A Harper Lee Christmas

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For as long as I can remember, my favourite Christmas story was “The Gift Of The Magi “, a short story by O. Henry, initially published in The New York Sunday World in 1905. It was introduced to me (and the rest of my secondary one class) by our literature teacher in 1962. Since then, I had been and continue to be enthralled by this simple and touching story of the young couple, Jim and Della Dillingham, sacrificially exchanging Christmas gifts. It had remained for me, the quintessential Christmas story. (I should qualify, next to that original Christmas story of course, just in case one or more of my church elders are reading this.)

What a delight it was for me to discover, just the other day, another Christmas gem, written by another famous author, Harper Lee. Long renown as the creator of that all-time classic of American literature, “To Kill A Mockingbird “, Guardian Books.Com on December 12, 2015 featured an essay written by her, way back in 1960. This essay entitled “Christmas To Me ” was first published in McCall’s magazine in their 1961 issue.

Read it here in full, courtesy of heyboobooks:

The story began with the words, “Several years ago…” We can date the incident to some time in the 1950s. Mockingbird was published in 1960. According to biographical records, the original manuscript of what would ultimately become “To Kill A Mockingbird ” had been completed in the spring of 1957, and delivered to her agent to send out to publishers, one of whom (the now defunct J.B. Lippincott Company) bought it. According to Ms Tay Hofoff, a veteran editor at Lippincott, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication, “more of a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next, until the book finally achieved its finished form.

Those must have been trying years for Lee, having just quit her job as an airline reservations clerk, at the behest of one of the Lippincott editors who had bought her manuscript, yet not knowing if and when the manuscript would finally be turned into a published book. I am sure the Christmas gift came in very handy, and I think it was what provided Lee the time and space and freedom to grapple with the many editorial revisions. Without what it afforded, I wonder if the brain-child originally entitled “Go Set A Watchman ” could have survived the whole gestation process, seen birth as “To Kill A Mockingbird “, and lived to enjoy its continuing phenomenal success.

With due respect to O. Henry, I have since the discovery, switched my allegiance to Harper Lee, as far as Christmas stories go. “The Gift Of The Magi ” will forever be one of my favourites, but it will henceforth rank second, behind “Christmas To Me “. For one thing, the latter involves real-life persons, at least one of whom I know is still living and breathing. For another, it revolves around writers, whom I feel a special affinity to. But mostly, it is because I feel deeply touched by the practical love, care and concern shown by the giver of that Christmas present. I’m hoping that the retelling of this story will spur a reawakening and re-examination of the ways all of us do our Christmas giving.

I must confess that somewhere in the back of my mind, I may be harbouring the hope that I might in a small way become a beneficiary of any such mind-set change. Alright, it doesn’t necessarily have to be small – big is also ok with me.