James Joyce might not seem like the most Christmasy and festive of Irish writers, but he does have a special resonance at this time of year. Yes, those who have a week or so of extra free time during horrible weather do have a great chance to try (again) to tackle Ulysses, but there is more to it than that. Joyce’s widely loved short story The Dead is set at Christmas time.
It is a far less intimidating introduction to one of Ireland’s most beloved literary exiles, and even those who have to go back to work on the 26th stand a very good chance of finishing it before returning to work. (Really, save Ulysses for your retirement if you haven’t read it yet, but warm up with his other works.)
The Dead is set on the 12th day of Christmas, the Feast of Epiphany when the main character and his wife go to the home of two of his aunts and his cousin for their annual dinner party with music and dancing. Anyone who has ever attended a family holiday gathering will identify with the delicate dynamics between the relatives and friends. Has Freddy been drinking too much? Has Gabriel inadvertently offended Lily? Will the disagreements about politics, religion and where to go on vacation get out of hand? Dublin landmarks including Trinity College and the Gresham Hotel have cameo parts.
Joyce to the World
For those whose idea of a beautiful Christmas includes curling up with a hot drink and a great story, The Dead is just the thing. Like many things Irish, the story involves two layers. Beneath the surface, both Gabriel and his wife Greta are contemplating their connections with others. Gabriel feels awkward in conversation with the other guests, and when they reach their hotel, Greta shares her story of a tragic past love, leaving Gabriel reflecting on how persistent the dead are, how they linger with us.
The Dead has one major quirk. The story features three ladies hosting an annual dinner dance in their home at Usher’s Quay on January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany. It is the last of the 12 days of Christmas. In Ireland, this day is also known as Nollaig na mBan – women’s Christmas. The tradition was that in honor of all the work the mother of the family did for the holiday, and traditionally women were stuck with all of the house work, all of that holiday cooking and cleaning, the ladies got some quality time with sisters, mothers and friends to recover while the men held down the fort at home, kept the children alive and even made some tea.
Of course, Joyce’s “three muses” in The Dead are all unmarried women without children so hosting a gathering on January 6th would not have been out of order for them, and it would have been a nice night out for the mothers on their guest list, such as Greta.