Friday, December 20, 2013

A Christmas Story

Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980)
From Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories & Other Writings

Front cover of A Christmas Story
by Katherine Anne Porter, hard-
cover “Christmas card” designed
by Tammis Keefe and sent to staff
and associates of Mademoiselle
magazine in 1958. Copy in The
Library of America’s collection.
During her long career Katherine Anne Porter wrote one holiday story. A beloved favorite among her fans, “A Christmas Story” first appeared in Mademoiselle in December 1946, and a decade later the magazine’s editors reinvented it as a limited-edition hardcover “Christmas card” to send to staff and associates. In 1967 Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte Press reprinted the tale, with drawings by Ben Shahn, as a small book for holiday gift-giving. The piece was collected in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1970), but today it is available only in The Library of America edition of Porter’s writings—and now you can read it here, as a Story of the Week selection.

The story recalls a day before Christmas 1918—the last time Porter spent with her young niece Mary Alice Halloway. Before embarking on a shopping trip, the aunt and her niece discussed (and dissected) various traditional Christmas legends: the fifteenth-century French song “The Miracle of St. Bertha, the Armless Servant, or The Three Days of the Virgin Mary,” popularized by Belle Époque cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert; a version of The Adoration of the Three Magi, illustrated by French painter Jean Fouquet, who used a likeness of Charles VII as one of the Magi; “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” based on a story about the infant Jesus from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew; and “The Withy Tree” (better known as “The Bitter Withy”), a medieval English carol likewise based on stories found in the infancy gospels.

In the afterword written for the 1967 book version, Porter wrote:
This is not a fiction, but the true story of an episode in the short life of my niece, Mary Alice, a little girl who died nearly a half century ago, at the age of five and one-half years. The stories are those I told her, and those we sang together. The shopping for a present for her mother, my sister, in the last Christmas of this child’s life is set down here as clearly as I am able to tell it, with no premonitions of disaster, because we hadn’t any: life was daily and forever, for us both. I was young, too. This is, of course, a lament in the form of a joyous remembrance of that last day I spent with this most lovely, much loved being. . . .
Porter sent a copy of the story to a friend in 1974 and inscribed it: “I learned long ago from the life and death of this child how deathless love, and faithful memory, can be. She has lived in my life for more than half a century, a perpetual spring of joy that has helped me to live—  But why was she taken away?”

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When she was five years old, my niece asked me again why we celebrated Christmas. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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