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Wow, thirty stories – that’s quite some collection! How lovely to have them all gathered together in one volume, like an extended advent calendar, as you’ve highlighted at the end of your piece. I’m currently working my way through a Penguin anthology of Christmas stories in between other, longer reads. This is my third year with it – definitely a good investment, so to speak!

  3. Tony Says:

    Christmas collections are certainly appealing (I enjoyed the Trollope one), and this sounds good, too 🙂

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