Christmas Books

The naughty, the nice and the nauseating. Snowed in by the spawn of The Christmas Box.

By Katherine Whittemore
Published December 16, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

snowdrifts. That's how all these pages seemed to me, thousands densely packed on the subject of Christmas, many wearisome to push through, some powdered with insight, but most pure slush at the core  and there I was, the one who must brave the endless ivory steppes, Zhivago-like, thinking how much nicer it would be to rip a few sheafs for kindling, watching the blue-hearted flame climb clear up to ... Sorry. But Christmas is such an onslaught. It may offer a few crystal moments of joy, if you're lucky, yet it's mostly a white-out of rampant capitalism and insidious family dynamics, and you know, why should publishing be different than life? Awful people and rotten books both inexplicably succeed, as
evidenced by last year's "Bridges of Madison County"-with-snow bestseller,
The Christmas Box, wherein a family learns a (bankable) Lesson About Love from a grandmotherly sort with a tragic (and also bankable) secret.
But rotten books share the shelves, ecumenically, with decent ones. You have to keep slogging. You can only hope for small rewards. Sometimes you're happily surprised. Of all that I read, all the bleached drifts I plowed, novelist Edna O'Brien put it best: "I had not lost the desire to escape," she writes, "or the strenuous habit of hoping."

This great line (the "strenuous" clinches it) comes from "The Doll," one of twenty-seven entries in A Literary Christmas: Great Contemporary Christmas Stories. Being contemporary, they are a twinkle-deprived, depressive lot, which somehow makes them all the more welcome in a world of Tim Allen and aging Waltons. Less heartwarming than heart-instructing. Such tough stuff, of course, is sorely needed this time of year, when our families and dysfunctions join hands around the memory-laden table, and ask for second helpings, then third, only to wash it all down with insinuative behavior patterns that never seem to change. And to all a good night!

the best and most chilling of the stories is Paul Bowles' 1959 "The Frozen Fields," in which a little boy, on Christmas day, learns how to tune out his cruel father who, just before these lines, has punished a minor transgression by rubbing his son's face raw with snow: "Donald moved forward, looking at the white road in front of him, his mind empty of thoughts. An unfamiliar feeling had come to him: he was not sorry for himself for being wet and cold, or even resentful at having been mistreated. He felt detached; it was an agreeable, almost voluptuous sensation which he accepted without understanding or questioning it."

Ann Beattie, Italo Calvino, Peter Matthiessen, Ntozake Shange, Raymond Carver (he's always so uplifting), and Tobias Wolff (him, too) each have stories in here, also. It's a pretty good collection, all in all. There's a fine, sad, Yuletide-in-Minnesota excerpt from Jane Smiley's "The Age of Grief," and a classic by Grace Paley, in which Jewish kids put on a Christmas pageant ("Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd's stick ... and Marty Groff took his place, wearing his father's prayer shawl").

If you read Thomas Disch's ravaging "Xmas" ("He felt iniquitous and utterly cast down") chase it with the glorious passage from "To Kill a Mockingbird." This is probably the most sugary nougat in here, but it's so life-giving to re-read, you won't care. Favorite sayings of "Aunt Alexandra (was) analogous to Mount Everest: throughout my early life, she was cold and there." And this, about Aunt Alexandra's grandson, who is Scout's age: "Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean. He was the most boring child I ever met."

Speaking of children, they aren't within the purview of this piece  though, of course, they are the point of Christmas. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one older kids' book, The Christmas Mystery, by Jostein Gaarder, author of last year's bestselling "Sophie's World." It has real brio, pivots on a clever conceit  each chapter takes its cue from a magical Advent calendar  and features time travel. Your child gets enthusiastic history and geography lessons, plus tidbits on everyone from Copernicus and Diocletian. The book doesn't play down its Christian slant, although there's a little Scandinavian socialism thrown in for spice. "Joachim didn't like shopping in large stores," opines Gaarder. "He got really angry at the nagging sound of the cash registers."

Ka-ching! And now for the books which will (undoubtedly) peal the most at said registers, and appeal the least. Crowning the list must surely be Certain Poor Shepherds by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who gave us that inexplicable 1994 bestseller "The Hidden Life of Dogs." Believe it or not, the shepherds of the title are canine ones, kinda like German shepherds. Really. Welcome to the Irony-Free Zone, for Thomas straightfacedly tells the nativity story from the vantage of man's best friend, a device which produces so many beyond-parody delights, I hardly know where to begin. Take this: "A group of people, mostly kings and pilgrims, knelt around the manger with their heads bowed, their eyes shut, and their hands, palms together, under their noses. Lila [the pooch] knew they were begging. Dogs, too, bowed humbly when begging for something. Quietly, Lila crept among them until she too could see into the manger ... and Jesus tossed her a Milkbone."

Okay, I added the Milkbone part. But the book rolls in a pile of ridiculousness so often, I hardly needed to. One of the Wise Men's camels spits at poor Lila, we learn that "stars have an odor" (thus Lila sniffs her way to the manger), and that John Updike, blurbing on the back cover, is pleased that Thomas "has woven fur and scent into the Christmas story, with amusing, moving results." For shame, U. Maybe the author of "Couples" was befogged by Thomas' candid sex scenes: "Ignoring the message of her tucked hips and clamped tail, the bold stranger [a stray named Yom] investigated [Lila] thoroughly, learning her sex, her age, the condition of her womb and ovaries, the contents of her stomach and intestines, the amount and type of protein she had eaten recently..."

Is it hot in here all of a sudden? There are other bad books out there, but "Certain Poor Shepherds," it must be said, is the biggest dog. The next worst must surely be a little stocking stuffer called The Christmas Conversation Piece, which includes 302 chat-provoking questions, and was compiled by two recent college grads who majored, we learn on the backflap, in "marketing and public relations/advertising, respectively." No respect taken. These guys are shameless; the material is as substantial as hoarfrost at noon, and they even dedicate the book to "everyone at Ballantine Books ... and Our Lord, Jesus Christ." This begs for some kind of mean rejoinder, but I desist out of tattered, fading shreds of Christmas spirit. The strenuous habit of hope.

Anyway, here's the kind of madcap suggestion "Conversation Piece" offers: "If you had a child born on Christmas Day and had to give him/her a name that related to Christmas, what name would you choose? (Example: Holly for a girl.)" Okay, I'll play. How 'bout Herod for a boy? Here's another: "What do you think is the most enjoyable thing to do in the snow?" I'd suggest "ski under sunlit pines," but Paul Bowles, as we know, would say "hone my powers of psychological detachment." "The Christmas Conversation Piece" is the kind of book that helpfully tells you that 1899 is "the turn of the century." Here's question #55: "For you, what is the most discouraging aspect of the Christmas season?" Need I say it? BOOKS LIKE THESE!!

Fear not, though, for other Christmas tomes are abiding in their fields. There's actually a decent Christmas poetry anthology out this year, called Poems For Christmas, which is worth buying if only for the three Patrick Kavanaugh offerings. This Irish poet is astringently good, writing how "Mass-going feet/ Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes." Plus, "Poems for Christmas" strews homey words and phrases about, like "byre" and "ale-kirn" and "the lonely barton by yonder coomb." Wilfred Owen's in here, and e.e. cummings, two Hughes (Ted and Langston) and Pasternak. The collection's finale is struck by Adrian Mitchell's wonderfully inverted "Nothingmas Day," in which children "not tingling with excitement," who will later write "No Thank You notes," pick up their "Nothingmas Stockings" and say "Look what I haven't got! It's just what I didn't want!"

Which is precisely what most American kids chirped, before 1820 or so, when Christmas was actually against the law, and My Little Pony did not yet exist. This I learned from the (mince)meatiest book of the season, The Battle For Christmas, which chronicles the fall and rise of the holiday in America. Written by a University of Massachusetts historian named Stephen Nissenbaum, "Battle" is alternately fascinating and dry as a diorama. It's a far cry better, though, than the other crypto-historical book out there, New Old-Fashioned Ways: Holidays and Popular Culture, which sprang from a Pop. Cult. course offered by author Jack Santino, Ph.D., at Bowling Green University. Can you say "gut"? Professor S. does things like discuss the meaning of the movie "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and run photos of "Santa Mac," Kraft's Christmas macaroni and cheese product. This material wouldn't annoy if, say, John Waters were the author. Santino, though, specializes in the prose style known as Academic-Mirthless: "Holidays are themselves a form of popular culture, of course, but as Smith has said of festivals, they are a genre composed of other genres."

Such clunkers made me grateful for Nissenbaum; he writes competently, and teaches much. For instance, I learned that the Puritans decided Christmas would not be celebrated in the New World (if you did, you were fined five shillings) because the holiday had turned into a mere excuse for thievery, cross-dressing, drunkeness, and extramarital sex. "Kind of a December Mardi Gras," as Nissenbaum puts it. Christmas had never quite shed its pagan origins, the early Church fathers having grafted it onto Winter Solstice celebrations, which were always real wingdings, since the harvest was in, the grain was now fermented, and it was cold enough to slaughter meat without fear of spoilage. Mensis Genialis, December was called, the Voluptuous Month.

It seems Christmas, as we know it, didn't burgeon until Puritan power faded. Clement Moore turned the screws by publishing "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" in 1822. Moore was a very rich, reactionary New Yorker (his estate, called Chelsea, gave its name to that section of Manhattan), who made sure his St. Nick was a judgmental, omniscient sort (i.e. he knows if you've been bad or good). Moore didn't like how the lower classes had been treating the upper in recent Christmases  breaking into their houses, putting on Anticks (plays), and not leaving until they'd been paid handsomely for the (often hostile) show. Ol' Santy was designed to shift the holiday away from adults, and their bad habits, to kids. He was going to make us good, for goodness' sake.

This is a point James Finn Garner grasps perfectly. In his Politically Correct Holiday Stories, he one-ups Moore at his own game, sanitizing Christmas to pretty giddy heights. I was prepared to mildly enjoy Garner's latest, but in fact I relished it and, yes, laughed out loud a number of times. He's much better at stringing out the joke than his parodist colleagues, Cathy Crimmins and Tom Maeder, who lampooned last year's hypoglycemic "The Christmas Box" with this year's Revenge of the Christmas Box. They do score once in a while; one tale is called "The Christmas Jar," and takes off on the original's earnest autobiographical prose comme ca: "I was born in a pickle factory in the shadow of snowy mountains." From there it's "The Christmas Lox," and "The Christmas Vox," and so on, the jokes zinging and flopping in equal measure.

But let's get back to Garner, pace Clement Moore:

"Twas the night before solstice and all

through the co-op

Not a creature was messing the calm

status quo up.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

Dreaming of lentils and warm whole-grain breads...

From there, Garner goes on to give us "Frosty the Persun of Snow," who, with a group of "pre-adults" named "Ho-shi and Chin-wa, and their friends Shadrach and Lu'Minaria, and their friend Heather and her two mommies" marches on Washington to alert all to the dangers of the riddled Ozone Layer, which is causing Frosty to melt. Garner also takes on The Nutcracker: "[The toys] appointed the Nutcracker to head a fact-finding and cultural-exchange team to develop a dialog with the mice." Then Rudolph, after launching some tough labor negotiations, "goes down in history/herstory." And Scrooge is haunted by "three extra-dimensional intercessors," while the Cratchits throw a party and play "Optically Inconvenienced Persun's Bluff," and Timon Cratchit goes on talk shows to promote his book, "My Oppressor, Myself."

Back to oppression are we? When I closed the last page of the last literary snowdrift, this was primarily what I felt. Can you blame me? Oh maybe you can  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, clearly, would call me a whiner and worse. For as she huffily reminds us, in "Certain Poor Shepherds," "no redeemer appeared for the animals." When I read this, I thought it meant I should be thankful for being human, for the original reason we celebrate Christmas. But then Thomas delivered her punchline; yes, no redeemer appeared for the animals, but "none was needed." They were "just as God made them, perfect according to his plan." Unlike the rest of us cruddy humans, with our rotten morals and sullied holidays and turgid publishing industry.

At that point I picked up "Poems for Christmas" and kept dropping my finger, until I found some lines to make me feel better. Christmas arrived, for me, at the bottom of page 62, in a Francois Villon poem called "Ballade." The beautiful translation is by Galway Kinnell:

...So much you love a dog you feed it,

So much a song's heard it catches on,

So much fruit's hoarded up it goes rotten,

So much you dispute a place it's already taken,

So much you dawdle you ruin your life,

So much you hurry you run out of luck,

So much you hold on you lose your grip,

So much you cry Noel that it comes ...

Merry reading, everyone. Happy Christmas.

Katherine Whittemore

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