I’m no cynic during any season, but Christmas, a holiday that is steeped in faith, family, and tradition for me, brings out the sentimentalist that I work at keeping under control, with varying degrees of success, the rest of the year. Small surprise that my favorite Christmas romances are as rich in appeals to the tender emotions as Christmas kitchens are in smells of cinnamon and chocolate. Some of the category lines are perfect for my taste.
I don’t know when Harlequin began publishing Christmas romances. I remember only anthologies and occasional gems before 1989. That December, however, the company published four novels in their Harlequin American Romance Christmas Is for Kids promotion: A Carol Christmas by Muriel Jensen; Mrs. Scrooge by Barbara Bretton: Dear Santa by Margaret St. George; and The Best Gift of All by Andrea Davidson. I loved all four of them, and from that year I actively searched for Christmas stories in all the category lines. One of the Christmas Is for Kids books became #1 on my list of all-time favorite category Christmas novels, but there are others that are also a lot like my favorite Christmas movies—a bit schmaltzy but essentially heartwarming and guaranteed to leave me feeling good.
1. A Carol Christmas (Harlequin American Romance #321, 1989) by Muriel Jensen
Jensen’s sweet, sentimental, tear-evoking tale is one that I probably would avoid as just too much if it were not a Christmas story. The central relationship is between Carol Shaw, a woman who lost nearly everything, and Mike Rafferty, a baseball player who has suffered a career-ending injury. Carol finds some comfort in her job as a housemother at a Catholic orphanage that is about to close. Mike, brother of the Mother Superior, retreats to an empty cottage at the orphanage to consider where his life is going without the role that defined him. Add some likable kids with heart-breaking stories, a nun who is questioning her vocation, a curmudgeonly caretaker, and a lively assortment of Rafferty family members (including the Mother Superior affectionately known as Godzilla); throw them all together for Christmas, and you have a Christmas classic with an ending worthy of Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life.
2. “Miracle on I-40” (in Silhouette Christmas Stories, 1988) by Curtiss Ann Matlock
Waitress Lacey Bryant is hoping for a Christmas miracle: She wants to come home to Pine Grove, North Carolina, to introduce her kids to her parents from whom she is estranged. When her friend, long haul driver and fiftyish widower Pate Andrews, who was taking the three Bryants across the country along with his load, breaks his leg, his friend Cooper reluctantly agrees to take over. The journey down Interstate 40 slowly converts Cooper from a bah-humbug guy into a true believer in the holidays and gives Lacey more miracles than she dreamed of.
3. Christmas on Snowbird Mountain (Superromance #1094, 2002) by Fay Robinson
Lonely Susannah Pelton has decided to add meaning to her life by fulfilling the long-delayed goals of her life, one of which is to “create something beautiful and lasting.” She sees a beautiful mosaic created by North Carolina artist Ryan Whitepath and asks if he will give her art lessons. Ryan refuses at first, but his grandmother, Nana Sipsey, has had a vision that predicts a wounded redbird will come to help Ryan’s troubled daughter Nia. Susannah’s gift as a natural nurturer and the connection his daughter has with red-head Susannah changes his mind. Ryan and his family are descendants of the few Cherokees in the area who managed to avoid the Trail of Tears removal, and the Cherokee culture adds a different note to this Christmas love story. This is the last book of Fay Robinson, a two-time Rita winner.
4. Falling Angel (Harlequin American Romance #513, 1993) by Anne Stuart
Even seventeen months in an eternal waystation is insufficient to change Emerson Wyatt MacVey from the cold, selfish, materialistic man he’s been for most of his life. With the possibility of being barred from Heaven before him, on Thanksgiving he’s sent back to earth and given one month to right three of the wrongs he committed through his lack of concern for his fellow humans. He is fascinated by his new incarnation as Gabriel Falconi, a skilled carpenter and Emerson’s opposite in every way. Emerson would never fit into Angel Falls, Minnesota, befriended by people whose livelihood he destroyed. Emerson would never have had time to attend church, hold babies, or fall in love with Carrie Alexander. But Gabriel does all these things. A month may be long enough for Emerson’s tasks, but not long enough for Gabriel to build the life he wants more every day. Will he risk his chance of Heaven for the temporary bliss that is all he can know as Gabriel? If you know Anne Stuart only through her dark historicals and romantic suspense, this Rita winner will surprise you.
5. One Christmas Knight (Silhouette Intimate Moments #825, 1997) by Kathleen Creighton
Mirabella Waskowitz is going home for Christmas. When she can’t get a plane ticket, she decides to drive from Los Angeles to Pensacola. It may not be the wisest decision for a woman who is eight months pregnant, but her father is scheduled for heart surgery and she feels a deep need to see him. Jimmy Joe Starr is a single father and long haul truck driver from Georgia. The two meet a couple of times in truck stops, and when Mirabelle has a wreck and goes into premature labor in the middle of a Texas blizzard, Jimmy Joe rescues her and delivers the baby. A bond is formed that cannot be broken. Some may find the echoes of the first Christmas overdone: in addition to the names, Mirabella is a virgin pregnant by artificial insemination (“immaculate conception”); she is stranded in a town filled with travelers caught by the blizzard, she finds “no room at the inn”; and the baby is born in a truck named The Blue Starr. But Jimmy Joe is a wonderful beta hero—sweet, patient, kind, smart, sensitive; he even has a sense of humor. Fans of opposites-attract or May-December (Mirabella is eight years older than Jimmy Joe) tropes or just gentle, heart-warming romances will find much to love in this book.
6. Christmas Presents and Past (Harlequin Everlasting Love #31, 2007) by Janice Kay Johnson
Will and Dinah O’Keefe have a history, and part of that history is an exchange of Christmas gifts. The tradition started on their first date when Will gave Dinah a chef’s apron to show he believed in her and her dreams. Decades passed, and the love that ignited between two teenagers filled with hope and fear survived Vietnam (his service and her protests), separation, and careers. The love and the Christmas traditions continued through years of marriage and bringing up three children. But a tragedy shattered their family, and they are left to wonder if all that’s left of love and Christmas is memories. I really liked the Everlasting Love imprint that looked at life beyond the conventional HEA. Janice Kay Johnson is a favorite with me, and this one is a deeply emotional, three-hanky read. It will probably resonate with particular power for readers old enough to remember the times that serve as a backdrop for the story.
7. Doc Holiday (Loveswept #723, 1995) by Debra Dixon
Taylor Bishop is weary of being responsible for making Christmas merry for her father and brothers, and the last thing she wants is Drew Haywood asking for her help in giving his young son a special Christmas. But Drew’s affect on her is as potent as ever, so saying no to him is not easy. As for his son, soon the little boy has earned his own place in Taylor’s heart. But is the love she’s discovering a Christmas special or is it a love for all seasons? Those who have taken one of Deb Dixon’s workshops may be familiar with this delightful story. It’s hard to find now, but it’s a Loveswept reissue scheduled for May 2012. Everyone can read it next Christmas.
8. Shenandoah Christmas (Superromance, #1024, 2001) by Lynette Kent
Singer Cait Gregory returns to her hometown to help her pregnant sister who has been placed on bed rest to wait for the birth of her first child. Cait’s career is just taking off, and she’s not thrilled to be back in Goodwill, Virginia, taking over her sister’s job as choir director. Her most lasting Christmas memory is of her father throwing her out when she chose singing over college, and thus she’s even less happy to find herself directing the Christmas pageant in which ten-year-old Maddie Tremaine is the announcing angel. Maddie’s father, Ben Tremaine, whose former wife abandoned him and their children on Christmas, is a bigger Grinch than Cait. He falls for Cait despite his fears that she is an unattainable star. But Christmas miracles abound in this story, and one of the miracles has Cait’s and Ben’s names on it.
9. “The Christmas Eve Promise” (in The Night Before Christmas, 2009) by Molly O’Keefe
Merrieta Monroe has always sworn that she would not end up in Webster Groves working at the family diner, but when her family needs her help and she dumps her cheating fiancé, she comes home. Now if she can just deal with her big secret, the Monroe holiday extravaganza, and Gavin McDonnell, a part of her past she can’t forget, she’ll be fine. This story had me at line one: “Within moments of walking downstairs to the diner, Merrieta Monroe was violently assaulted by Christmas.” The story that follows made me laugh, sigh, and blink away a few tears. A Rita-winner with a gender-bending Santa, a troubled teen angel, and an old flame reignited, it fits right in with my category Christmas classics.
10. For Christmas, Forever (Silhouette Intimate Moments #898, 1998) by Ruth Wind
Claire Franklin has no Christmas traditions; she doesn’t even have any bright memories of childhood celebrations. She decorates her bed and breakfast for her guests and with the faint hope that she’ll find a bit of Christmas spirit. Zane Hunter is one of those guests. Severely injured by the car bomb that killed his friends, he has come to Franklin’s Bed & Breakfast to recover. Soon Claire and Zane are dodging bullets and learning they can trust one another. Christmas is the perfect time for two lonely, wounded people to find each other, and when their story is told with the emotional power that is standard in every Ruth Wind/Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal book, the reader has a holiday treat worth keeping. And the epilogue . . . sigh!
Have you read any of these? Have category Christmas favorites of your own?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.