The Birds For Christmas by Mark Richard, 1990
The magic trick:
Presenting realistically restless and unhappy poor children at Christmas
This is a second straight day of what I would call the anti-Dickens Christmas story. Why anti-Dickens? Both “The Birds For Christmas” and yesterday’s feature by Ntozake Shange feature children who are the recipients of charity and guess what, they’re not real happy about it. This isn’t some Tiny Tom nonsense. (And look Charles Dickens is probably my favorite writer of all time. A Christmas Carol is one of his very best. But there’s no denying his treatment of the poor is pretty consistently cartoonish.) What is remarkable is that “The Birds” has all the trappings of the Dickens sentimentality. The story, after all, is set in a children’s hospital for poor children with no families. But Richard blends the saccharine with the bitter very well to create something resembling reality.
Our two central kids aren’t happy. They aren’t pleasant and grateful for any handout they get. They call out the gifts as broken or shoddy or simply unwanted. It’s only when they are finally listened to and given the chance to watch the Hitchcock movie, “The Birds,” that they feel some happiness. It may not be the sweetest, most heartwarming Christmas picture, but it’s a lot more realistic than the ever-smiling poor and orphaned children of other holiday stories. And that’s quite a trick on Richard’s part.
“Gimme some BIRDS!” Michael Christian would squawk when the society ladies on their annual Christmas visit asked us what we wanted.
“How about a nice hairbrush?” a society lady said, laying one for white people at the foot of Michael Christian’s bed.
“I want a pick,” Michael Christian told her.
“A pick? A shovel and a pick? To dig with?” asked the society lady.
“I think he wants a comb for his hair,” I said. “For his Afro.”
“That’s right: a pick,” said Michael Christian. “Tell this stupid white bitch something. Squawk, squawk,” he said, flapping his elbows like wings, as the nurses wheeled him out into the hall. “Gimme some BIRDS!” he shouted, and when they asked me, I said to give me some birds, too.
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My favorite Christmas short story ever since I first read it 25 years ago.