Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis
Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (1999) is a collection of eight short science fiction and fantasies by Connie Willis, plus an introduction and an afterword. It was on sale for $1.99 in early December 2016 ― a great value. It combines Willis’ heartfelt love for Christmas with a clear-eyed but sympathetic view of humanity and its foibles. In the introduction, Willis talks about how she has tried to walk the fine line between cynicism and “mawkish sappiness.” I think she’s done a fine job of it.
“Miracle:” 4 stars. In this story, as sometimes in real life, office Christmas party planning and politics threaten to sideline the true meaning of Christmas. Lauren is looking for the perfect Christmas dress to catch the attention of office hottie Scott, while enjoying her platonic friendship with overweight co-worker Fred. She and Fred share the same preference for the movie Miracle on 34th Street over It’s a Wonderful Life (as does Willis herself, as she confesses in the introduction). Things go off the rails for Lauren when the Spirit of Christmas Present ― as in the gift type of present, not the here-and-now ― shows up in Lauren’s apartment as a long-haired blond surfer dude who’s environmentally aware. The Spirit starts messing up all of Lauren’s plans, from her perfect party dress to her gifts for others to her romantic plans. It’s a cute romantic comedy and Willis uses one her favorite plot devices in which harried characters frantically and ineffectually race around and communication between them breaks down. I’m not as fond of it as she is, but it works well here in the short story format.
“Inn:” 4.5 stars. The church congregation rehearses their Christmas program while the choir director stresses out over the program coming together, the aged Reverend Wall practices the same Christmas sermon that he always gives, word for word, and the assistant minister worries about homeless people sneaking into the church and stealing the collection money or the Communion silver.
“Reverend Wall let a homeless man wait inside last week, and he relieved himself on the carpet in the adult Sunday School room. We had to have it cleaned.” She looked reprovingly at Sharon. “With these people, you can’t let your compassion get the better of you.”
No, Sharon thought. Jesus did, and look what happened to him.
But when a couple wearing robes and sandals, not speaking any English, knocks on the doorsteps of the church on the cold and snowing night, Sharon can’t resist letting them in. The very young wife is pregnant, after all, and they’re obviously lost. Extremely lost. “Inn” is an excellent reminder of the true meaning and spirit of Christmas, as well as the need for compassion for those less fortunate.
“In Coppelius’s Toyshop:” 3 stars. A jerk of a guy, trying (with mixed success, because he’s such a tool) to act nice for the girl he’s dating, gets stuck with his date’s young son at a toyshop, extravagantly decorated for Christmas. Coppelius’ toyshop is a child’s dream and an adult’s nightmare. I was torn between hoping that this guy, the narrator, would see the light and catch the true spirit of Christmas, and wishing that he would get the punishment he richly deserves.
“The Pony:” 2.5 stars. Barbara, her sister and her niece open their Christmas presents and talk about what they’ve always REALLY wanted for Christmas. There’s a bit of an interesting twist to it, hinting at the ominous aspect of getting what you wish for. This story is very short and didn’t make much of an impact on me.
“Adaptation:” 4 stars. Edwin Grey, a rather pitiful but sympathetic divorced man, is working in the book department of a busy department store at Christmas time. He struggles with his manipulative ex-wife to get time with his daughter Gemma for Christmas, and with organizing a special holiday signing event for the author of Making Money Hand Over Fist. Then someone dressed as the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come is assigned to be Mr. Grey’s assistant. Like the real Spirit, he doesn’t talk, but he’s quite a competent assistant. The plot thickens when Grey’s assistant takes him to a small place for lunch, where they meet up with a man dressed as the Spirit of Christmas Present … and others. “Adaptation” contains some lovely and heartfelt tributes to traditional Christmas stories and books generally.
He put down the book and raised his teacup in a toast. “To Sir Walter Scott, who knew how to keep Christmas!”
“And to Mr. Dickens,” Marley said, “the founder of the feast.”
“To books!” I said, thinking of Gemma and A Little Princess, “which instruct and sustain us through hard times.”
“Cat’s Paw:” 3.5 stars. The great detective Touffét and his faithful assistant, Mr. Bridlings, are invited to Lady Charlotte Valaday’s Suffolk home at Christmas to solve a mystery. Bridlings reluctantly gives up his country holiday with his sister’s family to join Touffét at Lady Charlotte’s manor. Lady Charlotte, it turns out, isn’t much into Christmas, but she is into animal rights, particularly with respect to great apes. She has, in fact, several apes at her home, acting as servants, who have had laryngeal implants, enabling them to talk in a simple way. Lady Charlotte’s “mystery” is of interest primarily to herself, but her concerns are supplanted when a murder takes place, giving Touffét a true mystery to solve. “Cat’s Paw” is an interesting mashup of a Sherlock Holmes-type of detective murder mystery and a science fictional animal rights plot.
“Newsletter:” 3.5 stars. What if Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Puppet Masters actually happened … but the main apparent effect was that it made people nicer? While dealing with the annual headache of writing and receiving Christmas newsletters, Nan and her co-worker try to figure out if something’s really wrong with people, whether the fact that so many people are wearing hats (or wigs) has something to do with it … and what can be done? Or if anything actually should be done? It’s an amusing tale, with a rueful look at how the holiday rush often brings out the worst in people.
“Epiphany:” 4 stars. In the middle of his Sunday sermon, Mel, a Presbyterian minister, suddenly has a personal epiphany: he suddenly and mystically is aware that Christ has returned to Earth, and that he needs to go find him … somewhere in the western U.S. That’s all he knows. But he exercises his faith and takes off in his car, knowing his congregation and friends will think he’s crazy. He meets a retired English teacher, Cassie, who’s had a similar epiphany, except her messages come through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Mel’s good friend B.T., an atheistic black man, tracks him down and, rather reluctantly, joins Mel on his quest.
“Epiphany” takes the traditional story of the three kings, Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, transposes it to a modern-day setting, and applies it to the Second Coming of Christ. It draws some rather quirky lines between the original story and modern times, and has an unresolved ending, where I was hoping for something more wrapped up and tied with a (Christmas) bow, but it’s a thought-provoking story.
In the afterword, Willis offers two lists of her Christmas favorites: “Twelve Terrific Things to Read at Christmas,” ranging from the original Biblical Christmas story to Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” and “Twelve to Watch,” a list of great Christmas movies, including A Christmas Story and, of course, Miracle on 34th Street.
Quite a few of these stories sound lovely. I’ll have to keep it in mind for next year!