Christmas was yesterday but I’m sure I won’t be putting away the Christmas books that always float to the top of the general household clutter this time of year. Most of them are children’s books—enjoyed by my husband and I in childhood and now shared with our three-year-old son. It’s a season of weird stories, and although I don’t want to emphasize the gift-giving aspect of this holiday, I find myself uncertain as to how, or when, to introduce the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. My son can identify the figures, but I haven’t gotten into the whole virgin birth, son of God part.
The only story we read that hints at the nativity is Babousha and the Three Kings, a Russian folk tale by Ruth Robbins with Byzantine/Ukrainian-style line drawings and color washes done by Nicolas Sidjakov. (It won the Caldecott in 1961.) There is a rumored newborn child, being sought by the three kings, but that’s the extent of the Biblical references. Why am I willing only to eke out the literature of the Bible itself? I think it’s because the story of Jesus is a story with violence in it, and magic too, and a lot of people believe it. It’s a story that needs to be handled with care.
I also found myself reading The Night Before Christmas, which was written by Clement C. Moore, an incredibly distinguished scholar of Hebrew and Greek literature, in 1822. It was mostly for my own oratory pleasure, but my son was intrigued with the Santa description and the Rackham illustrations of the English town. It was interesting to think of this poem by an American being adopted in England and nearly everywhere else in Europe. Why has it endured? I continue to wonder. Perhaps simply because it’s fun to read aloud. I suppose the Santa description is truly compelling to children. If you go back and read it to see how closely the description fits the current Santa icon, maybe you’ll be surprised, as I was, to discover that he’s “dressed all in fur,” no mention of red. And remember he smokes a pipe? When’s the last time I saw a smoking Santa in a children’s book?
He certainly doesn’t smoke in The Polar Express, which is a house favorite. I do love the Chris Van Allsburg illustrations: the sculpted pastels soothe, the perspectives and use of light are awe inspiring. There’s a melancholy cast to it as well—the boy narrator thinks he lost the bell Santa gave him, and the whole experience seems quiet and lonely for some reason I can’t quite identify (maybe because the voice is that of a man telling a story from his youth?)—but really it’s straight up Santa with a side of presents, even though I suppose the detail of the boy asking only for a bell when he could have requested anything can be considered self sacrifice.
I gave it the old college try with A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. This story was published posthumously in 1954. It’s too long and dense with poetic metaphor for a three year old, but a rewarding treat for any adult. I was able to talk with Otis (which means answering lots of questions and asking some of my own) about the pictures in our edition illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. There’s a small “book as object of delight” version illustrated with woodcuts by Ellen Raskin that I recommend as well.
It’s an interesting time of year to consider the power of stories. Highly motivated to capture feelings of pleasure and excitement that came more naturally in youth, I sit down yearly to read segments of my favorites. “Dolce Domum,” a chapter of homecoming in The Wind in the Willows, probably tops my list right now for general coziness and poignancy. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote made me cry a bit more than I’d anticipated. The Christmas chapter in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods is on my mind, as I figure out how to be generous and less materialistic and greed-promoting at Christmas time. Laura’s cup runneth over with one lovingly made rag doll she names Charlotte (and has through the remaining books).
Nostalgia, organic and market-driven, is a powerful force at all times, and never more so than at Christmas. It’s not too hard to figure out why this holiday festival–a collision of religious, social, economic, and cultural forces—becomes of crucible of impulses and desires for the ideal. The words and images one encounters echo and reverberate—they do for me, anyway. I don’t know when the hearkening back to yesteryear became part of the holiday formula, but here’s how the mid-nineteenth century voice of Washington Irving begins his “Christmas” chapter of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1848): “Nothing in England exercises a more delightful spell over my imagination, than the lingering of the holiday customs and rural games of former times.” He goes on to describe the surviving customs he finds so charming and reassuring of the old agricultural cycle.
There’s no time machine quite like literature, is there?
–Hayley Wood, Program Officer, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities