Closer Readings Commentary

Opening the Literature of Christmas

“When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” —Joseph Brodsky, “December 24, 1971”

Early December is an exciting time—looking forward to the holiday festivities and celebrations this month brings. Introduce your students to classic literary selections and seasonal poetry that highlights Christmastime as a special occasion for charity, good will, family togetherness and meaningful reflection.

“The Gift of the Magi”

“The Gift of the Magi” is a classic short story, a delightful old chestnut that gets rolled out each year as Christmas approaches. Its message on what giving and receiving truly means is a universal theme that permeates holiday literature. William Sydney Porter was an early 20th-century American author who wrote under the pen name O. Henry and became known as the “Master of the Short Story.”

With this student resource, you may have your students encounter “The Gift of the Magi” as an independent or group activity. Using the selected websites, they can glean necessary background information. The text of the story is broken up into five parts followed by questions to help them gain a full understanding of the narrative. A series of optional creative and expository writing activities can be found at the end of this guide.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.)

A Christmas Carol

British writer Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, thereby popularizing the notion of “humbug” for holiday scrooges everywhere. This story became the quintessential Victorian holiday ghost story. The main character Ebenezer Scrooge exemplifies how a complete change of heart and being can be brought about by a series of intervention experiences.

EDSITEment’s lesson plan Using Textual Clues to Understand “A Christmas Carol” explores this enduring holiday classic about the possibility of redemption and the importance of family:

  • Lesson 1 leads students to an understanding of Scrooge before his ghostly experiences;
  • Lesson 2 examines Scrooge’s experiences with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. They discover how Dickens used both direct and indirect characterization to create a protagonist who is more than just a stereotype;
  • Lesson 3 identifies and articulates the major themes that surface within the story;
  • Extending the Unit, encourages students to exercise their creativity with several optional activities to express themselves visually as well as in writing.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.)

Washington Irving

Washington Irving, writing under a pseudonym, wove together fact and fiction to gently satirize the traditions of Dutch settlers, including their patron saint Nicholas in Knickerbocker's History of New York (published December 6, 1809 on St. Nicholas Day!) In this work, Irving conjured up an early prototype of our modern-day jovial Santa Claus who soars through the night sky, landing on rooftops to deliver presents (via chimneys) to good girls and boys.

Discover how Washington Irving: author of America’s Christmas went beyond the modest Knickerbocker model to elevate the holiday to a position of prominence both in America and retroactively across the pond, in England. Irving is an unsung hero of this communal celebration of nostalgia and good-will that America continues to hold dear.

For a fun preholiday activity, have students tease out the distinctions between our 21st-century Santa and his earlier manifestations. “Discover the Truth about Santa Claus” via the St. Nicholas Center, which contains an essay by Charles W. Jones with a detailed overview of the “Knickerbocker Santa Claus” that Washington Irving wrought.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6: Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.)

Christmas Poetry

Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History appeared fourteen years prior to the publication of the anonymous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”  The Santa character had morphed into a “lively and quick St. Nick” driving a magical sleigh pulled by “eight tiny rein-deer” by the time this poem found its way into the Troy Sentinel newspaper on December 23, 1823.  Irving’s beneficent pipe-smoking gift-giver who arrives each Christmas Eve was thus solidified into our national imagination. Professor Clement C. Moore came forward to claim authorship of this poem in 1844; however, some evidence indicates that it may have been the work of Major Henry Livingston, Jr.

More Christmas Poetry

In 1934, one of America’s favorite poets, Robert Frost, instituted an annual tradition of creating original Christmas cards adorned with artwork and sporting seasonal poetry for his circle of friends. The Library of Congress offers a brief overview of these greetings, which were independently published as chapbooks every year through 1962. An Academy of American Poet’s essay comments on their homespun appeal noting, “They are at once playful and serious in a way that cuts past much of the gloss of Christmas.” Find a representative selection of “Robert Frost’s Annual Christmas Cards” in the archived Poets House exhibition gallery, which includes a checklist of poems from the displayed cards.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7: Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment.)

Additional holiday poetry can be found in the Academy of American Poets’ listing, Poems about Christmas, and the Poetry Foundation’s sampler of Christmas Poems.