12 Sad Christmas Stories for Holiday Wallowing

Tis the season… for soul-crushing short stories about disappointment, alcoholism, and heartache. posted on

This week, Electric Literature is conducting a Sadness Survey in honor of Recommended Reading’s upcoming Christmas issue, “We Were Down” by Jason Porter. This is, of course, no ordinary survey. They don’t want to know about your holiday shopping habits, and they don’t care about your income or your politics. What they want to know is, why are you so sad? So take a seat by the Christmas tree, tear open the wrapping of your darkest secrets, and take the survey.

The author of the saddest survey — judged by Jason Porter — will win a free phone session with a certified life coach and a bottle of gin from the NY Distilling Company. They’ll also feature some of their favorite answers on Electric Literature’s blog. Need help getting inspired? No sweat, the good folks at Electric Lit, along with the aforementioned Porter, have whipped up this list of sad Christmas stories to help put you in the true spirit of the season.

1. “The Fir-Tree” by Hans Christian Andersen

“Neither the sunbeams, nor the birds, nor the red clouds which morning and evening sailed above him, gave the little Tree any pleasure.”

Read it here.

Fairy tales are much darker than the Disney-fied versions we’re used to, and Andersen’s “Fir-Tree” is dark as hell. A sentient sapling is discontent with life in the forest. He’s too small, and must watch on as all his companions are chopped down and hauled toward — he suspects — wonderful adventures. When his wish eventually comes true and he becomes a Christmas tree, we’re reminded of that perennial lesson for children: Be careful what you wish for. The hopeful fir tree is soon set afire by Christmas decorations, then abandoned in a dark attic, until finally he’s brought back to nature in a yard where he’s laid to rest Fargo-style.

Sadness Rating: 12/12

2. “What Are You Going to Do with 390 Photographs of Christmas Trees?” by Richard Brautigan

“We’ll show the despair and abandonment of Christmas by the way people throw their trees out.”

Read it here.

Richard Brautigan has always had a fascinating vision of America. Here, he sets his sights on the destructive nature of American Christmas. But he doesn’t focus on the fractured families, nor on the salespeople martyred on Black Friday, and not even the reams of magnificent paper destined for the dump. It’s 1963, the whole county is in a “tunnel of mourning” following JFK’s assassination, and Richard spends Christmas in the sole company of a bottle of rum. After the holiday, he’s disturbed by all the discarded Christmas trees “tossed out to lie there in the streets like bums.” He and a friend start photographing the disgrace, though a few photos just aren’t enough. But can you ever get your fill of misery and waste?

Sadness Rating: 10/12

3. “Glissando” by Katie Bellas

“I can be sure only that Ed, though girlish in his gossipy tendencies, is not ignorant of the basic knowledge all corrupt men share of one another: the knowledge that a walk across the lobby at ten-thirty at night to a lady-tenant’s apartment is always more than a walk across the lobby at ten-thirty at night to a lady-tenant’s apartment.”

Read it here.

The two main ingredients for holiday stress are family time and financial struggle. Katie Bellas follows that recipe, but then she spices things up by adding infidelity and extortion. Despite the recession, an underhanded doorman, and a liaison with a loose-lipped neighbor, a man struggles to keep his mortgage and marriage from toppling over like an overburdened Christmas tree. To help you deal with the suspense, keep some potent eggnog nearby.

Sadness Rating: 9/12

4. “Put Yourself in My Shoes” by Raymond Carver

“He was between stories, and he felt despicable.”

Read it here, or in Call Me If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose.

In Rudolph, that claymation classic, there is one figure missing from The Island of Misfit Toys: that of the struggling writer. For a writer who can’t write is a pitiful, deformed creature. But even at their best, writers detach from life as they hunt for their next story — making them, or at least their relationships, defective. “Put Yourself in My Shoes” shows the writer at her worst, but it’s also full of the hallmarks of Christmas: presents and carolers, holiday parties and social anxiety, warm drinks and more warm drinks (it is a Carver story, after all).

Sadness Rating: 11/12

5. “Christmas Is a Sad Time for the Poor” by John Cheever

“‘I don’t have any Christmas dinner,’ Charlie said. ‘I just get a sandwich.’”

Read it here, or in The Collected Stories of John Cheever.

Charlie, an elevator operator at a tony apartment building uptown, is feeling sour about having to work on Christmas Day. He lives alone in a furnished room and has no family — sad facts of his life he shares with every tenant who wishes him merry Christmas. His self-pity quickly becomes tedious, testing the reader’s patience and compassion with a complicated portrait of a malcontent.

Sadness Rating: 9/12

6. “The Junky’s Christmas” by William S. Burroughs

“Danny’s body ached for junk, but it was a dull ache now, dull and hopeless.”

Watch William S. Burroughs read it here.

A junkie is released from the county precinct on Christmas Day, and sets off in search of heroin. Along the way, he steals a leather suitcase and opens it to find a woman’s disembodied legs. Unfazed, he dumps the legs and pawns the suitcase. For Danny, New York on Christmas Day is a bleak landscape where the only warm feeling is junk in your veins and the greatest act of kindness is sharing your high.

Sadness Rating: 11/12

7. “Charades” by Lorrie Moore

“It’s nothing, except that it is sex with a man who is not dyslexic, and once in a while, God, she needs that.”

Read it here, or in Birds of America.

What would be a nice family game of charades at Christmastime is undercut by the narrator’s contempt for her husband’s dyslexia, and the admission that she’s having an affair, one with the potential to ruin her career. The description of family members “psychotically pointing” during their turns is reason enough to read.

Sadness Rating: 8/12

8. “Who Has Seen the Wind” by Carson McCullers

“You think you’re the only one who has been disappointed. I married a writer who I thought would become a great writer.”

Read it in The Mortgaged Heart.

If you are a writer who attends holiday parties, “Who Has Seen the Wind,” is the perfect way to wallow in your failures. The story contains this acutely heartbreaking scene: a chronically unproductive writer, who — at the risk of being redundant — happens to be an alcoholic, describes his idea for his next novel at a holiday party. He’s an anxious outsider, but talking about the prospect of work puts him at ease. Until, suddenly, he is overwhelmed by déjà vu. “I have a strange feeling I’ve told you this before,” he says. “You have, Ken,” says his acquaintance. “About six or seven years ago, at a party very much like this one.”

Sadness Rating: 12/12

9. “A Christmas Thought” by Barry Hannah

“They were in league against the Christ Child and were having a dialogue as if the both of them were Herod.”

Read it in Bats Out of Hell.

A former tenor in his Methodist choir and a lapsed rabbi are out on a Yule-bashing spree, drunk on eggnog, cruising in a van filled with stolen Christmas decorations, looking to taunt the poor and downtrodden. This story might score higher on the sadness meter, were it not for Hannah’s sheer joy in writing irreverent, cursing sentences. Nevertheless, it brings the darkness, bearing gifts of violent reprisals from a “winey, crack besnotted person” and sticking us with a final query into the true identity of God’s children — loose, adept, and perhaps felonious.

Sadness Rating: 9/12

10. “One Christmas Eve” by Langston Hughes

“In his heart he never thought Santa Claus shook great rattles at children like that—and then laughed.”

Read it here, or in The Collected Works of Langston Hughes.

A classic element to any sad Christmas tale is how for the have-nots, the holiday provides a hearty serving of more wanting. For instance, after cleaning your employer’s house, and cooking their meal, and admiring their beautiful Christmas tree — a decoration you have never been able to afford for yourself — you might want to get paid, so that you can rush off to buy a gift for your son, one which you probably can’t afford. Or, if you are an innocent little boy, you may just want things you see other children getting, like toys, or entrance to a whites-only theater where Santa is bringing joy to other children, who are like you in that they believe in Christmas, but are unlike like you in that they are not black. What you don’t want, but know through experience you will get, is disappointment, and this Hughes delivers with a tense, painful beauty.

Sadness Rating: 12/12

11. “The Christmas Tree and a Wedding” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“It was of course possible that he was so taken aback at the very beginning by the sum he was doing on his fingers, that he was so tempted and inspired by it, that in spite of all his importance and dignity he had decided to act like a hot-headed youth and take the object of his desires by storm, without reflecting that the object of his desires could not become a real object for at least another five years.”

Read it here.

This story is less about Christmas than it is about the cruel arbitrary distribution of wealth and power we find in our lives, or in this case, around the Christmas tree at a party given by a well-connected businessman. Dostoevsky uses the occasion to place a powerful “paunchy man” who has just been doing some financial calculations on his fat greedy fingers, in the same festively decorated room as a young girl whose parents have weighed her down with a substantial dowry. It only gets creepier from there, and ends with the other rite referred to in the story’s title, which if there is anything sadder than Christmas, it just may be an arranged marriage.

Sadness Rating: 11/12

12. “The Christmas Banquet” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“It seemed not to be the testator’s purpose to make these half a score of sad hearts merry, but to provide that the stern or fierce expression of human discontent should not be drowned, even for that one holy and joyful day, amid the acclamations of festal gratitude which all Christendom sends up.”

Read it here.

Narrated by an unknown man named Roderick who has been gifted “with some degree of insight into the gloomy mysteries of the human heart,” we hear the tale of a melancholic eccentric who bequeaths an endowment with the sole purpose of organizing an annual Christmas banquet for “ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.” The story’s deep commitment to the miserable nature of existence is at times compromised by Hawthorne’s great humor in cataloging every possible way a person might find their life to be a disappointment. Still, few Christmas tales could be a better match for any cantankerous cynicism the holiday might inspire in a reader.

Sadness Rating: 10/12

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