“…There’ll be scary ghost stories and the tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
Andy Williams, 1936
Tonight, December 24th, Santa Claus, with his elves' help, will pack his sleigh, hitch up the flying reindeer, and cross the globe to deliver presents to millions of good girls and boys. This is a journey he has taken for several centuries now. Criss-crossing the planet, sliding down chimneys, enjoying baked goods, and leaving behind surprises and joy.
Speculative fiction has a long history of exploring the celebration of Christmas. Many, dare I say most, of the stories revolving around this winter holiday lean toward the fantasy side of the genre, sometimes with a dash, or more, of horror as well. Which is not surprising, since even some of the songs touch on this aspect (see the quote at the beginning of this article).
For many, the first such fantasy which comes to mind is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (Charles Dickens, Chapman & Hall, 1843), in which the titular Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by not only the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, but three others named for Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. The book is possibly the most famous story about Christmas outside of the Bible. It has remained in print continuously since its release on December 19, 1843. Dickens himself publicly performed readings of the book over 120 times before his passing in 1870. It has been adapted into plays, radio dramas, movies, television specials, and animated shorts.
Dickens would also write two other Christmas fantasies, The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (Bradbury and Evans, 1845) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). Neither of these books would have the wide-spread acclaim of A Christmas Carol, though Cricket on the Hearth would be adapted several times including two stage productions, two operas, three films, and a Rankin/Bass Productions animated television special in 1967.
L. Frank Baum, famous for the children’s fantasy books based in the land of Oz, took to hand writing about Santa Claus in 1902. He focused on the origin of the kindly toymaker and how he came to have his powers in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (Bowen Merrill, 1902). The book details the inhabitants of Happy Valley of Hohaho and the land of the immortals, the Forest of Burzee, including such fantastic characters as the Great Ak, the wood nymph Necile, the lioness Shiegra, as well as the evil Awgwas who steal the toys Claus has been making. A follow-on story, “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” was published in the December issue of The Delineator magazine in 1904. The characters of Claus, Knooks, and the Ryls would appear in the fourth of the Oz books, The Road to Oz (L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton. 1909). The book would be adapted by Bass and Rankin in 1985 as a stop motion short for television.
Clement C. Moore introduced the world to the modern version of Santa Claus in A Visit From St. Nicholas (1837). The poem, which is more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was first published in the Troy, New York newspaper Sentinel on December 23, 1837. The poem not only introduced the magical abilities of Santa Claus to travel through chimneys but added his trademark red and white suit, his general rotundness, and Santa’s jolly nature. Moore also is credited as the first person to name all eight of old Saint Nick’s reindeer as well as showing them having the ability to fly.
In 1939, the Mongomery Ward Company (the same company which owned the stores) published a children’s fantasy Christmas story titled Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (Robert L. May, Montgomery Ward Company, 1939). This story added a ninth reindeer to Santa’s team, one who had an additional magical ability of a red nose which can light the sleigh’s way through foul weather. The story was adapted as an animated cartoon in 1948, a set of stop-motion television specials in 1964, 1978, and 1979, and a feature-length animated film in 1998. Perhaps the most recognizable version of the story is the song, first by Gene Autry in 1949. It was released in June of that year and later rose to the number 1 position on the US charts in December.
Gene Autry introduced another magical Christmas persona through the song “Frosty the Snowman” in June of 1950. The titular snowman, Frosty, was brought to life through the magic of an old felt hat. Like the Ghost of Christmas Present from A Christmas Carol, Frosty would only remain alive for a single day before disappearing until a later time. The song was adapted as the children’s book Frosty the Snow Man (Annie North Bedford, Little Golden Books, 1950) and an animated television special in 1969.
Miracle on 34th Street (Valentine Davies, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1947) was written as an adaptation of the Christmas film. In the story, lawyer Fred Gailey (a brilliant way of naming a character to understand his outlook on life) ends up defending the Macy’s department store Santa, a man who claims to be the actual Santa Claus. The story ends up using the federal government to prove whether Kris Kringle is indeed the one and only Santa Claus. Just eight years later, fantasy would become reality, with the US government in the form of Air Force Col. Harry Shoup using the Continental Air Defense Command (now NORAD) to track Santa’s sleigh.
Winter of 1957 brought the December issue of Redbook magazine to doorsteps of thousands of Americans and introduced them to one of the iconic villains of Christmas— the Grinch. Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel wrote the children’s story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Random House, 1957), about a group of Whos living on a speck of dust. These people love Christmas, but as we all have come to know, the Grinch, who lived just north of their town did not like Christmas in the least. This story touches on similar themes as Dickens’ famous story about how allowing one’s heart to grow will help them see the good around them.
Phillip Van Doren Stern’s short story, “The Greatest Gift” (self-published, 1943) formed the basis of the divine fantasy It’s A Wonderful Life. The story was later published in the December 1944 issue of Reader’s Scope and the January 1945 issue of Good Housekeeping with the title “The Man Who Was Never Born,” Frank Cappra’s screenplay expands on the concept of an angel offering George Pratt (Bailey in the film) a chance to see how his life has positively influenced others. Like so many of the other novels and stories on this list, there is a definite influence of Charles Dickens’s redemption arc woven into the fabric of the plot. The film became famous not only for its fantastic cast and story but due to the fact its copyright expired in 1975, making it public domain and allowing television channels to broadcast the movie without needing to pay any royalties.
The final book I’ll bring to light, though by no means the last fantasy story about Christmas, is the British fantasy novel Hogfather (Terry Pratchett, Victor Gollancz, 1996). This variant Christmas story takes place in the fantasy realm of Discworld. It is the twentieth book of the series. There are some similarities to The Kidnapped Santa Claus in that, once again, a group who dislike what Santa stands for or is doing decides to remove the man in the suit from performing his job. This same idea would later be explored in the fantasy films The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.
Christmas is, as it ever has been, a holiday steeped in the fantastic. From the fear of night to the celebration of light, of the worry of Krampus to the wonder of Santa Claus, from stories of ghosts to ones of elves. May this Christmas Eve find you in a joyous time and may the spirits of the season be kind.