Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas By the Book

For all my love of reading, I did not receive a book as a Christmas present until 1965 (4th grade) and then only as a reward for refraining from biting my fingernails. That a child would crave books over toys was unfathomable to my young parents and I think they were taken aback when I would ask for them. Betting against my daily nibbling of my nails, my parents indeed rewarded me that year. While I no longer own the books, I still remember them well: Marguerite Henry's An Album of Horses and The Golden Stallion by Rutherford  Montgomery.

That is the only thing I remember about that Christmas: I finally received books that belonged to me and me alone. By sheer fate, that Christmas turned into a hat trick of sorts when it came to books as I also received a children's abridged and illustrated Little Women. (I still own that book.)

With Christmas just hours away, I have been recently revisiting my memories of Christmas stories and tales. My earliest are oral: singing "Away in the Manger" in church toddler class or listening to Grandma Skatzes recite the nursery rhyme beginning "Christmas is coming."

Once I learned to read, I discovered Christmas in books and learned I could experience the holiday anytime I felt like it. I heard and read the lilt of Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas" and set about memorizing it, starting with the names of the reindeers.

There was The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (Dr. Seuss) and the wonders of Whoville and Mr. Willoughby's Christmas Tree (Robert Barry) and my satisfaction over the mouse family getting the last tip of the too big tree. There was Laura cuddling Charlotte in Little House in the Big Woods, the first book of the series I had yet to discover. When I did discover and devour the series, I found that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a Christmas scene into every single book in the series. My favorite was and remains the time that Mr. Edwards swam the Verdigris River to bring Christmas to Laura and Mary way out on the big prairie.

Wilder had a knack for Christmas scenes: the rag doll, Mr. Edwards, the church gift trees in Plum Creek (the muff) and De Smet (the secret gift from Almanzo), the store bought cap Almanzo received as a boy, the hard winter where the Ingalls family read stories until the kerosene lamp went out.

As my world of books expanded, so did the Christmases I experienced. I joined Sam Gribley and Bando for Christmas day in My Side of the Mountain. I followed the fate of the Christmas tree in Hans Christian Andersen's story"The Fir Tree."

I can never think of Little Women without hearing Jo grumble "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents." And even having read that book hundreds of times, I still thrill when during a later Christmas when Laurie  "popped his head in very quietly. He might just as well have turned a somersault and uttered an Indian war whoop, for his face was so full of suppressed excitement and his voice so treacherously joyful that everyone jumped up, though he only said, in a queer, breathless voice, Here's another Christmas present for the March family."

By the time I was in junior high, I'd added the Christmas chapter from Sally Benson's Junior Miss, Abby Deal's Christmas efforts in A Lantern in Her Hand (which introduced me to the writings of Bess Streeter Aldrich, who was no slouch herself when it came to Christmas stories), and the Christmas celebrations woven though the Betsy-Tacy novels of Maude Hart Lovelace. At about the same time, I first read Dylan Thomas's "Conversation About Christmas"and Truman Capote's evocative story, "A Christmas Memory."

Interestingly enough, there are no celebrations of Christmas in any of the Oz books. Santa Claus makes a cameo appearance at Ozma's birthday party in The Road to Oz.

In my children's young years, I added a few more Christmas tales to the list: Jingle Bugs, a marvelous pop-up book by David Carter, Carl's Christmas by Alexandra Day, and, a little later, Beverly Cleary's Ramona and Her Father, in which she plays a sheep in the church pageant.

There are two other books I would be remiss to skip. The first is Gregory Maguire's Matchless, a retelling and reworking of Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl." Told simply and starkly, it contains a favorite line of mine: "The family was still hard-pressed for money, and dreamed of savory treats to eat, but they had the warmth of one another, and enough on which to live, and in most parts of the world that is called plenty."

The second is, of course, my beloved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I confess: I do not remember reading it as a child, learning my Dickens from the early broadcasts of "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" instead. I have long since made up for my lapse by reading the book some fifty or more times as an adult.

It is the afternoon of Christmas Eve as I finish this. Somewhere Jo is grumbling about the lack of presents, somewhere a lonely boy is searching the sky for a "lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven." Somewhere Ramona is wiggling her bottom to make her tail wag, and somewhere Sam and Bando are trying out Christmas tunes on the willow reed whistles.

Somewhere it is always Christmas.


see you there! said...

Such a wonderful list of books. Some I've read, some not. I may have told you before that "Little Women" was the first book I ever checked out at the library.

Hope you and Warren had a wonderful Christmas.


Anonymous said...

I have many of the books you listed. I hope that you had a wonderful Christmas!


Sue said...

I opened your December 24th entry and staring back at me was a jolt from my past - the "Album of Horses" which I owned and treasured as a child. Horses were my passion and the artwork that I remember from this volume made me fall in love with the book. Thanks for the sweet memory!

Anne said...

This was a beautiful tribute to Christmas and to books. Loved it!!

Ellen Rosentreter said...

I love this post! Sorry I'm only discovering it now....I will be coming back to this next fall!