In Richard Powers’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Overstory, the Hoels have been farming a patch of Iowa for more than a century. A grandfather, several times great, planted a chestnut on the land when he first settled it, and ever since then Hoel men have been photographing that tree – one of the few survivors of the blight that eradicated the American chestnut in the early 20th century. A flipbook of those photos makes the young Nick Hoel want to be a painter. By the time he drives down from art school in Chicago to visit his grandparents for the holidays, the farm has been “long-term leased to outfits run from offices hundreds of miles away ... But for a while ... the place will be all miracle births and saviours in mangers, as it was at Hoel Christmases for 120 years running”.
Christmas is, apart from everything else, a gift to novelists. It’s a chance to bring together a wide cast of characters at a time when the sense of occasion allows them and the novelist to take the long view of their lives. Powers uses it here to tease or threaten the reader with intimations of generational disaster. On the day before Christmas Eve, Nick tries to jolly the “old folks” into seeing the American Landscapes exhibition in Omaha, an hour away. But his mother is feeling “fluish” and his dad just wants to stay warm by the cranked-up propane heater. Nick goes on his own; a blizzard hits just as he’s heading back, a white-out that makes the road freeze over and an eighteen-wheeler jackknife towards him “like a wounded animal”, for a moment the decision seems fatal ... but the truck misses and he manages to sleep off the worst of the weather by the side of the road. Yet when he gets home he will discover that, for other reasons, for the Hoel family, this Christmas is the end of the line.
The history of Christmas is complicated and much of what we celebrate now seems to be a 19th-century invention – the trees and the birds, some of these traditions imported from Germany and some of them helped along by a certain famous writer. As the American satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer put it: “Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens, / Mix the punch, Drag out the Dickens …” But the 20th and 21st centuries have added their own flavour, and novelists have learned to exploit its dramatic potential as the occasion for a particular kind of family misery. “Even though the prospect sickens,” Lehrer sings on, “Brother, here we go again.”
It’s Jane Austen, unsurprisingly, who first shows us the slow-burn dramatic possibilities of the modern festive season. In Emma, all the elements are in place. The arguments about who goes where: “Mr Knightley promises to give up his claim this Christmas – though you know it is longer since they were with him, than with us.” The negotiations over bedrooms: “Have you thought my dear, where you shall put her – and what room there will be for the children?” And cars: “How they were all to be conveyed, he would have made a difficulty if he could, but as his son and daughter’s carriage were actually at Hartfield, he was not able to make more than a simple question on that head ...”
The problem, of course, is that Christmas is usually the time when two family weather fronts collide. Emma’s sister, Isabella, has married John, the brother of her friend Knightley. Emma’s father is a gently selfish hypochondriac, and Emma spends Christmas trying to smooth out the tensions in his relationship with his son-in-law. At the same time, she has her own battles to fight with Knightley – in which her protege, Harriet Smith, becomes a proxy for their arguments about marriage and a testing ground for their romantic intentions towards each other. Emma was published in 1815, but Austen had already discovered the concentrated dramatic possibilities of modern Christmas: where several months’ worth of news and tension unspool, while people with starkly variegated obligations and relations to each other are cooped up together in a single house. You even get a little snow; the Christmas is white enough that Emma doesn’t have to go to church.
A hundred years later, in Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence explores the same dynamic but at the other end of the class ladder. William Morel, the oldest son and his mother’s darling, gets a job in London and comes home for Christmas with his fiancee, Miss Western. She’s a “sort of secretary or clerk in a London office. But while she was with the Morels she queened it”. Spends hours getting dressed in the morning, pretends to lose her muff so that someone else can fetch it for her – “it angered the young man that she made a servant of his sister.” But really she’s only “nervous and chattered from fear ... She felt strange, not able to realise the people, not knowing how to treat them. William joked, and was slightly uncomfortable.” The visit forces him to comparisons and re-evaluations. After Miss Western goes to bed, he sits with his mother in front of the fire and complains: “If only she wouldn’t put on her blessed airs!”
“It’s only her first awkwardness, my boy. She’ll be all right.”
“That’s it, mother,” he replied gratefully. But his brow was gloomy. “You know, she’s not like you, mother. She’s not serious, and she can’t think.”
By the time we reach the Lamberts in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections these arguments about Christmas have become an established part of the holiday ritual. Enid, the materfamilias, tries to lure her grandchildren to her home in St Jude by promising “sugar cookies” and “eggnog” and “a wonderful light show every year at Waindell Park, it’s called Christmasland ...” “Mother, it’s March,” her son Gary points out. “We don’t talk about Christmas in March. Remember? We don’t talk about it in June or August, either. Remember?” Except, of course, they do, and the argument about Christmas is really an argument about something else, his father’s depression and ill health, the transition of power from one generation to the next, and the passage of time: Enid wants to have “one last really nice family Christmas” in their childhood home. She knows that her best leverage is the children. “I think Jonah would love it,” she says, and Jonah, dutifully, responds: “I would completely love it.”
It was Dickens who realised that Christmas, even in novels, is actually about the kids. In Great Expectations, Pip steals food and a file for the escaped convict who confronted him on the marshes. The carefully controlled rising tension is brought on by the fact that it’s Christmas ... and Mrs Joe Gargery, his sister, is hosting the dinner. Dickens vividly captures the child’s point of view, in which a sort of general incomprehension of the adult world around him is combined with a knowledge of secrets. “Among this good company,” Pip says, “I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest ... nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain. No; I should not have minded that, if they would only have left me alone. But they would not leave me alone.” Pip’s problem is the opposite of Scrooge’s. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens explored the other great theme of Christmas both literary and lived: loneliness, and the effects of loneliness on the capacity for affection. December weather becomes a metaphor for frozen feeling. “The cold within him froze his own features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait … No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose …”
In Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Marianne spends a gap year in Sweden and gets stuck in an abusive relationship with Lukas, an older man who likes to photograph her naked. By this point she has stopped having feelings about who she is or where she is or what is happening to her. While he directs her (“Can you move, like … legs down in some way?”), she decides “not to go home for Christmas this year. She thinks a lot about how to extricate herself from the ‘family situation’… [and] imagines scenarios in which she is completely free of her mother and brother, on neither good nor bad terms with them, simply a neutral non-participant in their lives ... Now she can see that her attempt to avoid a family Christmas, always a peak occasion for hostilities, will be entered into the domestic accounting book as yet another example of offensive behaviour on her part.”
But A Christmas Carol also reflects what Lehrer once called “the true spirit of Christmas – the commercial spirit”. When Scrooge’s nephew wishes him a “merry Christmas” and tells him not to be cross: “‘What else can I be,’ returned the uncle, ‘when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon Merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?’”
John Lanchester riffs brilliantly on this theme in Capital, because Christmas is also the time of year when bankers get their bonuses. Roger Yount’s wife Arabella thinks of his £150k salary as “frock money”, so he relies on the end of year bump (he’s hoping for a million) just to keep himself from “going broke” – after paying for skiing holidays and mortgages on second homes and redecorations and private school for the kids. When the eventual figure turns out to be a little short, he has to work out when to break the news: “To tell your wife you’d underperformed your own expectations – which Roger had mentioned to Arabella one night a couple of months ago, a mistake he couldn’t resist making to see the glint come into her eye, at some point when his marital stock had otherwise been rather low – but to tell your wife you underperformed by a cool £970,000, that wasn’t the sort of gift you gave on Christmas Eve. Roger wasn’t a monster.”
“Nobody,” says Austen’s Emma, “who has not been in the interior of a family, can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be.” For the past 200 years Christmas has given writers an excuse to occupy that interior. In all its variety: lonely, overcrowded, terrifying, sentimental, miserable, nostalgic. But that variety also includes one of the hardest things for a novelist to convey – ordinary, unimportant happiness. In A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas tries to explain that it only really snowed – snowed and snowed – in the distant past of his own childhood ... “But here a small boy says: ‘It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.’” It isn’t all bad.
• Christmas in Austin by Benjamin Markovits is published by Faber.