I’m a big fan of Christmas, but even I have to draw the line somewhere. While I’m not above buying gifts in July, I have no patience for people who put up twinkle lights in October and even I can only sit through so many viewings of Its a Wonderful Life before reaching for the insulin. So when I spotted The Dreaded Feast in a used book shop the week before Thanksgiving, I thought it would be a nice antidote to the super saccharine influence of the holiday season.
It is an antidote, I suppose, in the way that morphine would be an antidote for a headache. It’s not just that the collection of essays is too snarky for me. It is (and that is saying something) but I can’t really blame the book for that. After all, the back cover says in big block letters, “For people who aren’t so crazy about the holidays.” I ignored the warning, thinking surely that the negativity would be balanced with redemption. So, my bad there. But what really irritated me was that the humor-ish essays were all very obvious. Let’s face it, Christmas is a pretty easy target. There’s a lot of room there for mockery: the fruitcake, the carolers, the ugly sweaters. Now that I think about it, ugly sweaters were pretty much overlooked in this collection, which seems odd (note to self: write Dave Barry-esque essay on ugly Christmas sweaters for publication before Jan. 1). The point is, there’s lots to make fun of, but making fun and making something funny aren’t the same thing. For all its jokey criticism, the essays just didn’t elicit many chuckles from me.
Not all the essays are humorous, though. John Cheever’s Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor is a thought-provoking tale worthy of its own essay. Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel and Oh, Christmas Tree by Augusten Burroughs are both curious stories that are more interesting to me than a study of the office Christmas party. And don’t even get me started on Hunter S. Thompson’s contribution—what the hell was that about? The point is, this is an anthology, so one would expect a mixed bag.
The more I read, however, the more the collection as a whole started to bug me. Overall there just didn’t appear to be any cohesive theme. The selections seem so random, like the inclusion of a single scene from a play called “The Truth About Santa” and an anonymous 17th century diatribe on the vanity of the Christmas holiday. It feels like the editors simply selected the first thirty pieces of writing about Christmas that weren’t The Gift of the Magi and called it a day.
I’ve read some excellent short-story collections in the past, where each piece of writing stands independently while also contributing to a whole. Unrelated works can sometimes build on each other and shine a light on similar themes, making each more thought-provoking or worthwhile than it had been on its own. Sadly, The Dreaded Feast isn’t one of those collections.