My Advent Calendar story reading mini-project

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A couple weeks ago, I posted my intent to read my way through the fourteen stories and one essay in the speculative fiction anthology, “Gifts of the Magi.” (pictured below – not your Grandfather’s O. Henry Gift of the Magi!)

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I used an abbreviated “advent calendar” starting on December 10th, where I began reading one story a day (as far as you know) and finished on Christmas Eve. (I should also mention that I borrowed the idea of an advent calendar-ish reading project from Randall at his excellent blog, Time Enough at Last) I might have researched this project a little more carefully, though, as the introduction clearly states that “The concept for this anthology was that each author tell an original story set in the “world” of, and with characters from, their ongoing series.” My lack of familiarity with these worlds or series made some of the stories a little too difficult to effectively gain my footing in. Nevertheless, most stood on their own enough for me to enjoy, and as always I found certain things in them to be thought-provoking. I’ll write a little detail about a few and then some general impressions. As to my favorite story from the volume, Marian Allen’s “The Warmth of Midwinter,” I’ve assigned it a place in my annual Deal Me In short story reading project so will write about it in a separate post when it’s drawn from my short story deck.

Lumps of Coal – an essay by Nicole Cushing

Cushing writes about how, with the commercialization of the holidays, it’s only natural that authors may decide to sometimes incorporate a holiday theme into their work, but also warns that, although “…some mashups (like, for example, The Nightmare Before Christmas) work. The two different aspects end up working out well together, like chocolate and peanut butter.” But that the ones she focuses on in her essay “work more like yogurt and gravy.” She asks the question: “…what happens when the genre/holiday mashup is…well..awkward? What happens when authors and screenwriters try a little too hard? When a genre-related work is a square peg that doesn’t really fit the round hole of the holidays (but someone tries to make it fit, anyway)?”

To answer her question, she comes up with a list of three mashup disasters: The television series Tales from the Darkside episode “Monsters in the Room”, the film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (remember that one?) and, saving the best for last, 1976’s “A Bionic Christmas Carol” (yes, really) from the TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man.” This last was of particular interest to me since that show was broadcast in my “formative years” and was followed avidly by my schoolmates and me. I don’t remember this particular episode, but I do remember the horrible “Bigfoot/Sasquatch as an alien” episode (a two-parter(!), even, if memory serves) and former boxer George Foreman once making a guest appearance. I distinctly recall serious discussions with my friends on whether or not Foreman could “win a fight” with the eyebrow-arching, leisure suit-wearing Steve Austin (portrayed by actor Lee Majors).

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I also liked The Longest Night by Matthew Barron

Told in the first-person by a young boy whose village is held in terror by the visitations of a murderous monster as the days grow shorter – and the nights LONGER – with the deepening season. The monster turns out to not be the true root source of terror, though. Instead it is more likely a caste of “Sun Prophets” who are using the people’s fear of the lengthening nights to win “converts” to their faith, or just to strengthen the hold on them that faith already has. After one of the deaths, one of the prophets proclaims:

“Another of the unfaithful has died at the hands of Night,” Lumes said. “But this shall be the last! Through your faith, the Day is reborn! The long night is over!”

I’m a sucker for stories where superstition or dogma is overthrown, and this one fits the bill. The ending of the story is also good in that it hints that this battle against superstition – and especially those who use its sway to advance their own agenda – never really ends.

We returned to the town square. The children were singing a song of Sun’s triumph over Night. I protested the lyrics, but Father said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ ‘But—’ Father held my shoulder in his big hand. ‘It doesn’t matter. Let them be happy.'”

And, finally:

“The days would grow long, and spring’s resurrection was on its way. The long night was finally over… At least until next year.”

How Krampus Saved Christmas by S.H. Rodney

Do you know who “The Krampus” of legend is? If I’d ever learned this tidbit I’d forgotten and needed this story to remind me. According to Wikipedia, he’s kind of a “companion figure” to Saint Nicholas, one who punishes bad children or those who have misbehaved during the Christmas season. He’s still big in Austria and Germany apparently. It is speculated that he is yet another pagan tradition that somehow got assimilated into More Christian legends.

The story begins in a bar where Santa and the Krampus are “blowing the froth off a couple” pints, and are both lamenting how the bad children are getting worse and more numerous with every year. The Krampus goes into a diatribe and starts a “movement” by winning recruits to his “nightmare army” whose purpose is to correct this state of affairs. (I couldn’t help but think of the “Death Eaters” on the march in HP) Part of his recruiting speech is quite convincing:

To the children of this world, you shall bring fear and humility. To the parents of this world, relief that they might live a healthy life without the struggle of badness in their children. And to the Jolly One, you shall bring a rekindled sense of purpose! Save our fair folk tonight with your misdeeds! Go forth, my brethren, and wreak havoc!”

Meanwhile, “Santa shook his head in exasperation but said nothing. It would do no good. He looked down at the two rolled lists on the counter and sighed. The nice list was pretty slim this year. It would do these whippersnappers some good to have the bad scared out of them.”

Will the Krampus’s “crusade” prove successful? What would you think his chances of success would be?

Below  from Wikipedia – The Krampus and Saint Nicholas visit an Eastern European family…

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Other thoughts:

What is this Christmas of which you speak?”
One story, “Season of Renewal” by Debra Holland, features an alien world, but one which does have some human inhabitants. In discussing holidays and celebrations the humans find themselves having to explain Christmas to the alien leader. I found the discussion of different holiday traditions – both human and alien – to be thought provoking. I mean, how would you describe your own traditions in a way to convince others that yours are better or at least reasonable?

I loved the title, “Quantum of Solstice” by J.P. Bastin which, appropriately, is a spy thriller of a story with a climax at a holiday party on the winter solstice.

I also enjoyed getting re-acquainted with the ONE character in this anthology I knew from prior reading, R J Sullivan’s Fiona “Blue” Schaefer, who I first met in the novel “Haunting Blue,” the first of a series that the story included in this book was set in. Blue’s character is a “Punk” girl, but one with a lot of moxie that compels you to like and root for her, which I did before and in this story as well.

There was also the interesting character of the “Transit King” who curiously appears in multiple stories (the last three in the book); my lack of “grounding” in these worlds had me flipping back pages thinking, “Wait, I thought he was a character in the last story!” (he’s described as “an informant from the fairy world who travels the public roadways. He frequently comes upon information of a paranormal nature.”) I did find, however, that having a character that bridged across several stories proved was an interesting idea, and one which left me wishing I WAS more familiar with these worlds and characters.

There were a couple stories that had a kind of “secret Santa” (not in the modern meaning of that term) element where protagonists meet a character that later they (and you!) begin to wonder – or realize – “hmm… maybe this guy is really Santa Claus.” That ever gets old. :-)in fact just yesterday I caught an old Christmas episode (1954) of “Father Knows Best” – one where the father, in top Clark Griswold form, decides they’ll go up in the mountains in a heavy snow to cut down a live spruce for their Christmas tree. Of course they get stranded when stuck in a snow drift and have to break into a nearby house to try to find a phone to call for help. While inside the house’s apparent owner returns – a white-bearded old man whose name is Nick (of course it is). Predictably, he helps the kids, previously anxious to get home, discover the true meaning of Christmas.. Yada yada yada. 🙂

Below: Father Knows Best – unless you’re talking about procrastinating and not buying a Christmas Tree until Christmas Eve, then dragging your family out in a snowstorm and getting them stranded in “the middle of nowhere”…

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For some reason, this collection of stories also reminded me of the time when a child that I eventually learned that Santa Claus was a myth. Out of the blue, I think it was during the summer, I was called in from playing outside and very seriously told to sit down on a stool I n the kitchen and my parents broke the news. I admitted I had grown skeptical, mainly because of the impossibility of his visiting EVERY house in one night, but then, clinging to one last hope of his reality, said, “Wait, what about the milk and cookies he ate?” (Ha! Explain that away Mom and Dad! Oh, YOU ate them yourselves? Sigh….). My Mom also likes to relate how, when they told my older brother the news his response was a somber, “You’ve ruined Christmas for me…”

What about you? Did you do any Christmas-specific reading this season? Do you have a favorite – or least favorite – Christmas episode of a TV series? When and how did you learn the truth about Santa Claus and what was YOUR reaction?

Below: Santa debating with the Martians (over who has the coolest hats?) as children look on in wonder…

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3 Comments

  1. BookerTalk said,

    December 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    I somehow missed the original post where you talked about this project. You always come up with an imaginative way to decide what to read next.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. December 27, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    I’ve been hearing more about Krampus in recent years, but somehow my family’s southern German traditions roll him and St. Nicholas together. On St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6th), St. Nicholas would visit with a bag of presents in one hand and a hickory switch in the other. Of course, my brother and I would always somehow just miss St. Nicholas on the way down to my grandparent’s house. Since we were good kids (mostly), he’d always leave some chocolate hidden somewhere in the house.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 28, 2014 at 11:58 am

      🙂 I’ve now seen Krampus a couple other places just since reading this book. I don’t know how he’s escaped my interest all these years. One article I saw yesterday suggested he was making a “comeback” in his native Austria/Germany…

      Like


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