The Washington Post, December 20, 2017
It's Christmas. Let the murder begin.
From the grave, P.D. James stretches forth a cadaver's finger with a posthumously released story titled "The Murder of Santa Claus." From the hecklers' balcony, the reliably droll Donna Andrews serves up How the Finch Stole Christmas! , and Peter Lovesey's anthology The Usual Santas promises laughter and death. And from the vales of Victorian England, Emily Brightwell's Mrs. Jeffries and the Three Wise Women and Anne Perry's A Christmas Return offer the new spilling of old blood.
With that metallic taste still on your tongue, why not travel back to the golden age of holiday-themed cozies? To Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel and to Dorothy L. Sayers's The Nine Tailors and to Dame Agatha Christie, who rang in the season with such heartwarming titles as "A Christmas Tragedy" and "Murder for Christmas."
Ellery Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery features the theological conundrum of a Christmas crucifixion, and Sherlock Holmes, in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," gets to pore over the corpse of a Christmas goose, which turns out to harbor a priceless jewel. (You didn't think it would be a cheap jewel.)
Let's acknowledge up front that this whole death-for-the-holidays trend is counterfactual. Homicide rates actually decline in December, and contrary to popular myth, so do suicide rates. But, with so many dead bodies in the fictional ledger, we might reasonably ask ourselves whether there's a war on Christmas or a war within it.
Because even at a time when so many songs promise peace on earth and when so many retail establishments garland themselves in wreaths and sprays and bows and fake snow, there is something, perhaps, that doesn't love a Santa throne, that wants it down. Indeed, one need only harken back to those first Christmas stories—to the Gospel of Matthew, in particular, where Jesus' birth triggers a massacre of all baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem—to see that life and death have a peculiarly vigorous way of rubbing against each other during the holidays.
Like the solstice festivals that preceded and shaped it, Christmas is a sliver of light carved from the darkest time of the year, and even our most beloved holiday artifacts tremble at the thought that the darkness is winning. The bitter dudgeon of the Grinch, heart-shrunken in his cave; the carnage of mice and gingerbread soldiers in "The Nutcracker"; the suicidal spiral of George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life"; the snowy annihilation of the Little Match Girl—peace and harmony don't come naturally to us at year's end, and neither does survival.
Nobody grasped these exigencies better than Charles Dickens. Looking back on his own hardscrabble childhood, he recalled: "I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond." Or he might have been the impoverished street boy who comes calling in the opening pages of A Christmas Carol , his nose "gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs." (Scrooge chases him away with a ruler.) Virtually every character in Dickens's ur-text is walking a knife's edge of contingency. The Cratchits, like Scrooge's nephew, live on the brink of penury, and Scrooge himself, as he concludes his journey through Christmas present, is introduced to a pair of child-demons named Ignorance and Want: "yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish" figures who are close enough to Dickens's own experience to transcend allegory.
Up to now, Scrooge's only solution to the problem of suffering has been prisons and workhouses, and it may be that Christmas is darkest when it calls out our own darkness—all the ways in which we fail each other. Progressive reforms have erased some of the more overt evils of Dickens's era, but we have retained, all the way to modern times, the habit of falling short—or, more diffusely, the feeling that the holiday itself has fallen short. Our music exposes us. One of the most unaccountable recent additions to the shopping-mall audio loop is Joni Mitchell's "River," which advocates skating away from all the holiday's appurtenances, including cut-down trees, reindeer and "songs of joy and peace." "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," in its original version, defers the family reunion to some indeterminate future and counsels "muddling through somehow" in the meantime. (Watch Judy Garland sing it to a desolate Margaret O'Brien in "Meet Me in St. Louis," and you will wonder why you were ever consoled.) "I'll Be Home for Christmas" reveals itself in its final line as a mere dream, and that other World War II lament, "White Christmas," begins as a dream, then modulates to prayer: "May your days be merry and bright." Is there a more quixotic, more doomed wish to harbor in winter's marrow? And is there a better time to harbor it?
Washington Irving, the writer whose vision of Christmas most directly influenced Dickens's own, suggests that it is only when "nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow" that we "feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society. . . . Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms."
That, at any rate, is the idea. Whether we realize it or not is up to us. Unless, finally, we have no real say in the matter. Like Scrooge's ghosts, like Santa's thrones, like the dead bodies that mystery writers pour into our laps every December, the holiday can no more be turned back than its contradictions can be elided. Even the Grinch couldn't stop it. "It came," Dr. Seuss tells us. "Somehow or other, it came just the same."
© Louis Bayard