Carson McCullers's gift to us: three Yuletide essays

Although it's not what she's known for, Southern writer Carson McCullers shared vivid memories of the Christmases of her childhood.

Next year marks the centennial of the birth of Carson McCullers, which the Library of America is celebrating by releasing a new collection of her prose. 'McCullers: Stories, Plays & Other Writings' includes, among other nice surprises, three yuletide essays.

The Southern writer Carson McCullers is best known for “The Member of the Wedding,” a 1946 novel that plants her in the public mind as a poet laureate of summer. The novel, about a young girl who feels forced to the edge of her household as a family wedding approaches, incorporates summer as a secondary character in the story, describing the season so palpably that readers can feel it on their skin.

“In June the trees were bright dizzy green, but later the leaves darkened, and the town turned black and shrunken under the glare of the sun,” McCullers tells readers. “The sidewalks of the town were gray in the early morning and at night, but the noon sun put a glaze on them, so that the cement burned and glittered like glass.”

But what isn’t so well known – though a new Library of America volume makes it clear – is that McCullers could write just as lyrically about Christmas, too.

Next year marks the centennial of McCullers’ birth, which the LOA is celebrating by releasing a new collection of her prose. “McCullers: Stories, Plays & Other Writings” includes, among other nice surprises, three yuletide essays – two recounting her childhood Christmases in small-town Georgia.

Even in those long, hot summers of so long ago, thoughts turned to the holidays. Or so we learn in “Home for Christmas,” perhaps McCullers’ best yuletide essay of all. “Sometimes in August, weary of the vacant, broiling afternoon, my younger brother and sister and I would gather in the dense shade under the oak tree in the back yard and talk of Christmas and sing carols,” McCullers writes. “I was experiencing the first wonder about the mystery of Time,” she recalls. “How could it be that I was I and now was now when in four months it would be Christmas, wintertime, cold weather, twilight and the glory of the Christmas tree?”

But later, after so many months of anguished anticipation, time takes McCullers to the doorstep of December 25. “Christmas Eve was the longest day, but it was lined with the glory of tomorrow,” she writes. “The sitting-room smelled of floor wax and the clean, cold odor of the spruce tree. The Christmas tree stood in a corner of the front room, tall as the ceiling, majestic, undecorated. It was our family custom that the tree was not decorated until after we children were in bed on Christmas Eve night. We went to bed very early, as soon as it was winter dark. I lay in bed beside my sister and tried to keep her awake.”

Christmas comes, and then, in a seeming instant, is gone. “At twilight I sat on the front steps, jaded by too much pleasure, sick at the stomach and worn out,” McCullers recalls. “Christmas was over. I thought of the monotony of Time ahead, unsolaced by the distant glow of paler festivals, the year that stretched before another Christmas – eternity.”

Born in 1917, McCullers would have been 100 next year, but she lived only half that long, dying in 1967 at age 50 after a series of health problems. In “A Hospital Christmas Eve,” she recounts a Christmas Eve in a physical therapy ward, where a fellow patient -- a double amputee – gives her the best present of all: the gift of hope.

These Christmas stories, and the other prose in the stellar LOA collection, are Carson McCullers’s gift to us.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”           

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