For more than a decade, the weekly newspaper I work for has held an annual Christmas story contest for students in the schools of the two towns we cover.
These stories offer a glimpse - in turn worrisome and reassuring - into a new generation.
Not unexpectedly, those views are often grim - yet some glimmer of the true meaning of Christmas still comes through.
Sure, there are the culturally ingrained rehashings of holiday stories: "A Christmas Carol," "The Night Before Christmas," and "The Grinch." Rudolph and his fellow reindeer, the North Pole's ubiquitous elves, and Santa Claus - and very often Mrs. Claus - also make frequent appearances in various roles, from their traditional personas to modern incarnations as indolent sloths or insane video game-inspired mass murderers.
But it's the themes of the stories that take place in the real world that are most interesting. Although many retain a pronounced fantasy element, they're often grounded in the dark reality that many of these kids either experience themselves or see as the norm of American life through dysfunctional TV families - struggling single-parent homes, unhappy family lives, and peer pressure.
For a number of years, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, we received a slew of stories in which one or both parents were killed or had died, obviously a fear many children harbor. But these stories were different - they weren't just kids working out their anxiety on the page, but seemed like shrill screams in the darkness. They'd seen parents split up and lose jobs; they'd seen cable television; they'd seen "Beavis and Butthead." The culture was changing and there was no going back.
These stories did not have happy endings. Many were bleak, almost fatalistic, involving gory details and little hope that anything, even the spirit of Christmas, could make things better. In choosing the stories to appear in the paper, we shied away from these. Not because some weren't well-written or interesting, but because they were just too depressing. I doubt many parents ever saw these stories.
We still get stories like that on occasion, but they have slowed to a trickle during the past four or five years. Whether it is because of the favorable economy easing the struggle to survive or because children have become acclimated to a new sort of cultural paradigm is difficult to judge.
In a few cases, the stories have taken on the aspect of extreme cartoon-like violence: Santa as video game protagonist, blowing away anyone who stood in the way of his Christmas Eve deliveries; elves with Uzis; and kids disemboweling Rudolph when they don't get what they asked for. One story even had Santa threatening to eat the reindeer, to which "Super Reindeer" responded with cherry bombs and bubble gum rockets. These post-"South Park" Christmas stories, disturbing as they are, seem almost like a logical progression. Fortunately, they are in the minority.
More often in the past few years, we've received stories that blend fantasy with reality. Kids who somehow blunder into Santa's realm while searching for lost mittens or agonizing over whether the Jolly Old Elf really exists. The return of an older sibling or long-lost parent. A loved one roused from a coma by a child playing Christmas music on a boombox. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, told "a real Christmas story," an uneventful, self-indulgent account of a young girl being shuttled between divorced parents.
Formats have also changed. A decade ago, most stories we received were either handwritten or pecked out on a manual typewriter. Today everything is word- processed, and the occasional overly masticated line (a misspelled Christmas bowl becomes a Christmas bowel) reveals the extent kids rely on grammar and spell-checkers.
The one thing almost all the stories have in common, however, is that the central character is usually a child, or an adult flashing back to his or her childhood. When it comes to Christmas, it's always viewed through a prism of childlikeness - perhaps understandable given that children are at the center of almost everything Christmas-related.
Many of the stories conclude with the main character realizing, often in a suspiciously perfunctory way, that getting that coveted video game or a puppy isn't really what Christmas is all about. Like the message tacked on the end of a holiday season cartoon, there is almost always an epiphany that hews to the accepted meaning of Christmas, which is perhaps something to be thankful for.
Maybe beneath all that holiday glitter and glare, all the video violence and commercialism, something is getting through to our children, no matter how superficially.
* Timothy J. Wood is editor of the Cape Cod Chronicle.