Christmas with James Joyce: The Sisters

Happy Dubliners Day! What’s that, you ask? It refers to a holiday tradition I have, which is to read one of James Joyce’s Dubliners story each day in the fifteen days leading up to Christmas Eve. Just like an advent calendar! And today, December 10, is the day to begin. I recommend taking off work, getting roaring drunk on Guinness or some good Irish whiskey, and jumping into the icy river of your choice while screaming sentences from Finnegans Wake at the top of your lungs.

Just kidding! All you need is about fifteen minutes and a clear, open mind. Follow this calendar (it’s not hard!) and you will be a better person at the end of it. Your Christmas Eve just might be the best you’ve ever had. Trust me.

How did this tradition begin? Well, it first came about when I read The Dead, one of the greatest short stories (some would call it a novella) ever written. The Dubliners stories lead up to The Dead the way the songs on Sgt. Pepper lead up to “A Day in the Life.” And with apologies to Dickens, The Dead is probably the greatest Christmas story for adults in all literature. (Maybe I’m forgetting one. But I don’t think so.)

Anyway, I first read The Dead at age nineteen or so. and was completely blown away. I wanted to read it over and over, I wanted to feel everything I felt the first time, but I didn’t want the impact to lessen. And so I thought, “I should re-read this story once a year for the rest of my life.” It wasn’t hard to go from that to “…and it should be on Christmas Eve!” And from there to “I’ll read one Dubliners story a day until I get to The Dead on Christmas Eve!” And that’s how it all began. A secular holiday tradition, but no less spiritual for that.

So here we go! This year I’m inviting you to come along with me for the ride. We’ll start with the first story in the book, “The Sisters.” All texts are provided courtesy of the incredible Project Gutenberg. There’s a great rendition of the story in the video above, too. All highly recommended. Enjoy!

THE SISTERS

THERE was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

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