2017-07-12
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.

Of course, Christmas is a Christian holy day and has given rise to more than a few devotionals. Some of these are aimed at children. Jon Farrar's Looking Forward to Christmas: Family Devotions for the Season tries to focus youngsters' attention on the religious significance of Christmas, rather than gift-getting. The book suggests a Bible story, prayer and family activity for each day of Advent. While the Bible stories are seriously bowdlerized and often written in grating, personnel-department prose (Mary calls herself God's "trusted employee"), the suggested activities-caroling, leafing through photo albums, bible trivia games-will appeal to young children.

Tykes are reminded that it's better to give than to receive in Marci Alborghetti's "The Miracle of the Myrrh.". Mendel, Jesus's paraplegic nephew (long story) inherits the original Christmas gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense after Mary's ascension. Fending off attempts by his shrewish mother Salome to sell the gifts for money, Mendel gives them away to people even less fortunate than himself.

A counterpart for grown-ups is "Christmas Hearts: Twelve Stories of the First Christmas," in which Tim Roehl takes us into the heads of Nativity personages like Mary, Joseph, the hard-hearted innkeeper, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Struggling to render the inner lives of Biblical characters in modern terminology, Roehl mixes melodramatic mise-en-scene and pop-psychology (Herod suffers from "an inner need for a healthy identity struggling with a sense of insecurity") with Sunday School dogma about the sin of pride. This didactic fictionalization adds little to the Gospel story.

Publishers are also offering collections of more serious sermons and essays. The story of Christ's birth inspires a number of recurring themes, like God's ennoblement of humble origins; Jesus as God's Christmas Present to us; and Holy Family-dynamics as a model for the intense personal relationship we should cultivate with God. "The Glory of Christmas" features inspirational writings from Charles Swindoll, Max Lucado and Watergate-felon-turned-prison-evangelist Charles Colson. Unfortunately, these tend to be short fragments ripped out of context from the writer's books, and many have no connection with Christmas. "The Heart of Christmas" gathers longer, more coherent essays by pastors and writers Max Lucado, Jack Hayford, David Jeremiah, John C. Maxwell, Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. In each selection, the biblical Christmas story serves as a touchstone to remind us of how Christ redeems our hollow, listless, anxiety-ridden suburban lives. These are fine sermons, written in the vivid, down-to-earth style at which Protestant preachers excel. "Classic Sermons on the Birth of Christ" pulls together sermons from 19th and 20th century British and American ministers. Steeped in the high rhetoric of an earlier era, they sound a little stilted to the modern ear. Unlike sermons in our present-day therapeutic culture, which address the rocky marriages, alcoholism and anomie of individual sinners, these older sermons-especially those written in the shadow of the World Wars-tend to deal more abstractly with the problem of a whole world of sin. Nonetheless, some, like Dwight Moody's superb evocation of a Christ outcast and homeless from the moment of birth, remain masterpieces of religious oratory.

A number of anthologies remind us just how much literature Christmas has inspired. The Modern Library's "Christmas Classics" features a selection of chestnuts, including excerpts from Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" and Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," poems by Milton, Longfellow and Whitman, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (aka "The Night Before Christmas"), favorite carols and traditional recipes. We get a revealing view of the growing import of Christmas in the 19th century when we compare Dickens's sentimental Christmas with excerpts from Samuel Pepys's diaries of the 1660s, in which Pepys barely notices the holiday amidst his drinking and theater-going. "Noche Buena: Hispanic American Christmas Stories," edited by Nicolás Kanellos, gathers together an excellent sample of short stories, as well as poems in Spanish and English translation.

The dark side of Christmas literature is on display in "Christmas in My Soul," a volume of deservedly obscure Christmas stories from the turn of the (last) century. These maudlin tales sometimes pack a sinister ideological punch, as with Agnes Turnbull's "Merry 'Little Christmas,'" in which a mother uses Christmas decor to manipulate her misguided, thoroughly modern daughter into giving up all this nonsense about a career and staying home to have babies. This collection speaks to those who feel that welfare, feminism and fire codes have ruined the spirit of Christmas.

Finally, novelist James Kilgo has given us a small gem of a memoir in "The Hand-Carved Crèche and Other Christmas Stories." Kilgo reminisces about his childhood Christmases in South Carolina, replete with quirky characters, unexpected home-comings and longed-for presents that lead to disillusionment. A spare and graceful writer, Kilgo sees the hand-carved crèche of the title story as a metaphor for how we infuse Christmas rituals with the authenticity of memory.



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