Originally written for the LJ fest Hoggywartyxmas. My thanks, as always, to my wonderful beta, Kelly Chambliss, who improves everything she touches. And who didn't hex me for giving the Snapely View on one of her favourite novels.
December 24th, 1991
Once upon a time – of all good days of the year, on Christmas Eve, Severus Snape sat alone in his Hogwarts office. He looked at the cover of the book he had just closed with a mixture of satisfaction and irritation.
The irritation one expects in a Snapely Tale. The satisfaction may surprise my readers. But, dear Readers, it was Christmas Eve, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time, the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when a story involving a somewhat happy Snape isn't completely out of character.
The satisfaction came from the fact that the book in question made a perfect Christmas Gift, and Snape wasn't accustomed to finding perfect gifts.
Some people had an extraordinary talent for it. Flitwick's gifts were inspired, always. Flitwick managed to get the very thing you really wanted – and you never knew you wanted it until you unwrapped the parcel. Dumbledore, too, usually managed something truly enjoyable, only, in his case, the talent was not for guessing hidden desires, but for listening carefully to stray remarks.
And both men went through some trouble to get the gifts. But, Snape had often thought, they had some luck, too. Which was probably why they actually enjoyed the whole overrated gift-business.
It had been Dumbledore who had forced the habit on Snape during his – Snape's – first year of teaching. A few days before Christmas, Dumbledore had drawn him aside and had said, in a voice heavy with meaning, "The basket is in my office, you know."
Snape had simply stared. A joke? Dumbledore was fond of telling jokes, but there usually was some text before the punch line – if this was a punch-line, even.
Once again Dumbledore had said that the basket was in his office.
So is the basket case, it seems, Snape had thought, but he had merely said, "Headmaster?"
And as a result of Dumbledore's explanations, he had made his way to Diacon Alley, on the day before Christmas, to spend his meagre earnings on presents for people who had resented his presence and who, in some cases, had actively avoided him, just because they had all been hypocritical enough to get him a Christmas gift. "It's a tradition that we give each other presents at the annual Staff Party, dear boy. And if you want to join in, you must participate. Go to Enchanted Gifts, you'll find suitable things there. Just wrap them up nicely and put them into the basket in my office. We distribute them during the party. You may even find it a rather heart-warming experience."
Snape had not wished to join in. He had, however, wished to keep his job, and he could recognise an order when he heard one. So he had set off on what he fully expected to be a rather unpleasant experience.
It had been one of the few occasions where the words 'overly-optimistic' and 'Snape' could be put into the same sentence. It hadn't been 'rather unpleasant'. Leave alone 'heart-warming'. It had been hell.
Masses and masses of people, all of whom had looked stressed out and harassed, had cluttered up the Alley, pushing each other out of the way, elbowing themselves into the shops.
In Enchanted Gifts, Snape had looked in horror at people jostling for boxes of soap and calendars. Two witches had each tugged at the end of a scarf, glaring at each other like Harpies on Pepper-Up Potion.
Finally, Snape had managed to get hold of a sales assistant.
"Suitable gifts, Sir? Such as?"
"That's what I'm asking you. Advise me. I need several suitable gifts. Nothing expensive," Snape had ordered.
"Soap, perhaps? A box of luxury soap is always welcome," the idiot boy had suggested. Soap! That wasn't a gift, it was an insult. (The yearly agony of the first day after the holidays, when his fellow students would boast of their gifts. And at some point Potter, or possibly Black, would holler, "And you, Snivellus? What did your Mum sent you? A bottle of shampoo?")
"No soap, then," the young man had said, hastily. "A calendar? That's always useful." Snape had told him what he thought of people who needed twelve months' worth of twee cottages or winsome puppies to know what day it was.
Finally they had decided on chocolate. Chocolate was appropriate on every level. (Those Chocolate Oranges his Mum used to send him – there was no money for anything else, but she knew he loved chocolate. He used to eat one segment a day, to make it last.)
He had ordered the necessary number of boxes. Small boxes. The young sales assistant had asked him whether he had only ladies in his acquaintance – and so many ladies, too! Snape had explained that he planned to give chocolate to the men as well. Surely his colleagues would like it as much as he? Just three months in his new profession had convinced him that teachers, regardless of gender, needed all the chocolate they could get.
But the young man had explained that he couldn't give chocolate to men. It was considered unsuitable. That had meant Snape wouldn't get any, either – another reason to hate this whole gift business.
In the end, he had gone to Oddbottles and had purchased several bottles of sherry. Sherry was affordable. It was nice. And it was something a man could enjoy on his own. Unlike wine, sherry could be kept open for a very long time – no need to invite others to share a bottle.
That had settled all the gifts – except for Binns. No point in giving comestibles to a ghost. In the end, Snape had returned to Enchanted Gifts, where he had seen one decent calendar of Historical Wizarding Places. Binns was interested in history. And a man who had managed to miss his own dying day probably could do with a calendar.
So he had picked it up – the last one of that type. Someone else had picked it up at the same time, and they had each tugged at a corner, but Snape had managed to stare him down. When the man had let go, Snape had felt a brief spurt of pride – he had won! He had the gift! It had been the highlight of his day.
That experience had set a pattern for the following years. Every year, in December (but no longer on the day before Christmas) Snape made his way to Diacon Alley. The contacts with his colleagues had improved over the years. So had Snape's salary, and this had been reflected in larger boxes of chocolate, a better quality of sherry, or even mead.
But it was still a ridiculous habit. And it was, as much as in his student days, a source of pride and boasting. People now took pride in giving 'the best' presents. The best-chosen. The best-wrapped. And much was made of people 'who had made an effort'.
This is the even-handed dealing of the world, Snape had often thought. There is nothing people like better than chocolate and a nice tipple, and there is nothing they condemn with such severity when they get it as a gift. Uninspired, they call it behind your back. Ha!
But the gift-business could not be avoided.
And this year, suddenly, he had had some luck with his gift-buying. At Flourish and Blott's of all places, in their small section of Muggle books, he had found the perfect gift for Minerva McGonagall. A beautifully-bound, exquisitely-illustrated copy of A Christmas Carol in Prose. Minerva loved the story; she re-read it annually on the first day of the Christmas holidays. And her own copy was a battered paperback that survived solely by the grace of her excellent Reparo's .
From now on she would enjoy handling the book as much as she enjoyed reading it. And Snape had wanted to give Minerva something special. Because of the amount of pleasure he got from their daily banter and mutual sarcasm – both during staff meetings and during the post-mortems they held over a glass of Firewhisky.
But mostly, of course, because she was one of those who loudly praised 'the effort' made for gifts. Which was a bit rich, coming from a woman who thought tartan handkerchiefs were suitable. Even though she did select the Black Watch tartan for him: a careful choice that, he presumed, represented the 'effort'.
This would show her what a real effort looked like.
And Snape knew she would love her gift, for she truly thought this an excellent book.
Which brings my Readers to the source of Snape's displeasure. You will readily understand that, when a book comes with a recommendation of Professor McGonagall, one expects a good read. And when Snape had found himself with the book in his possession, albeit temporarily, he had seized the occasion and read it. With extreme care, so as not to sully it by as much as a fingerprint or a tiny creak.
He had found it most disappointing.
Snape had liked Ebenezer Scrooge, to begin with. This must be clearly understood, or his subsequent disenchantment with the story will make no sense at all. He had enjoyed the idea of a protagonist who was neither young nor handsome. And he had wholeheartedly agreed with Scrooge's sentiments on Christmas. A sound-thinking man, Snape had thought, and he had quite warmed to old Ebenezer and his hatred of the festive season.
Not that Snape hated Christmas itself. He just wasn't very enamoured of it. He had personal issues with the trope of a male child at whose birth prophets claim that he's The Chosen One, but he wouldn't keep others from their celebrations.
What he did disliked, emphatically, was the virulent epidemic of human misery and distress commonly known as Seasonal Cheer.
Take Christmas Lunch, for instance. At a recent staff gathering, Irma Pince had complained at length of the miseries of a Christmas Lunch that would include her sisters ("Such a shame you didn't marry, Irma – you would have made such a good wife and mother,") her cantankerous uncle, ("Screw-top wine? Not very festive, eh?"), and her picky grandmother ("Perhaps a little cranberry sauce – a small spoonful might not upset my tummy. So very acid, isn't it? But I suppose one must follow tradition, and I'm not one to complain. Indeed, I'm not.")
"Being stuck with a swarm of ghastly relatives – or whatever the collective noun for family is; an unkindness or even a murder might be more appropriate – all of whom one has to feed, shower with presents, and entertain, is no-one's idea of a good time on, say, May 15th or August 7th. So what makes you think it'll be a jolly, cheerful occasion on December 25th?" he had asked his colleague. To which, predictably, Irma had replied that it was the Season of Goodwill.
And take the whole Christmas Cards nonsense. In many cases, an accurate message would be, "We never had much to say to each other in the first place, but twenty-odd years ago life threw us briefly together. I still don't have anything to say to you, but Christmas cards are a sign of popularity. So we'll send each other tinselled robins till death or a General Owl Strike do us part." Snape himself did not indulge in the ridiculous habit.
In Ebenezer Scrooge, Snape felt, he had found a kindred spirit. In the first chapter (or Stave as the whimsical author would have it) Scrooge had been most promising. Take the way he saw through that nephew of his, who ignored him the whole year and came on Christmas Eve to suck up to him. Of course the nephew didn't mean it. If you really wish to see people at Christmas, you don't wait till the day before with your invitation. He was after the money, that much was clear. "What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough." Hardly a subtle approach, either.
But Scrooge had sent him away with a few witty remarks and a flea in his ear. His attitude towards the two "portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold" had been exemplary, too. A steady and reliable contribution to well-established charities was, indeed, much more constructive than showering the poor with gifts in December, only to ignore their plight the rest of the year.
And the way Scrooge had dealt with the sudden apparition of a ghost was rather spirited, for a Muggle.
But after that the book had gone downhill. True, in the case of Marley, the author had got his description of a ghost very right. Snape had even taken a closer look at Sir Nicholas, the day after, to see whether any buttons on his back shone through at the front – he had just enough recollection of Dickens's description to desire to do that.
The 'Spirits', however, were far too corporeal, and either too jolly and chatty or absurdly silent. As to the character development …
Scrooge was made to relive a scene from his youth. It was clear that he had been a 'solitary child, neglected by his friends'. Snape felt there was subtext enough to say that Scrooge had been a bullied child, too. And these dreadful memories were supposed to mellow the man?
Then he was shown the moment when the woman he loved rejected him. Awful, but these things happen. One endures. One lives on. Snape felt that Scrooge had done quite well in the living on department. He could have turned to the bottle; he had turned into an excellent man of business instead. But the idea that reliving such an experience softens a man was … humbug.
There was no better word for it. Snape had never heard the word in the Muggle neighbourhood of Spinner's End, and he rather thought the author had made it up. Excellent find. To give him his due, Mr Dickens had a way with words, and he excelled in vivid, atmospheric descriptions.
He just wasn't a very clear or intelligent thinker. The encounter with the second 'Spirit' gave further proof of the man's dunderheadedness. Scrooge sees with his own eyes that he is disliked and maligned in the house of his employee. And he loves the man dearly for it, gives him a raise, and wants to help the family.
He also sees that his nephew (as both Scrooge and the readers would have expected ever since the first few pages) ridicules him, insults him, and generally speaking performs the Muggle equivalent of a Levicorpus on him. And Scrooge is enchanted and wishes to return the next day?
Humbug, humbug, humbug.
But Minerva would like her gift, and he would like to discuss the book with her. To show her just where the author went wrong.
There. The bow on the package looked just so; all he had to do now was deliver it. He had briefly considered putting it on the pile of gifts in the basket in Dumbledore's office. Had he done so, Minerva would have received it on the last day of classes, when the staff held their annual Christmas drink. Which was a Christmas drink only in name. In reality it was a celebration of End of Classes, Departure of Most Students, and Two Weeks of No Marking, and therefore a much more entertaining affair than enforced seasonal jollity.
But had he presented the book then, although it would have been in time for Minerva's annual re-reading, the fact that she had got a better gift than the others would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Embarrassing for giver and recipient alike. Therefore Snape had decided to leave the small package in her office on Christmas Eve. Minerva was bound to go there on Christmas Day, since she never spent a day at Hogwarts that was completely work-free, and the unexpectedness of the gift would make it all the more fun.
Snape tried out the alien word.
Yes, fun. And why not? It was, after all, only once a year, as Albus invariably said during the Christmas lunch. A bad excuse for forcing people to wear silly hats every 25th of December, and Snape knew that his finding the perfect gift was a one-off rather than an annual event, but just for once he'd do a fun thing.
*To be continued*