The Worst Holidays in Literature
11 books, 11 unhappy holidays, from an unwanted proposal to an encounter with a dead coworker to a coke-fueled bathroom brawl.
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
If disappointment equals expectation less reality, then the holidays are primed to be letdowns. We hope for delicious food, beautiful decorations, and charming company, and find ourselves with badly cooked birds and gifts that need to be returned. Still, the truly terrible holidays, the ones that make you long for January 2nd and gag at the site of a Christmas cookie, are usually the result of your company. What could go wrong when you’re forced around a table with people with whom you share nothing but blood, or blood alcohol level?
Pretty much everything, which is why writers from Harper Lee to Brett Easton Ellis have written terrible holidays into their novels. These eleven books mine holidays for all their awkwardness, simmering tensions, and escalation into full-blown catastrophe.
1. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
The Ice Storm is the story of the Hoods and the Williamses, two neighboring families in suburban Connecticut who are struggling to adapt to the cultural revolution of the 1970s. The tension that propels the novel is exemplified by Moody’s take on Thanksgiving, i.e. a forced, drunken convocation of people who are ideologically opposed. Simply put: “Thanksgiving dinner at the O’Malleys, as Benjamin had often pointed out, was like waiting for the end of a ceasefire.”
2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Christmas Machine has appropriated and resold Charles Dickens’ tale as a feel-good children’s holiday story. Don’t be fooled — A Christmas Carol is terrifying. Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by ghosts; that’s ghosts plural, four to be precise, including one visit from the re-animated corpse of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. When Marley, who is doomed to travel the earth in chains as penitence for his sins, takes off the bandage around his head, his jaw falls off and onto his chest. Eggnog, anyone?
3. Oscar & Lucinda by Peter Carey
Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel is the sweeping tale of Lucinda, an enterprising glass-maker, and Oscar, a gambling minister, as they make their way through 19th century Australia. Like so many of the worst holidays, Oscar’s childhood Christmas suffers from intergenerational strife. Oscar’s father, Theophilus, is a fundamentalist Christian preacher who believes that Christmas is a pagan feast. When he catches Oscar eating a forbidden plum pudding, he strikes him for eating the “fruit of Satan.” Oscar asks for a sign from God to justify his festive dessert, and when his father starts bleeding, Oscar shuns him and starts on the path that leads him towards Lucinda.
4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is the king of darkly funny personal essays, so of course he would have a collection of essays about the holidays. Holidays on Ice features a range of disasters, from “SantaLand Diaries,” which chronicles his experiences working as a disenfranchised elf at a holiday grotto, to “Dinah, the Christmas Whore,” about the Christmas when he accompanied his sister on a mission to rescue a prostitute from her abusive boyfriend.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In Lee’s classic novel, Scout’s Aunt Alexandra and her terrible grandson, Francis Hancock, come for Christmas at Finch’s Landing. After opening presents (the kids receive air rifles, naturally), young Francis walks over to his cousin Scout and spews some bigoted remarks about Atticus. Scout lives out all our holiday fantasies of dealing with racist relatives and pummels him — though she gets a spanking from Uncle Jack as a result.
6. About A Boy by Nick Hornby
Marcus Brewer, the tween protagonist of Hornby’s sad yet comedic novel, is basically an ugly Christmas sweater personified. He’s so uncool that he’s cool, at least in the heart of the reader who follows his bromance with Will, an immature 30-something bachelor. Will, too, is a bit of the holidays come to life: he lives his responsibility-free lifestyle thanks to the royalities from his dad’s one-hit wonder, “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” When actual Christmas rolls around the Brewer household, it’s a gathering weirdos and emotional delinquents including Will, Marcus, Marcus’ suicidal hippie mom, her accident-prone ex-husband, and his new girlfriend.
7. Emma by Jane Austen
Jane Austen excelled at describing bad parties, specifically those moments when, to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace, a “supposedly fun thing” becomes demonstrably awful. For Emma, that experience is Christmas Eve dinner at the Randalls. After enduring John Knightley’s long-winded rantings, she is shocked by an unwanted marriage proposal from Mr. Elton. Emma then has to sit there and take it while Mr. Elton, wounded by her refusal, insults her to her face.
8. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Patrick Bateman is one of literature’s best known psychopaths and he celebrates Christmas accordingly. After insisting that his girlfriend leave her own party, he takes her to a club called Chernobyl where they snort “expensive Christmas frost,” and he gets into a fight in the restroom. Even aside from his murderous impulses, Christmas with Bateman sounds like the worst.
9. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Enid and Alfred Lamberts want to spend one last Christmas with their three children at the family house in the archetypal Midwestern hamlet of St. Jude. The problem? The family has grown apart, both emotionally and physically (the kids, now adults, have fled for the East Coast). Enid’s desire for a final, perfect Christmas is tied up in nostalgia for a happy past that never quite existed.
10. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Even if you’ve had an otherwise enjoyable holiday season, New Year’s Day can be a potent cocktail of existential dread mixed with self-loathing and a pounding headache. Helen Feilding captures this in the opening of her first novel, when Bridget, having once again started the year in a single bed in her parents’ house, attends Una and Geoffrey Alconbury’s New Year’s Day Turkey Curry Buffet. Fielding wisely makes the point that it’s one thing to resolve to lose weight, ditch cigarettes, fix your job and get a love-life, and quite another to be publicly reminded that you need to do these things by an attractive man at a curry buffet.
11. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Archie Jones starts New Year’s Day, 1975, sealed in his Cavalier Musketeer station wagon, waiting for the fumes to kill him. Attempted suicide is a pretty grim way to start your holiday, even if you are accidentally saved by an aggrieved owner of a halal butcher shop who doesn’t want your suicide box/car blocking his delivery zone.