Season's Readings

Season's Readings

By Bill Boisvert

Christmas books embody all the contradictions of the holiday season, from fat compilations conjured up by publishers for the season, to those underwritten and overpackaged little tomes found by the register, just the right size to slip into stockings or dangle from pine boughs. These Grinch-goading books speak volumes about marketers' cold calculation that shoppers want a Christmas full of heartfelt spirituality, family tradition and silent, holy nights.

It's hard to keep a good story down, however. The Glory of Christmas features inspirational writings from Charles Swindoll, Max Lucado, and Charles Colson, who take up the rock-solid themes of Christmas: God's ennoblement of humble origins; Jesus as God's Christmas present to us; even Holy Family dynamics as a model for the intense personal relationship we should cultivate with God. Not all these selections have a clear connection to Christmas, and some are fragments from previous books, but "The Glory of Christmas" is a good divining rod for anyone seeking the spirit of the season.

The Heart of Christmas gathers longer, more coherent essays by Max Lucado again, Jack Hayford, David Jeremiah, John C. Maxwell, Willow Creek's Bill Hybels, and Rick Warren. Each uses the Christmas story as a touchstone to remind us of how Christ redeems our anxiety-ridden lives. These are fine sermons, written in the vivid, down-to-earth style at which these preachers excel.

Too earthbound as it is? Classic Sermons on the Birth of Christ steeps us in the high rhetoric of an earlier era. These sermons, pulled together from 19th- and 20th-century British and American ministers, sound a little stilted to the modern ear. Instead of the sensitive examinations of rocky marriages, alcoholism, and the anomie of individual sinners, these older sermons--especially those given in the shadow of the World Wars--deal more abstractly and soberingly with the problem of a world wracked with sin. Some, like Dwight Moody's superb evocation of a Christ outcast and homeless from the moment of birth, remain masterpieces of religious oratory.

Christmas, of course, has inspired a huge amount of literature apart from the Gospels. Modern Library's Christmas Classics features comforting chestnuts like excerpts from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," poems by Milton, Longfellow, and Whitman, "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" (a.k.a. "The Night Before Christmas"), favorite carols, and traditional recipes. The 19th century's impact on Christmas consciousness comes clear when we compare Dickens' sentiment with Samuel Pepys' diaries of the 1660s, in which Pepys barely notes the holiday amidst his drinking and theatergoing. Noche Buena: Hispanic American Christmas Stories, edited by Nicolás Kanellos, gathers an excellent sampling of short stories as well as poems in Spanish and English translation.

Christmas' dark side is on display in Christmas in My Soul, a volume of deservedly obscure Christmas stories from the (last) turn of century. These mostly maudlin tales sometimes pack a sinister ideological punch, as with Agnes Turnbull's "Merry 'Little Christmas,'" in which a mother uses Christmas to manipulate her thoroughly modern daughter into giving up all her nonsense about a career. A perfect collection for that Ghost of Christmas Past in the family, who knows that welfare, feminism, and fire codes have ruined things for us all.

Finally, novelist James Kilgo has given us a small gem of a memoir in The Hand-Carved Crèche and Other Christmas Stories. Kilgo's reminiscences of childhood Christmases in South Carolina is full of quirky characters, unexpected homecomings, 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.

Such rituals are celebrated in Elsie's Christmas Party, a collection of Victorian-themed crafts and decoration projects, recipes, and party activities. This opulent busywork--handmade ornaments, wreaths, pastries, parlor games, plus devotional readings and prayers--are enough to render Martha Stewart an exhausted wreck by Christmas Eve. As interesting is the history of Christmas folderol (did you know "The 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.

Living up to the 19th-century's inheritance can be draining, even depressing. First Aid for the Soul at Christmas is a balm for what can be a spiritually wounding time. Sonya V. Tinsley, with illustrator Jane Heyes, offers this tiny gift volume of yuletide musings from writers ranging from (the ubiquitous) Dickens to Nikki Giovanni. The advice, which amounts to "Open your hearts, taste the joy of giving, and become like little children in awe of Santa Claus," is at times strikingly phrased, though a heavy dose of self-help talk introduces a fair amount of cliche.

Candy Paull's Christmas Abundance: A Simple Guide to Discovering the True Meaning of Christmas doesn't bother sorting out the meaningful from the tacky. Paull argues for "the paradox of a holiday that is both sacred and secular, Christian and pagan, worshipful and commercial." Breezy, readable, surprisingly substantial, and slightly appalling, the book mixes recipes, Bible passages, familiar quotations, and holiday lore with blithe hymns to the mall. "I am a sacramental shopper," Paull writes, "seeing a picture of God's grace in the superabundance of the American Christmas marketplace." Shopping, she says,is modernity's authentic mode of being.

Paull's consumer Christmas is enough to send us screaming to the holiday's roots in nature worship. In Decking the Halls: The Folklore and Traditions of Christmas Plants, Linda Allen explores Christmas trees, yule logs, mistletoe, and poinsettias, and how they came to be associated with Christ's birth. Perhaps no holiday, including its counterpart spring rite, Easter, is so consumed with flora, and Allen gives us the customs and myths behind them all.

Dorothy Morrison, Wiccan High Priestess of the Georgian Tradition, delves further into pagan traditions in her fascinating Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth. Counting Christmas as one variant of the winter solstice festivals that date back to ancient Egypt, Morrison shows us how phenomena like "waxing solar electromagnetic flux" are as much a part of Christmas as sugarplum fairies. Morrison details decorations, dishes, and rituals from many countries and religions and provides prayers to propitiate every deity from Diana to Hogmagog--even etiquette tips on conversing with your Christmas tree.

There are of course other ways of reinvesting in Christmas. Jon Farrar's Looking Forward to Christmas: Family Devotions for the Season focuses on the season's religious significance. For each day of Advent, the book suggests a Bible story, a prayer, and a family activity. The Bible stories are seriously bowdlerized, often written in grating, personnel-department prose (at one point, Mary calls herself God's "trusted employee"), but the ideas for spiritual enrichment--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' paraplegic nephew (never mind: it's a long story), inherits the original Christmas gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense after Mary's assumption into heaven. 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.

Counterparts for grown-ups are sketchier propositions. In Christmas Hearts: Twelve Stories of the First Christmas, Tim Roehl takes us into the heads of Mary, Joseph, the hard-hearted Bethlehem innkeeper, and Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Struggling to render the inner lives of biblical characters in modern terminology, Roehl mixes pop-psychology (Herod suffers from "an inner need for a healthy identity struggling with a sense of insecurity") with Sunday school dogma and ends up adding little to the Gospel story.

John A. Jensen, a trainer and speaker on life skills, does little better with his modern Christmas advice. Each pair of facing pages in Christmas Lost and Found: Rediscovering the True Spirit of Christmas contains an inane "I Lost" set-up, followed by a lame "I Found" punch line: "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.

Better to stick with the gurus you know. The very popular Marianne Williamson offers in Christmas Prayers the Christian-inflected New Age rhetoric she has virtually trademarked. "I have seen a holy star, and it has lit my inner skies," Williamson intones. Her looping, theologically non-specific rhapsodizing about love and peace may cause your inner voice to exclaim, "Give me a break," but there's no arguing with success.