Study: The most popular Christmas tales of the past 200 years

December 19, 2012

Emily Kingery (Photo courtesy of NIU Media and Public Relations)

By Tom Parisi
NIU Media and Public Relations

What’s the most popular Christmas tale of the past two centuries?

Emily Kingery, a Northern Illinois University (NIU) doctoral student in English, makes a strong case for a classic first published in 1823.

For her dissertation, the 28-year-old Kingery devised a way to identify the popularity of stories by examining how often they were anthologized. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” tops her list, and it certainly boasts one of the most famous opening lines in literature:

Twas the night before Christmas,

when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

First published anonymously but generally credited to Clement C. Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was also one of the most culturally important Christmas stories.

The Santa Claus we know today is derived from the depiction of him in Moore’s poem, so really this is where we see Santa Claus invented,” said Kingery, a native of Pecatonica, Ill., who now lives in DeKalb.

The poem also helped to transform the celebration of Christmas from a rowdy mid-winter festival to a holiday associated with the home, family and a magical season,” Kingery added.

Kingery, who expects to earn her doctorate in May, has been working on her dissertation for more than a year. It examines literary canon formation of Christmas stories from the beginning of the 19th century to present day.

She surveyed more than 100 anthologies, and more than 200 stories, searching the NIU library and taking out library loans to track down collections. Although she intended to exclude poetry from her study, she couldn’t ignore the immense popularity of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which was anthologized 31 times, more than any other tale.

Not surprisingly, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” finished a close second on Kingery’s list. She focused on English and American stories, although foreign writers whose works became popular in an Anglo-American context made her list, including Hans Christian Andersen with “The Fir Tree,” the third most anthologized story.

Excerpts from Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” and Francis P. Church’s editorial “Is There a Santa Claus?” round out the top five.

The list of titles that I found to be most often anthologized gives some indication of the popularity of particular works,” Kingery said.

But it’s not a perfect indicator because infrequent anthologization does not necessarily mean a given work is unpopular,” she added. “For instance, my study doesn’t reflect initial sales or reviews. Some of these works may have been published independently, perhaps even reprinted in multiple editions. Others may be longer works or stories that rely on illustrations and are less suitable for inclusion in a collection of shorter stories.”

A look at her overall top 20 reveals familiar stories by literary greats, along with a number of gems that modern audiences might be unfamiliar with, such as “Christmas Every Day” by William Dean Howells, published in 1892, or “The Mouse and the Moonbeam” by Eugene Field, published in 1912.

Kingery says editorial agendas greatly contribute to how Christmas has been perceived by English and American audiences.

Trends in anthologizing practices are more or less in step with trends in literary study and social and cultural change,” she said.

Because children’s literature became recognized as a profitable market in the late 19th century, Christmas anthologies of the early 20th century shifted focus to include tales that would be more appealing to children, or otherwise emphasize the importance of hearth and home,” she said. “Santa Claus stories figure in prominently here, as well as the winter tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

Also, multiculturalism becomes increasingly important in more recent decades,” Kingery added. “In general, stories centered on the Nativity appear less frequently over time, or else are reinvented or patterned after the more secular kinds of Christmas narratives we see in fairy tales, or especially in ‘A Christmas Carol.’”

In an attempt to construct a sentimental view of the season, some anthologists took liberties with original stories by eliminating gloomy passages, such as Dickens’ depiction of the ghoulish children, Ignorance and Want, or the death of the main character at the end of Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.”

What all the anthologies have in common — regardless of their specific agendas, methods of revision or dates of publication — is the impulse to manufacture feelings of nostalgia for Christmas-as-it-used-to-be,” Kingery said.

In more recent decades, the contents of Christmas anthologies reveal the increasing popularity of memoir, as opposed to fictional tales.

If we’re not looking back to the ‘golden age’ of any historical era by revisiting its tales, we’re still looking back to something,” Kingery said. “What that means today, more than ever, is looking back to our own childhood experiences and sharing them in print.”

Top 20 Christmas titles most often anthologized

(With number of occurrences)

1. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” by Clement C. Moore (31)

2. “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens (28)

3. “The Fir Tree,” by Hans Christian Andersen (24)

4. Excerpts from “The Wind in the Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame (18) and “Is There a Santa Claus?” editorial by Francis. P. Church (18)

6. “Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry (15)

7. Excerpts from Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (12); “The Little Match Girl,” by Hans Christian Andersen (12); and various Christmas sketches from The Sketch Book, by Washington Irving (12)

10. “Christmas Every Day,” by William Dean Howells (11)

11. “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar,” by Bret Harte (10)

12. “The Legend of the Christmas Rose,” by Selma Lagerlof (9)

13. “A Christmas Tree,” by Charles Dickens (7); “Where Love Is, God Is,” by Leo Tolstoy (7); and “The Birds’ Christmas Carol,” by Kate Douglas Wiggin (7)

16. “A Christmas Memory,” by Truman Capote (6); “The Mouse that Didn’t Believe in Santa Claus,” adapted from “The Mouse and the Moonbeam,” by Eugene Field (6); “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” by Brothers Grimm (6); “The Thieves Who Couldn’t Help Sneezing,” by Thomas Hardy (6); and “The Other Wise Man,” by Henry Van Dyke (6).

From the Dec. 19-25, 2012, issue

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