It’s easy to name Christmas stories that are enduring. Tales such as “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss have become more than stories — they’ve become widespread tradition.
But the question isn’t which stories are enduring — it’s why.
“To me, an enduring Christmas book has a story one thinks about long after reading the last word, a story one wants to read with each holiday season or a story one wants to share,” said Robyn Buttars, author of “Christmas Rose” and “Christmas Wonders,” which was released this year. “An enduring Christmas story creates a bond between readers and the characters through tender feelings of empathy and joy.”
Seven Christmas book authors, including several from Utah, responded to questions from the Deseret News on what it takes to create a unique and enduring Christmas story.
“The same principles that make a good story in any genre also apply to Christmas stories,” wrote Rubin Pingk, whose debut picture book, “Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas,” was released this season. “Characters have to grow. There must be conflict. But Christmas also requires a little magic.”
There isn't a specific way to create that magic, said Jean Reagan, author of several picture books, including “How to Catch Santa,” which was released this year and is about two mischievous children who share tips on “catching” Santa on Christmas Eve.
“Magic has no formula, so there is no sure road to writing a lasting Christmas story,” she said. “But if there is a secret, it is to be true to your own self and your own voice. Of course, unexpected silliness is critical too!”
Change of heart
Part of the magic in most Christmas stories is the change in characters’ — and readers’ — hearts.
“For me, Christmas has to make my characters a little bit better than they were when the story started,” wrote Carla Kelly, who’s authored many Regency-era stories, including several set at Christmastime.
Pingk noted the changes in many characters in what have become iconic Christmas stories, and he used similar ideas in his own book.
“My favorite Christmas stories, or any story really, have character growth,” Pingk wrote. “The Grinch’s heart grows. In ‘The Polar Express,’ the little boy finds belief. In my book, ‘Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas,’ Yukio finally learns to think of others.”
These changes aren't necessarily left on the book's pages.
“I think enduring Christmas stories come with an invitation to live better, to love better and to serve better,” said Jason Wright, author of “Christmas Jars,” a novel about the impact of saving change in a jar and anonymously giving it away to someone in need. Wright estimates in his recently released book “Christmas Jars Journey” that nearly $10 million has been given away through jars of change.
“They are the stories we return to each year because they remind us there is so much good in the world, and we want to be part of it,” he added.
From playful and festive to more serene and spiritual, there's a mindset for the atmosphere of Christmas stories.
“All the snow makes for great opportunities to use white space when illustrating,” said Pingk, who also illustrated his book. “Also, cold weather and hot cocoa are the perfect companions to a good book, and Christmas often comes with plenty of both. It’s more than a story; it’s a mood.”
Picture book author and Utah resident Caralyn Buehner said that enduring stories set an atmosphere, “speak to some kind of familiar truth, they evoke nostalgia and warmth, or they joyously entertain.”
Buehner’s husband, Mark, illustrates their picture books, including “Snowmen at Night” and the recent “Merry Christmas, Mr. Mouse,” in which a mouse family observes the traditions of a human family and decides to celebrate Christmas too. Caralyn Buehner said in a previous interview that many of the traditions in their books, including tree decorating and sharing the Nativity story, are ones from their own home.
“Christmas is a blend for me of tradition and deeply felt spiritual joy,” she wrote. “So much of who I am is grounded back in my childhood — in the security of family traditions, which have included gatherings, songs, special ethnic foods from my heritage, and extends into my current family. It’s a season that I associate not only with the love of family and friends that pours out through the sharing and gift giving, but the love that is showered over the world from God.”
Some of the best stories, said Utahn Richard Paul Evans, author of “The Christmas Box,” need to strike an honest, emotional chord with readers. Evans has since written several more novels set at Christmastime, including “The Mistletoe Promise” and “The Mistletoe Inn,” which was released this year.
Reason for the season
Though many Christmas stories aren't specifically religious, there are many times when themes in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ shine through.
“(Jesus) Christ’s birth leads to our redemption from sin — the good become better, and the not-so-good are redeemed,” Kelly said.
Buttars spoke of remembering the birth of Jesus Christ with a joyous celebration that every person can take part in and feel.
“For this reason, when I write or read a Christmas book, I expect it to be a catalyst to uplift and provide a spark for the Christmas spirit,” she said.
Wright also said Christmas stories can serve as a reminder for why Christmas is important to so many around the world.
“The spirit of Christmas is about living a life like Christ,” Wright said. “It’s about taking advantage of his birth, the moment in history that led to everything else. A good Christmas story invites you to know this truth better and to be reminded of his plan.”
Christmas story recommendations
Here are some holiday stories recommended by authors Jean Reagan, Cara Kelly, Caralyn Buehner, Jason Wright and Richard Paul Evans, including picture books both old and new as well as longer tales and familiar classics:
"Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree" by Robert Barry
"The Polar Express" by Chris Van Allsburg
"Morris’s Disappearing Bag" by Rosemary Wells
"Humphrey's First Christmas" by Carol Heyer
"The Christmas Quiet Book" by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska
"The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza" by David Shannon
"The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
"Christmas Day in the Morning" by Pearl S. Buck, illustrated by Mark Buehner
"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens
"The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore
"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
"The Paper Bag Christmas" by Kevin Milne
"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" by Barbara Robinson
Hikari Loftus is a graduate of the University of Utah. She blogs at FoldedPagesDistillery.blogspot.com.