Did it ever strike you as a strange thing to drag a living tree once a year into your home and set it up to worship? If you are old enough, you may have seen decorating fashions come and go: fir cones painted in gold, cardboard adornments — preferably in red or green — artfully sculpted little angels, fragile glass balls in all colors. And you may have noted that the tree itself has transformed from real to artificial. Fiberglass trees in vivid colors, such as bright blue, are popular. There is a small rotating porcelain tree that plays Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” Presley himself decorated his ranch house with a nylon tree that had red ornaments and a revolving base tootling Christmas songs. Let’s leave it to others to discuss whether this is still a “real” tree or not. More… “Branching Out”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

Even if the only poetry you’ve ever read was in high school when the teacher made you do so — blasted adults — you likely intuited that there was something rather different, scope-wise, about the verse of winter from the verse of the warmer seasons.

The latter often enough featured the imagery of green fields and forests fit for Robin Hood to come strolling along and challenge all to an archer’s contest, with fireflies in the night and, if you were reading for deeper meanings, boundless futures comfortingly equipped with boundless possibilities. A poetry one might consider as more laden with hope than head — as I think of it, that special cognizance that has little to do with external vistas and more to do with buffeting internal winds. That is the poetry of the winter.

Not terribly cheery, you might say, and not what we think of at Christmas, but it was perhaps the most winter-based of all poets, in terms of the ideas coursing through his poems, who had his greatest epiphany during the season. More… “A Keatsian Christmas”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.

As David Brent put it in the original version of The Office, life is a series of peaks and troughs, but I think most of us, really, expect the Christmas season to grade out on the higher side of things, a spirit bumper even if the year that has just passed has not been a banner one. We tend to think that way if and until something occurs that we couldn’t foresee, that puts a sort of permanent crack in us that we’re forever trying to solder over, especially at the holidays.

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s… More…


I wrote a little essay about Christmas for The Smart Set in December of 2007. It began with the sentence, “In defending Christmas I have nothing to say about Jesus Christ, a terrifying and influential historical figure who, I confess, has had little impact on my life.” An amusing enough line for an atheist with no great hostility to Christianity or any other religion.

Then a funny thing happened. In the intervening years, I became a Catholic. Currently, I go to Mass every morning at Saint Mary’s in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. That “terrifying and influential historical figure” has managed, after all, to have quite an impact on my life. That’s the danger every writer faces. Publish your thoughts for long enough and they will eventually come back to haunt you. This can be painful. But it can be a hot and cleansing pain. We write in order to project our… More…

Clayton tunnel, the site of an 1861 crash

Ah, Father Christmas, here you are again sir, and what is that you have with you, tucked under your arm? Why, a volume of Dickens, of course. Always Dickens at Christmas, right? And, if you’ve not yet gone to a production of A Christmas Carol, I’d bet you’re going soon, or else you’re going to be watching one of the many versions that will be on television here in the run-up to that greatest of days for some, and the hardest of days for others. Treat yourself right and go with the ’51 Alastair Sim effort or venture out a bit, and gather the family ‘round for a Christmas reading unlike any other. And no, I’m not talking the Carol. I’m talking about Dickens’ “The Signal-Man,” Christmas literature for how the other half lives. Not the denizens of Scrooge’s beloved workhouses (well, Scrooge pre-epiphanies… More…

Why has Christmas eaten all the other fall and winter holidays? I feel as though we’re disconnected from the particular joys other holidays have to offer, specifically the non-costume, reflection-on-mortality aspect of Halloween, and its month-later anodyne, Thanksgiving, which celebrates all the hard work of the harvest and begins the convivial atmosphere that helps us all get through the long dark nights of the winter. How can poetry help us get back to appreciating our other holidays for what they are? — Dr. Sunshine


From what I understand, Christmas dominates the winter holidays because it boosts our economy. In the 1930s, in the hope that it would pull us out of the Great Depression, Thanksgiving was even moved up from the last Thursday to the third Thursday in November so that people would have more time for Christmas… More…


Christmas curmudgeonry has grown as monotonous as the music a Salvation Army kettle-clanger makes. First, the ACLU spoils Baby Jesus’ City Hall camp-out by filing a lawsuit somewhere. Then, the Christian greetings police refuse to turn the other cheek at sales clerks who don’t sufficiently reciprocate their faith-based merriment. Then, secular spendthrifts denounce the excessive commercialism that undermines a day ostensibly devoted to peace, joy, and football. So at least give economist Joel Waldfogel credit for coming up with a new way to tell us how much Christmas sucks. In his new book Scroogenomics, the University of Pennsylvania economics professor argues that our holiday spending binges aren’t efficient enough. For example, say I buy you a toaster for $50, and you buy me a waffle iron for $50. If neither of us really wanted the gifts we received, and would only pay $25 for them if we had to buy… More…

The individual, plastic-wrapped, and oft-broken Christmas treat!

So for the record, Tom Green didn’t dress up as Hitler at a bar mitzvah, the Hoover Dam doesn’t have bodies of workers buried inside, and candy canes? Oh, where do I begin.  Perhaps with a warning: other than grappling with a particularly divine-tasting edible, a column about foodstuffs isn’t normally the place to tackle religion. Today it is, because the candy cane and Christmas are as intertwined as the stick’s red and white stripes.

I first read about the myth of candy canes (and Tom Green, and the Hoover Dam) on Snopes, the rumor-busting Web site. Paraphrased, this is the myth that Snopes tackled: Candy canes were created by a man in Indiana. He decided that the J-shape of the cane would stand for Jesus’ name, the white of the candy symbolized the virgin birth, the hardness of the candy correlated to the firm foundation of church, and the… More…

Shadows of things that Will be, or shadows of things that May be?

The first sentence of A Christmas Carol is “Marley was dead: to begin with.” It’s a terrible way to start a story about Christmas. But A Christmas Carol isn’t great because it’s a great story. In fact, A Christmas Carol is a flimsy story. The characters are mostly clichés. Scrooge is a parody of miserly behavior. He is not only against Christmas, he is against love. He is also against charity, kindness, and even heat, preferring to keep his coal locked up rather than warm the office with it. Scrooge lives in darkness and gloom. “The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.”

In contrast, Tiny Tim — the blessed little cripple and son of Scrooge’s employee — seems to bear no resentment to the world at all. His love for everyone knows no… More…

Set the way for all rap jumps into the holiday.

Christmas music has never ranked highly among music aficionados. It exists, but no one likes to think about it much. Still, to create Christmas music is to belong in America. I don’t think this is a religious phenomenon. It is about homely feelings, about playing at tradition in a land that hasn’t any real ones. Americans imported their traditions from other lands and then went on to neglect them generally. Christmas is our pathetic, if charming, attempt at compensation.

The big question no one was asking in the 1980s was whether rap music could ever go that far. Was rap American enough to accomplish the Christmas song? When you do the Christmas song you are solid, you are in the club. Moreover, you are in the club to stay. A successful Christmas song will make it into a radio-cum-internet rotation that is beyond the vicissitudes of time. Think of “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. No one… More…