The Worst Noel(HarperCollins · paper · $14.95)
Christmas is for cranks. After all, nothing inspires a grouch's despair quite like the period between Thanksgiving and New Year, when enforced good cheer—and a pelting of holiday catalogues—sends a good many reaching for the Scotch, or their therapists' phone numbers.
The 18 contributors to this slap-happy little volume have all traveled through this valley of despair and returned with tales so blackly funny they reinforce a comic's wisdom: that true humor comes from admitting the truth. Christmas is hell.
Here is the holiday season stripped free of retailer fantasies or warmed-over nostalgia. One writer spends 20 minutes of Christmas at the wrong house. "Oh, you want the Cairo family!" Another gets felt-up by an electronic Santa who "chortles merrily" then gives her rump a nice swat.
On her way to her daughter's Christmas pageant, Joni Rogers pulls a bleeding Santa from a car wreck, survives his groping and the ire of the EMTs, and still makes it to her destination intact. Struggling with a dazed Kris Kringle, she tries to keep her curious daughter busy. "Is Santa watching me?" "Yes, Santa is watching!" Rogers replies. "He said if you get out of that car, he'll be seriously pissed."
Crack-ups abound. Cynthia Kaplan and her husband hit a deer on their way to Vermont, while Stanley Bing slinks away from what sounds like a crashed and burned marriage. He winds up spending his Christmas Eve at an all-night diner, bellied up to the counter for a stack of flapjacks and sausage. "Not a word passed between any of us," Bing writes. Yet he was cheered by this. "Anything more would have been too much and far, far too little."
This effect can be felt while reading The Worst Noel. Although a few are duds, many of them have a homey, warming quality that comes from recognizing, as Bing did, that we're not alone in our misery.
In one of the gems, Mike Albo describes the holiday he spent whisked off to Paris by two globe-trotting men for a Christmas dinner in a rundown old farmhouse in Brittany, where they are served duck and glass after glass of red wine. But all that glitters turns grim when he finds himself just "a tossed around handbag," who is neglected and used and then shoved aside.
Flying back to New York in gale force winds, he thinks about his family in Virginia and realizes the trick to Christmas is not low expectations, but something akin to it. "I'll be going down to Virginia for the holidays," he writes, "loving it when nothing extraordinary happens. I will celebrate a Christmas of scrutable, easy-to-process magic, bought in stores and online."
Sounds like a recipe worth taping right next to Grandma's secret formula for eggnog.