Christmas books embody the holiday's contradictions. Underwritten and overpackaged, diminutively sized to slip into stockings or dangle from pine boughs, these books exemplify Christmas as marketing juggernaut. But while their format speaks volumes about an inauthentic Christmas of cold calculation, manufactured hoopla, and consumerist frenzy, their content vociferously upholds an authentic Christmas of heartfelt spirituality, family tradition and silent, holy nights.

Christmas authenticity being largely a state of mind, the quest for it is spearheaded by the vast True Meaning of Christmas genre, which seeks to insure that our holiday feelings well up from our souls rather than being charged to a credit card.

The worst of these books is John A. Jensen's "Christmas Lost and Found: Rediscovering the True Spirit of Christmas." Jensen is "a trainer and speaker," but he is no writer. Each pair of facing pages contains an inane "I Lost" set-up followed by lame "I Found" punchline: "I Lost credibility with a girlfriend when I gave her the sweatpants intended for my mom. I Found her lukewarm response appropriate for my actions." This one should stay in the lost-and-found.

Miracles guru Marianne Williamson offers "Christmas Prayers." "I have seen a holy star, and it has lit my inner skies" Williamson intones in the Christian-inflected New Age rhetoric she has virtually trademarked. Her looping, liturgical but theologically non-specific rhapsodies to peace, love, love and peace may cause your inner voice to lift itself in supplication to God to Give Us a Break.

"When Love Came Down at Christmas" is a Christmas book/CD fromChristian pop band Point of Grace. A wan story about a girl who goes to live with Grampa after Dad takes off and Mom dies is followed by the bandmates' reminiscences about the agonizing wait to open presents.

"First Aid for the Soul at Christmas" assumes that the holidays are actually a spiritually wounding time. As balm, compiler Sonya V. Tinsley and illustrator Jane Heyes offer this tiny gift volume of the yule-tide musings of writers from Charles Dickens to Nikki Giovanni. Their advice-open your hearts, taste the joy of giving, and become like little children in awe of Santa Claus-is at times strikingly phrased, although a heavy selection of self-help writers contribute many bland clichés.

Candy Paull's Christmas Abundance: A Simple Guide to Discovering the True Meaning of Christmas acknowledges "the paradox of a holiday that is both sacred and secular, Christian and pagan, worhsipful and commercial," Paull's book is breezy, readable, surprisingly substantial and slightly appalling. Mixing recipes, Bible passages, familiar quotations and holiday lore with blithe hymns to the mall, she celebrates the intertwinement of Christmas with the mass market as a wellspring of "abundance," both sympton and cure of capitalism's crises of overproduction. "I am a sacramental shopper, seeing a picture of God's grace in the superabundance of the American Christmas marketplace," she writes, suggesting that shopping is modernity's authentic mode of being.

A Christmas that's old-fashioned, multicultural and hand-made is more authentic than one that's shrink-wrapped at the department store. Hence the ever-popular Christmas Lore, Arts and Crafts genre, which unearths the holiday's roots in pre-modern folkways that we can then reenact.

Christmas's pagan roots are nowhere more visible than in the flora we associate with it, as we learn from Linda Allen's "Decking the Halls: The Folklore and Traditions of Christmas Plants," which explores the customs and myths associated with Christmas trees, yule logs, mistletoe and poinsettias. Dorothy Morrison, Wiccan High Priestess of the Georgian Tradition, reconstructs pagan traditions in all their unassimilated glory, in her fascinating if slightly loopy "Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth." Counting Christmas as just one variant of a winter solstice festival that dates back to ancient Egypt, she interprets the holiday in basic celestial terms of waxing solar electromagnetic flux. She provides detailed instructions on decorations, dishes and rituals from many countries and religions, prayers to propitiate every deity from Diana to Hogmagog, and etiquette tips on the courteous way to converse with your Christmas tree.

"Elsie's Christmas Party" is a collection of Victorian-themed crafts and decoration projects, recipes, and party activities. The prescribed regimen of handmade ornaments, wreaths, pastries, parlor games, devotional readings and prayers are so intricate and time-consuming as to leave Martha Stewart herself an exhausted wreck on Christmas Eve. In addition to the opulent busy-work, the book also contains interesting historical information on Christmas fol-de-rol (did you know that the carol Twelve Days of Christmas is actually a coded catechism for English Catholics?), most of which sprang up in the 19th century confluence of religious sentimentality and the cult of domesticity.

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