Christmas, like every other time of the year, was marked by books. Various books made up favorite Christmastime reading, and flat, rectangular packages were stacked neatly under the Christmas tree. Indeed, if there was a year in which more than half the family presents exchanged were not books, I cannot recall it.
And so, of course, this time of year reminds me of all sorts of favorite books. Here are a few of those rooted most deeply in this season for me.
The feast of St. Nicholas, with the putting out of our shoes in hopes of chocolate coins, always seemed to start the Christmas season in earnest for us children, since as on Christmas we woke early in expectation of candy. And, of course, St. Nicholas is the distant ancestor of our bowdlerized Santa Claus. St. Nicholas himself is, of course, a far more interesting character. A real person (who among other things once popped bishop Arius a good one) St. Nicholas is also one of the saints around whom a robust mythology sprang up, and The Twenty Miracles of Saint Nicolas by Bernarda Bryson is a simply outstanding retelling of many of the most famous myths about him, from the three dowerless maidens and the three boys in the salting tub to my personal favorite "How Saint Nichold Met and Overcame the Goddess Diana".
The next feast day in December which normally hit our radar was Our Lady of Guadalupe, and for me the Tomie dePaola The Lady of Guadalupe will always be the definitive version. Indeed, when I read it to my own children, I find myself falling into the cadences of my mother's voice, which is the voice which in my mind's ear I will always here it in.
Some might see it as a "girl book", but I much enjoyed hearing and reading The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden as a child, and I have since found a copy so that I can read it to my own passel of daughters. A story about wishes and dolls is something to stir any girl's heart, and one or two of mine are generally sniffing by the end, while the stories of a six-year-old orphan and an aging childless couple are enough to play on parental heart strings. And Rumer Godden writes this short story with the same skill as in her adult novels.
I can't say why this book stuck with me. I recall the day my father stumbled across it in a bookstore and was charmed enough to pick it up. As the oldest, I was no longer in the prime audience for a picture book, being 13 or so at the time. But A Christmas Card for Mr. McFizz by Obren Bokich, is quietly charming. A couple years ago, at this time of year, it bubbled up in my memory and would not go away again until I bought a copy to read to my children.
High Spirits is collection of short stories, based on the ghost stories which Robertson Davies would tell the faculty and students of Massey College each Christmas. They are humorous ghost stories, and in some cases of varying quality. But those which are good are very, very good. Look especially for "The Cat That Went to Trinity", "The Ghost That Vanished By Degrees" and "The Kiss of Khrushchev". While I hear The Lady of Guadalupe in my mother's voice, I can't read these stories aloud without falling into my father's voice.
And, of course, how could any list of Christmas reading be complete without A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I try to read it every year. And, of course, I also always re-watch the outstanding George C. Scott movie adaptation.
Melville on Religion
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