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The Editor’s Desk: Christmas without slush

Christmas can be a time of saccharine sweetness, but it doesn’t have to be that way
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson contemplate a seedy felt hat at the start of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’, which has been described as ‘A Christmas story without slush.’ Illustration by Sidney Paget from the Strand Magazine, January 1892.

From cookies and candy canes to sugar plums and shortbread, Christmas can be a time of incessant, overwhelming sweetness; a quality that often spills over into holiday entertainments. I’m not opposed to sugary holiday confections, edible or otherwise, but too many can turn even the most Christmas-loving person into someone who starts to think that perhaps the Grinch had a point after all.

Worried that you might be at risk of overdosing on too much holiday cheer? Here are a few festive things to seek out, as a useful antidote.

A Christmas Carol: “Wait!” I hear you cry. “Isn’t this the original feel-good Christmas classic, with its redemptive arc and that insufferable Tiny Tim?” Yes; yes, it is. But if you’re only familiar with one of the many film or TV adaptations of Christmas Carol, which invariably gloss over or leave out a fair bit of Charles Dickens’ original story, then it’s worthwhile to check out the novel, which contains a good deal of darkness. Young Ebenezer’s father is cruel and distant; his beloved sister dies while still a young woman; he loses the woman he loves. We see scenes of poverty, despair, and misery, culminating in the nightmare-inducing children who are called Ignorance and Want, and at the end Scrooge is reduced to a pitiable wreck cowering before his own gravestone. Yes, there’s a feel-good ending, but by the time it arrives the reader is sorely in need of it.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Speaking of feel-good endings, they don’t come much better than the one at the end of this 1946 classic. Unfortunately, many people only know the film from its last 15 or so minutes, which have been much parodied over the years; the movie as a whole is considerably darker, as George Bailey sees his dreams and goals repeatedly dashed until he finally decides the world would be better off if he were dead. As in Christmas Carol, there is a gut-punch of a scene where the main character stares at a gravestone and its terrible (and terrifying) implications sink in, and as in Dickens’ novel that cathartic ending is well- and honestly-earned.

“The Blue Carbuncle”: Sherlockian scholar Christopher Morley described “The Blue Carbuncle” as “A Christmas story without slush,” and it’s impossible to disagree. Dr. Watson calls on Sherlock Holmes to wish him the compliments of the season, and we are drawn into one of the great detective’s most memorable cases, involving a battered hat, a purloined jewel, and a highly sought-after Christmas goose. The Granada TV version with Jeremy Brett and David Burke as Holmes and Watson is beautifully done, and puts the perfect bow on Arthur Conan Doyle’s holiday tale.

“The Rebel Jesus”: Christmas music can be somewhat samey, and verging on the saccharine, which makes Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus” a welcome blast of cool, crisp, bracing air. It starts off conventionally enough, with a nod to the streets being filled with laughter and light, but the second verse takes a turn into churches filled with pride and gold, and by the third verse Browne is noting that while we may be a bit more generous at Christmas, we’re discouraged from looking too deeply into the causes of so much poverty. Although the final verse acknowledges that “In this life of hardship and of earthly toil / We have need of anything that frees us,” the song is a reminder that Christmas isn’t as sweet and light as we might like to think. Find the original version, with Browne accompanied by Ireland’s The Chieftains (

“In Praise of Christmas”: This Elizabethan carol, the first written record of which comes from 1625, is also known as “All Hail to the Days” and “Drive the Cold Winter Away”. In the hands of Canadian singer/songwriter Loreena McKennitt the centuries-old carol becomes a beautiful and haunting piece, reminding us of a season when darkness lies just outside the bright and welcoming fire (