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Three great Christmas stories
by Jake Highton
Dec 20, 2008 | 778 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Students at the University of Nevada, Reno, have often found me forbidding and intimidating. It’s as if I were one of those newspaper city editors of yesteryear who were crusty, gruff and brusque.

One such city editor a century ago was Charles Chapin of the New York Evening World. Chapin boasted that he had fired 108 men, including the son of the great Joseph Pulitzer.

Chapin was so hated in the newsroom that when he called in sick one day reporter Irvin Cobb remarked: “Let us hope it’s nothing trivial.”

So, no, I am hardly a Chapin throwback. What few UNR students know is that beneath my demanding, driving, hard-shell exterior is a guy who is all mush.

I wax particularly sentimental at the Yuletide, rereadng my three favorite Christmas stories: the beginning of Luke 2, the beginning of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and H.L. Mencken’s “Christmas Story.”

Luke 2 is not my favorite Biblical passage. John 8: 3-13 is. Those verses from John sum up the essence of Christ.

John relates how the scribes and pharisees brought to him a woman taken “in the very act” of adultery. They ask Jesus if she should be stoned to death according to the law commanded by Moses.

“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” Jesus replied. The accusers, “convicted by their own conscience,” disappeared one by one.

(Read the King James Version published in 1611. It is literature. Modern translations may be more understandable and more accurate sometimes, but they lack the poetry, the majesty of the KJV.)

Luke 2: 1-20 is a marvelous account of the birth of Jesus. Mary is “great with child,” not the prosaic pregnant. And then: “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Next, the Dickens classic. One-half of one of my book shelves is taken up by his novels and stories. The book with “A Christmas Carol” is discolored at the bottom of the spine from decades of being pulled from the shelf.

The opening delights me as often as I have read it.

Scrooge is “solitary as an oyster”… “No beggers implore him to bestow a trifle.” … Christmas? “ ‘Bah!’ said Scrooge. ‘Humbug!’ ” He declares that every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

When his nephew wishes him a Merry Christmas, Scrooge replies: “What right do you have to be merry? … You’re poor enough.”

When two visitors ask for a donation for the poor, Scrooge replies “Nothing.” Then he cruelly adds that if some people would prefer to die rather than go to rest homes “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

Finally, “Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern.” Old, alone, bitter.

Nex, the Mencken story. Mencken was vitrolic, acerbic, caustic, mocking, mordant, sardonic and iconoclastic.

He snarled about the “the swinish multitudes.” He declared that “One horse laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms.” He said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” He called Americans an “ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers” who “live in a land of abounding quackeries.”

HLM was the great crusader against nonsense, a disturber of the peace. He hooted at the absurdities of boobus Americanus. It sometimes seemed that nothing pleased him. But Christmas did.

Mencken reveals a tender side in his wonderful Christmas tale. It is quintessential HLM but with a twist, a classic story that few know about except Menckenoids

“Christmas Story,” first printed in The New Yorker in 1944 and published by Knopf in 1946, is gentle with its irony.

Fred Ammermeyer, a flaming infidel who sends the clergy of Baltimore a copy of “The Age of Reason,” is determined that the waterfront derelicts will celebrate Christmas without any of the usual holy roller calls for repentance.

But the bums, reverting to mission piety after several rounds of beer, begin singing Christian hymns: “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “Where Shall We Spend Eternity” and “Wash Me and I Shall be Be Whiter Than Snow.”

This was too much for the police lieutenant who wanted no part of salvation piety. He slouched off from the party scene in disgust.

He complained later to a friend: “Well, what could you expect from a bunch of bums? They have been eating mission handouts so long they can’t help it. … Think of all that good food wasted! And all that beer! And all those cigars!”

Jake Highton teaches journalism at UNR.
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