December 15, 2022
I have a plan.
Some snowy and grey day before Christmas (oh let’s be real, maybe the week after Christmas or even later. After all, Christmas lasts till Epiphany, January 7) I’m going to fix some hot cider with a dried orange slice for extra flavor, and I am going to wrap myself in a shawl and get cozy in the snug. Here’s the important part: I’m going to browse our collection of Christmas books and read whatever appeals to me in the moment.
To be honest, I plan to do this every Christmas season, but then shopping and baking and writing Christmas cards and wrapping presents and… and… takes precedence. I enjoy all those activities, so I don’t feel too sorry for myself, but still… This year the desire for this kind of gentle luxury feels more necessary. Maybe it’s the crummy cold I’ve had that has lasted far too long or more likely it is the need to sit quietly with the sadness I feel about the death of a friend. I am also aware that my age, being an elder, lures me towards the simple pleasures more and more.
Over the years we’ve passed on many of the books we collected when our kids were growing up, and what remains are some special favorites plus a few old books I’ve found when antiquing. At the top of the pile is a small paper copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. Bruce was in a reader’s theater version of the story when we were in college, and one of the first presents he gave me was a copy of the book with lovely wood prints. I might begin my immersion into my Christmas books by reading it aloud–even if it is just to myself.
…I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six…
Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the light in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed, I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
Next I will smile my way through my favorite picture book version of The Nativity. Mary, as imagined by illustrator Julie Vivas, is not exactly beatific. Rather she is LARGE with child and has a very hard time getting on the donkey and is exhausted by the labor. There is a reason it is called LABOR.
I also love Tomie De Paola’s illustrations of Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies and the De Paola book that will always be my favorite, Clown of God about the juggler, Giovanni and the miracle of his gift. Both of our books are signed by De Paola from the days decades ago when I worked in an independent book store in St Paul, Odegards.
I am just as delighted with Susan Branch’s illustrations and also her calligraphy. In the Christmas stack are two of her books, Christmas From the Heart for the Home and Christmas Joy. Branch encourages us to “Light candles, say a prayer holding hands, play music, dress up, take pictures, kiss everyone within 5 feet of the mistletoe, and keep your senses alive so you can remember THIS Christmas all year long.”
One of the books I have not read in years is The Story of Holly and Ivy by the English author Rumer Godden who wrote for both children and adults. In this story Ivy is an orphan and Holly is a doll left all alone in a toyshop window on Christmas Eve. It won’t be a surprise that there is a happy ending to the story. which in this version is illustrated by Barbara Cooney.
I’ve read a few of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket Classic, Christmas Stories, such as Green Holly by Elizabeth Bowen, The Turkey Season by Alice Munro, and several times Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory about making the traditional fruitcake with his distant cousin.
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable–not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate, too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my, ‘ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’
The book that entices me most, however is also called Christmas Stories, but it is by Charles Dickens. This old, small red leather-bound book with tiny print and pages you can almost see through just feels good to hold. In the last year or so I have been feeling a tug to read some of the Dickens books I have never read like Bleak House or The Old Curiosity Shop. I loved Great Expectations when I read it in 8th grade, and I think reading that book was influential in my decision to teach English. Perhaps reading some of these stories will be the beginning of a Dickens year.
I have a plan, and my shawl and mug of cider, and books wait for me. What a good Christmas present that would be to give myself. And it’s snowing!
What Christmas books do you enjoy reading year after year? I would love to know.