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Well, it’s after Thanksgiving … which means it’s practically already Christmas Eve, which also means it’s time for me to start my yearly jumping up and down and yelling at everyone within earshot about my favorite Christmas tale: Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter.

I’m telling you about it in advance so you have time to forget to order it, then remember to order it, then forget to read it, then remember to read it … maybe just in time on Christmas Eve, as you really should. I read it every year—and I’m not the only one. If ever a book had a cult-like following, it’s this one. Stifter (almost unknown today to English-speaking audiences) was a 19th-century German who influenced a handful of bigtime marquee names that followed him: Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke—but don’t let those old gasbags scare you off!

Rock Crystal is a deceptively simple story about two very young children—a brother and sister—who go over the mountain (I’m underselling this—they’re ALPS) and through the woods to grandmother’s house (really, they do that) on a snowy Christmas Eve and get turned around in a blizzard on the way home later that evening. They are lost on a massive glacier, and the story hairpins from a charming holiday almost-folktale to a deeply moving story of survival.

It’s really a book about capital-N Nature and there are some sections of it—I am thinking in particular of the scene where the Northern Lights make an appearance—that are the reason the word “breathtaking” was coined. It’s a small story that asks some Big Questions: what is our place in the world? What is our relationship with it? Is it indifferent to us? Are we indifferent to it? No matter how many times I’ve read it, it’s always managed to make me just be quiet for a minute.

You can easily read it in one sitting, though it might be just a shaaade too long to become a read-aloud-in-front-of-the-fireplace family holiday tradition, but you could easily divide it into two and read it out loud over two nights and worry the rest of your family for a solid day, just for fun—it’s quite suspenseful!

There’s no official audiobook, but there are two free Librivox versions translated by Lee M. Hollander (one read by a man, one read by a woman—you choose!) that’ll get the job done.

I prefer it the old-fashioned page-turning way, though; and while relatively few of Stifter’s books are currently available in English translations, Rock Crystal is easy to find thanks to a cool, crystalline 1945 translation by Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Mayer published by by NYRB Classics (those NYRB books are going to be the thing that sends me to the poorhouse, mark my words). There are also some beautifully illustrated editions from the 1950s out there that can be had for a song, if you’re that sort. I SECRETLY HOPE YOU’RE THAT SORT.

MDK receives a commission on books purchased through affiliate links.

About The Author

DG Strong took up knitting in 2014. He lives in Nashville with his sister, her rat terrier and a hound dog named Opal. He has a blog of drawings and faintly ridiculous rambling called The Psychopedia—there are worse ways to spend your afternoon.

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  • I am intrigued. I’m reminded of the little prince by the way you describe the story, it sounds like it has a similar feel to it. I hope it’s available in the UK because I’m about to go looking. Thanks for this post DG, it’s a pleasure to read.

  • DG Strong is a WONderful addition to MDK –looking forward to the read as well.

  • Sounds like the kind of book I love, like The Little Prince as Ruth says. Or The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, another wonderful story. It can also be purchased at for those of us who are Amazon averse….

  • Please recommend supporting small businesses and consider supporting independent book stores and use their links.

  • will take to you a local independent bookstore and they have an affiliate program

  • Thanks for the post. Had to buy it and so look forward to reading it to my husband at Christmastime.

  • After seeing your recommendation on IG a few years ago, I found this book on Kindle. Is that heresy? Thanks for the reminder to re-read.

  • I’ve learned anything recommended by DG Strong is something you just need to go and watch or listen to or read.

  • “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote is the book that I’ve read aloud over Christmas dinner for many years. (It’s very short). Highly recommend.

  • Fabulous! Ordered mine and looking forward to this read. Thank you DG. P.s. My husband, also a former graphic designer, burst out laughing in complete understanding at the description of your final client. Great move on your part!

  • I very rarely go for someone’s online book recommendations unless I can get them free from the library (just in case our taste differs wildly, nothing lost), but with our library currently shut down I went ahead and took a chance, ordered mine from Abe Books. I will say, regarding Amazon, that if you order your books used through the Marketplace you can choose your seller, and many of them are various Goodwill branches, etc., that do good things with the money. Abe Books is the same. Covid cases are way up in my county and I’m not going indoors anywhere unnecessarily, not even to pick up a book. I do hope my local bookstore survives, but there’s a limit to the chances I will take.

    I’m looking forward to an actual Christmas read, thank you for the recommendation.

  • Just read the blog. <3

  • Mr. Strong, you make me laugh out loud, for which I thank you most profusely.

  • Ditto. Thank you for the recommendation. Thank you MDK for featuring DG Strong — his writing sings to me.

  • I love Amazon’s One Click. Thank you!

    • I understand that this book has religious overtones. If that’s true, I wish you would have told us that up front.

      • It does in the sense that almost all Christmas tales have religious overtones of one sort or another; even “Frosty the Snowman” can be read as a resurrection tale. There are a few baby Jesus shoutouts in “Rock Crystal,” yes. But the subtext of it is concerned with less traditional spirituality, and it lands quite squarely among the Transcendentalists of the 19th century — the way Stifter handles the long descriptions of the natural world and our smallness within it outs him as straight-up sympathetic to Thoreau and Emerson.

  • I am loving your posts. They introduce fascinating books and are sardonic yet written with hope. “Ticks all the boxes” if you’re a GBBO fan. This sounds wonderful and I AM the sort to look for an illustrated edition because of that pic next to the title.

    • I accidentally short-shrifted the illustrator, Josef Scharl, who illustrated the edition I have (from which this piece’s illustration was lifted).There are some previous editions (the pre-1945, non-Marianne Moore translations) that use a more traditional sort of illustration. It sounds like a backhanded compliment (it’s not), but all of the Scharl Rock Crystal art would make fantastic Christmas cards.

  • Ordered. I can’t wait. I have a similar love in my life. I read it to my class, no matter the age, every year. The Animal Family, by Randall Jarrell.

  • I found a compilation of 18th century German classics on Downloaded and sent to my Kindle app!! Thanks; I am really looking forward to reading a new Christmas tale.

    • Just ordered… in German…. it’ll be a test to see how far I’ve got with learning German!

      My favourite book for this time of year is “The Father Christmas Letters” by JRR Tolkien (no hobbits but there are goblins & elves). I was given a copy as a child (1st edition, so I was probably 3 or 4 years old) & thankfully kept it. My husband reads me a letter a night through Advent as my Advent calendar. The illustrations are beautiful.

    • I also found it. Rock Crystal is about 3/4 of the way down.

  • I’ll hunt up a copy. Thank you!

  • I bought this a few years ago based on your recommendation. I’ll need to remember to re-read it on Christmas Eve. I just love an annual tradition.

  • What age group would you recommend this be for storytelling time? (Not necessarily in one sitting)

    • There’s a chunk of fairly dry “describing the village” at the beginning, but once the story proper starts, it’s good for everyone.

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