Christmases in my family have always involved books. The packages telegraph their contents by their solid heft and neat rectangles–even the sloppiest wrapper can make a book look good under the Christmas tree. But just as Christmas often involves books, many books–both Christmas-themed and otherwise–also involve Christmas. My own list of “Christmas books” is idiosyncratic, no doubt; I recall not only the charming tales of happy families but also the clear-eyed evocations of loss and ambivalence. Together they make up my own personal Christmas reading list.
The “Christmas book” I remember best from childhood is Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, an odd little tale of trickle-down economics (as I now know), in which everyone in the neighborhood gets a Christmas tree out of the extra growth at the top of Mr. Willowby’s. The lilting rhymes of this book, along with the charming illustrations, kept us coming back to it year after year, though the class implications of it would trouble me now.
When my daughter was tiny my godmother sent a copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which had been her family’s traditional Christmas read. I had thought Mariah would have trouble sitting still for such a long story, but she was captivated by the strangeness of a Christmas on a snowy beach, the aunts who drank too much port, the uncles with their cigars, and the children sneaking out to look at the snow, and we read it over and over again. Dylan Thomas recalls a Christmas unlike any I’ve ever experienced, yet somehow the emotions he evokes are ones that ring true to me as well: the comfort of the familiar, the anticipation of remembered traditions, the pleasure of a day spent outside of “ordinary time.”
Christmases, like other holidays, are more like each other than like the days around them, and that gives depth and resonance to our Christmas reading. I only discovered the language and the images in Madeline L’Engle’s The Glorious Impossible as an adult; it pairs Giotto’s images of the life of Christ with L’Engle’s own, often poetic, telling of the tale, refreshing a story too often grown stale. But the Christmas book that most spoke to my own children is the thoroughly secular Carl’s Christmas, with Alexandra Day’s gorgeous paintings of the friendly Rottweiler and his baby charge as they walk through a wonderland of holiday sights. Ancient tradition holds that animals speak at midnight on Christmas Eve, and I believe it anew when I read Carl’s wordless story.
I spent nine years living in Los Angeles, years ago, and one thing I never got used to was California Christmas. It was never cold, though it was occasionally a bit gray, and I once even went to the beach on Christmas Day–which was pleasant, but also felt deeply wrong. Yet one of my favorite Christmas book memories takes place in L.A., in a classroom, no less. My steely, diminutive, formidably non-maternal dissertation director was teaching an undergraduate course on the history of the novel, and for some reason I was sitting in the day she read out loud the Christmas dinner scene from Great Expectations. It’s brilliant: the steely, large, formidably non-maternal Mrs. Joe, Pip’s sister and guardian, has invited her uncle Pumblechook and several others to what becomes, for Pip, a penitential meal rather than a celebration. Joe, Pip’s brother-in-law and only friend, surreptitiously ladles additional gravy onto Pip’s plate every chance he gets. Pip, overcome by guilt for having helped the convict he has met in the marshes the day before, squirms with anxiety and embarrassment as Uncle Pumblechook discourses on the virtues of gratitude and generosity (and on Pip’s failures), Mrs. Joe feeds him skimpily, and Joe pours out yet another ladleful of gravy. For me it perfectly captures the ambivalence with which many of us greet the “holiday season,” whether we admit it or not. Whenever I read that scene, I “hear” it in my dissertation director’s voice, and the scene takes on new resonances for me.
Like the Christmas dinner scene in Great Expectations, the opening chapter of Little Women develops both the joy and sorrow of Christmas–it is, after all, a season that reminds us of loss as well as of abundance. In Alcott’s Little Women, Mr. March’s absence casts a pall over that first Christmas, but the girls make do by making and buying inexpensive gifts and then, memorably, by sharing their Christmas breakfast with their far poorer neighbors. I can’t say that it ever made me want to share my own Christmas meal, though it did make me want to try coffee long before I was really ready for it.
Then there’s a Christmas in Little House on the Prairie when Mr. Edwards swims the creek to bring the children their Christmas presents: Laura and Mary each receive a tin cup, a peppermint stick, a small cake, and a penny, but the girls are almost more delighted by his tale of meeting Santa Claus on the streets of Independence. As in Little Women, the gifts are sparse, but the shared meal and stories make the day.
The granddaddy of all Christmas stories is of course Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, one of many ghost stories he wrote for Christmas reading. The ghosts that populate Dickens’s Christmas stories are the memories that we’ve never quite lost hold of, the harbingers of a future we may not be ready to embrace; they impart a note of melancholy to his happy Christmas tales. All family life is haunted by loss–by the people who are no longer with us to celebrate, by the opportunities we’ve missed or the bridges we’ve burned. Scrooge, unlike most of us, gets the chance to go back and do it right the second time, and that’s a lovely fantasy for any time of year.
A true Christmas tale, like the ones above, can work its magic all year round, but December’s still my favorite time to revisit them.