Couples in Crisis with Mistletoe Dreams

Everybody knows that depressed people dread Christmas -- but what about unhappy couples? Could it be that the pressure of mistletoe, shopping and too many calories drives marriages into desperate straits in December? If you read enough Christmas romances you might well come to that conclusion. These books are littered with failed marriages -- and the delicious, miraculous endings have to do with pulling those couples back from the brink of divorce.

Of course, miraculous endings have a long history in Christmas literature. My own view of the holiday was shaped by reading Dickens's A Christmas Carol every December. Throughout the witty, terrifying visits of Christmas Past and Christmas Future, we know that it's Scrooge's last chance. If he doesn't succeed in making this Christmas different, he will be ruined. He needs a miracle.

When I decided to write my own Christmas novel, Affair Before Christmas, I brought together Scrooge's desperate need for a miracle with the sense of anticipation and desire that fuels the season. My couple, the Duke and Duchess of Fletcher, were deeply in love when they married, but the novel opens a few years later when their marriage is, as we say, on the rocks. Poppy moves out, but her husband, Fletch, can't quite give up the idea of trying to seduce her into loving him?just one last time. In the midst of all the gorgeous Georgian dresses and towering hair and men in heels is a story of a marriage on the edge of disaster, with just one Christmas house party standing between my hero and heroine and the deepest sadness.

It wasn't until I finished my novel that I realized that there actually is a genre of failed-relationship Christmas romances. Lisa Kleypas's novella in Gifts of Love is a great example -- it's about a Victorian marriage in which the husband and wife come from different classes. Their marriage is dying because they have jumped to conclusions about each other based on class, and aren't able to talk through their differences. Similarly, Nora Robert's first story in The Gift is about a reporter who ran out of town without his best girl and forgot to call home for ten years. He returns to find that the girl he left behind is a businesswoman with a daughter -- around ten years old. His failure in communication almost ruined his chance at love and fatherhood. Both of these stories hinge on couples learning to speak to each other -- to tell the kind of truths that are embarrassing, and bind a man and woman together as a couple against the world.

So why are there so many Christmas romances about failed marriages? It makes sense, actually. What's more annoying than a partner who doesn't understand the importance of creating the perfect B?che de Noel? Who doesn't want to wait in the parking lot for a store with the perfect toy to open? Who makes annoying remarks about the offensive portrayal of Italian Americans in It's a Wonderful Life? Who's a Scrooge, in other words?

What better way to smooth over those fraying spots in marriage than to fall back onto a couch with a romance about a miracle -- the kind that would be needed in order for you to look at your partner with affection in the next five minutes? The fact that romances are spun from couples not speaking to each other makes perfect sense. You don't even need a Christmas ghost to point out the problem. But that's not to say that all Christmas romances avoid supernatural help.

The queen of the angelic Christmas novel is Debbie Macomber. For many Christmases, Macomber's three witty, eccentric angels -- Shirley, Goodness and Mercy -- have marked the season for her readers. In this year's Where Angels Go, the three are a little disgruntled by their assignments: Shirley, after all, is used to maneuvering humans into loving marriages -- and she's being asked to make sure that a little boy gets a puppy? But Goodness has been assigned to a divorced and lonely young woman who's spending far too much time on her computer. She and her husband broke up years ago when they were young and immature -- but now she's met a man on-line whom she can talk to. Of course, there's always the chance that he's really a balding 50-year-old -- or married -- or a teenager!

Another favorite of mine is Angels Everywhere, in which the angels get a little wild (Mercy has a weakness for human technology and has been known to get into forklift races). Mercy is assigned to Leah, whose marriage is falling apart from the stress of her desire for a child; making love has become a matter of charts and thermometers. Similarly, my hero and heroine in Affair Before Christmas are terrible in bed together. She hates it; he thinks she's frigid. Problems in bed are, of course, at the heart of many a failed marriage -- but they can also be at the heart of solving the problem, which means that Christmas novels can be deliciously sexy. After all, what's better than a couple rediscovering pleasure with a deeper appreciation of each other?

Gemma Bruce has a sexy tale along these lines in A Very Merry Christmas. Her heroine, Alison, definitely doesn't want to spend the holidays with her ex-boyfriend, but where does she end up? Stuck in a cabin with Lee, draped in tinsel?and not much else. They don't understand the miracle at the heart of their Christmas until the little town around them, Good Cheer, disappears back into the past. Kristin Hannah weaves a similarly wonderful fairy tale when Joy Candellaro runs away from the horrible fact that her husband is having an affair with her sister, and ends up in an inn run by an Irishman and his son Bobby -- until the inn disappears and she wakes up in a hospital.

Scrooge's Christmas ghosts are along the lines of Macomber's Shirley and Goodness -- miracles that facilitate a change of heart. In Gemma Bruce's and Kristin Hannah's tales, the miracles are global, as it were: the couples travel through time and space. I want to finish this column with a lovely story that manages to do both -- be a straight-forward Christmas tale of a failed marriage, with no obvious miracle, and yet still be delightfully structured about the miracle at the heart of Christmas itself.

My favorite of Mary Balogh's four novellas in Under the Mistletoe is "No Room at the Inn." Lord and Lady Birkin are stranded at an inn with nothing to distract them but their own marital disappointments -- until a couple appears who are about to have a baby. There's no bed available except in the stable, until Lady Birkin and other guests at the inn change the tale; her marriage is mended in the process. Mary Balogh gets the last word in this column about Christmas and miracles, because she ends her story of travelers caught at an inn with a particularly wonderful paragraph:

"A single star almost directly overhead bathed the inn with soft light and glistened off acres of mud. It was not a pretty scene. Not a noticeably Christmas-like scene. The inn, somewhere in Wiltshire, was neither large nor picturesque nor thriving. No one has ever mapped its exact location."

About the Columnist
Eloisa James is a New York Times–bestselling author of historical romances, as well as a memoirist (Paris in Love) and professor of English literature teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University. Her latest novel is Three Weeks with Lady X.

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