Christmas Poem Summary
by John O'Hara

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Christmas Poem Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

O’Hara is an acclaimed master of the short-story genre. His numerous stories of the 1930’s and 1940’s were, as a rule, very short. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, pieces he wrote became longer and less numerous (he did, however, still average more than one short story per month during the last ten years of his life). “Christmas Poem” is one of the later, longer stories. It was first published on December 19, 1964, in The New Yorker.

Billy Warden has just arrived home from Dartmouth College for the Christmas vacation. The setting is Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, during some period earlier than the time of publication. No dates are given, but one character drives a new Marmon (not a Dort, his girlfriend insists), Billy orders a lemon phosphate at the drugstore soda fountain, and there is a discussion of getting a couple of pints of whiskey on credit, a suggestion of the Prohibition era. The Stage Coach Inn, featured so prominently in Appointment in Samarra, is mentioned in passing, though now spelled “Stagecoach.”

For the first six pages, the story is almost exclusively dialogue as the Warden family chats at the dinner table. Clearly, Billy is loved and valued by his parents and his older sister, Barbara (Bobby). For the period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, he has been invited for skiing and a house party at Montrose, Pennsylvania, above Scranton. The hostess will be Henrietta (Henny) Cooper, who comes from a very wealthy family.

Billy excuses himself from dinner, although he really enjoys being with his family, and goes downtown in search of his friends. Billy spends an aimless evening. He fails to get a date with Irma Hipple, a young woman nicknamed “the Nipple” and rumored to go “all the way,” even though none of the local boys has actually made the trip. In a crap game, he loses the ten dollars his father gave him, and he spends his loose change in a game of pool. He hopes to pick up a girl when the cinema lets out, but no appropriate target appears.

A familiar O’Hara motif is introduced when Teddy Choate asserts the superiority of his family’s Yale University connections over Billy’s matriculation at Dartmouth and, in turn, Billy lords it over Andy Phillips, a student at State. When Billy returns home, he learns he has had a long-distance call from the Scranton operator, suggesting that perhaps his relationship with Henny Cooper is more than casual. He also finds his father writing a Christmas poem to his mother. Mr. Warden has written such a poem every Christmas for twenty-six years, but Billy has learned of the practice only tonight. He goes to bed wondering if Henny’s father has ever written a poem to her mother.

The reader is reminded of the opening chapter of Appointment in Samarra. That novel begins not with the desperately unhappy Julian English, but with one of his salesmen, Luther L. Fliegler. Julian’s crumbling marriage stands in stark contrast to the stable, happy relationship of Luther and his wife, Irma. A critic has remarked that going to Hell in style is O’Hara’s one and only theme. The reader wonders if Billy Warden will forsake the loving environment of his home and family for a world of house parties and skiing excursions among the rich—and concludes that probably he will.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Bruccoli, Matthew. The O’Hara Concern. New York: Random House, 1975.

Eppard, Philip B. Critical Essays on John O’Hara. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.

Goldleaf, Steven. John O’Hara: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Grimes, William. “The John O’Hara Cult, at Least, Is Faithful.” The New York Times, November 9, 1996, p. 17.

MacShane, Frank. The Life of John O’Hara. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980.

MacShane, Frank, ed. Collected Stories of John O’Hara. New York: Random House, 1984.

Wolfe, Geoffrey. The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara. New York: Knopf, 2003.