My Favorite Free Christmas Stories

A Christmas Carol original book cover illustration

Amazon’s having a special sale on Kindle ebooks for Christmas Day. For December 25th only, they’re selling The Polar Express and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at a big discount (as well as five romance novels, plus The Lightning Thief, and even Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) To see the sale, just point your browser to tinyurl.com/ChristmasDayEbooks.

But there’s also a lot of really wonderful free Christmas stories that are available all year long…

There’s one short Christmas story that I absolutely love — by one of my favorite authors. Ernest Hemingway called him “one of the two best authors in America” — and yet his greatest novel isn’t available on the Kindle. Nelson Algren wrote The Man With the Golden Arm, an unforgettable look at Chicago and its lowlifes, in 1950, and it won a National Book Award. But my personal favorite Algren book was always The Last Carousel, another dazzling collection of short works from throughout his career,which he’d published in 1973.

At the age of 64, the author had hand-picked each story himself – though unfortunately The Last Carousel also isn’t available on the Kindle. But one December I discovered that you can still read one of its most touching stories online. On December 4, 1949, the Chicago Sunday Tribune published “Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark,” a story Algren wrote at the height of career, at the same time as his award-winning novel. The 40-year-old novelist remembered being a young newsboy in the 1920s, braving the snows to sell The Saturday Evening Blade at an intersection by the cemetery — and how they’d tried to swindle their customers!

But by the end, they’ve learned a valuable lesson about Christmas.

Old Christmas by Washington Irving
He was America’s first internationally popular author, and he wrote two timeless stories — Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But he also fathered many of our Christmas traditions. At the age of 29, when he was starting his career in 1812, Irving added five nostalgic Christmas stories to a collection of writing, and for one dream sequence, imagined what would happen if St. Nicholas flew over the forests in a flying sleigh. That’s believed to have inspired many of the subsequent stories about Santa Claus and his flying reindeer!

And the stories had an even greater impact. Irving also researched holiday traditions as far back as 1652, and according to Wikipedia, and his popular stories “contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.” Even Charles Dickens himself said that Irving’s stories influenced his own famous novella, A Christmas Carol.

Two Years Before the Mast (Christmas chapter) by Richard Henry Dana
When I lived near San Francisco, it was especially fun to read what was essentially a blog post about Christmas in the city…written in 1836! Back then, the only people in San Francisco were the handful of hard-working sailors who ferried animal hides around the continent. And their life was still hard, even on Christmas Day!

Friday, December 25th. This day was Christmas; and as it rained all day long, and there were no hides to take in, and nothing especial to do, the captain gave us a holiday, (the first we had had since leaving Boston,) and plum duff for dinner. The Russian brig, following the Old Style, had celebrated their Christmas eleven days before; when they had a grand blow-out and (as our men said) drank, in the forecastle, a barrel of gin, ate up a bag of tallow, and made a soup of the skin…

This was 13 years before California became a state, and it was a special experience to read this book more than 175 years later. It’s one of the first moments where I’ve felt such an intimate connection to someone who lived nearly two centuries ago. While young Richard Henry Dana was traveling in what was then a foreign land, he seems lonely but intrigued, which gave him a special willingness to share his sincere human reactions with a touching humility.

I love how the Kindle can connect you to different people in different places, and even from different times. And maybe that feeling is even more special on Christmas Day, because it reminds you of the grand traditions that have been handed down for centuries, and the universal feelings behind it.

Happy holidays, everyone!

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