Novelist Katherine Paterson is married to a Presbyterian minister, and during each Christmas Eve service, it has been his custom to read aloud an inspirational story written for the occasion by his wife, the author of the children’s classic Bridge to Terabithia. Many of these stories have now been collected in a new volume titled A Stubborn Sweetness and Other Stories for the Christmas Season.
The collection features a wide range of settings and themes. Several stories portray the difficulties of celebrating Christmas in less-than-hospitable environments. In others, readers meet a variety of unassuming “angels”: a night watchman who rescues an abandoned baby, a young man who reluctantly gives a homeless family shelter, a man on a mission who stops to assist a stranded family and receives help in return, and a Girl Scout who makes an unexpected friend in a nursing home.
A Stubborn Sweetness is thought-provoking and poignant, but Paterson—who attended King College in Bristol, Tennessee, and who has twice won both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award—also finds the humor in holiday activities. In “Woodrow Kennington Works Practically a Miracle,” a boy finds his little sister particularly vexing when he tries to help her craft a nativity scene out of bread dough only to find that her idea of appropriate livestock runs to the non-traditional: “We can’t use fourteen snakes in one manger scene,” he tells her. In “The Handmaid of the Lord,” the pastor’s daughter is passed over yet again for the part of Mary in the church Christmas play, forced instead to serve as understudy, but she sees the hand of God at work when tragedy strikes her rival: “And then, a miracle happened,” Paterson writes. “One week before Christmas, Carrie Wilson, who wore the world’s prissiest little blue leather boots, slipped on the ice in the mall parking lot and broke both her arms. Both her arms. Rachel was overcome with exceeding great joy. God did love her, he did! One arm might count as an accident, but two arms were a miracle.”
In “Why the Chimes Almost Rang,” a young girl named Ellie reads a story about two brothers journeying to a Christmas Eve service at a magnificent church with a mysterious legend: its chimes are said to ring only when the perfect gift for the baby Jesus is laid upon the altar. On their way, the boys stop to help a woman who has collapsed in the snow: the older brother works to revive her while the younger runs to the church for help. When he arrives at the altar, the chimes begin to ring. “Ellie loved the story,” Paterson writes. “All fall she made her little brother act it out with her until he cried.” When Ellie discovers a needy mother and child stealing from her church during the Christmas Eve service, she faces her own moment of truth.
Whether moving or humorous, each story ultimately echoes the joyful proclamation of eight-year-old Buddy in “Star Lady,” in which a case of mistaken identity causes an irrepressible young boy to befriend a snobbish but lonely widow. He invites her to the parish church and teaches her the words his pastor has taught all the children: “Just remember—God loves you, and you got friends in this world.”