The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on this day in 1843, so it seems like an apt time to say a little about Samantha Silva’s homage to that holiday classic, Mr. Dickens and His Carol. I actually read Silva’s novel with the intent to review it more formally, but two different plans for that fell through. Frankly, I was relieved both times, because I didn’t–don’t–have that much to say about the novel! It’s inoffensive. It’s moderately diverting. It’s a nice idea. You should reread A Christmas Carol instead.

The thing is, they called Dickens “The Inimitable” for a reason. Love him or hate him, he’s a writer who absolutely revels in what words can do, and who takes risks and leaps with them, who frolics and freaks out with them, who tries every trick he can think of to make us laugh and tremble and cry with them. His is an aesthetic of excess, of extravagance, both structurally and emotionally, and I know plenty of readers who get impatient with it, or worse. I myself am actually a late convert–and there’s still plenty of Dickens I haven’t read–but I’ve come to cherish him for just that sense that he’s absolutely throwing himself into his writing, giving it, and thus giving us, everything he’s got. As I wrote a few years ago, when David Copperfield saved me from a reading slump, “his books radiate delight in words and stories and imagination.” It can be intoxicating.

Nothing about Mr. Dickens and His Carol is intoxicating. It’s a perfectly fine story in which the writing of A Christmas Carol itself becomes the means of saving both Dickens and Christmas. Inevitably, Silva’s writing is pedestrian by comparison with her predecessor’s. When at long last the redemptive tale is written and then read aloud to the rapturous delight of Dickens’s audience,

Dickens bowed, long and low. His heart was thundering inside him, too, louder than all the clapping, which seemed not to subside at all. He needed the moment. It was as if he’d come to the crest of a great mountain peak and, though panting and spent, could see all the world. And how vivid a view. Even the Turkish carpet under his feet was every color imaginable, an alchemy of alum, copper, and chrome mied with madder root, indigo, poppy, and sage. What magic there was all around him. Words were inadequate, but all he had. He didn’t know where they came from or why, but it was how we told one another what the world was and might be. Who we were, and might become. It was the only magic he had. Everything else was faith.

Fair enough. But here’s an example of the real magic he had:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperatures always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purposes, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. . . .

I could go on–Dickens certainly does (“and on and on and on,” I imagine the nay-sayers muttering)–but I’m sure you already see the difference. One writer is competently telling a story; the other is having a grand old time. “I know that of late I’ve pitied myself a poor man,” says Silva’s Dickens to his long-suffering wife Catherine,

–poor in love, in riches, in prospects. But I’ve learned, in these days of your absence . . . that whatever I suffered was a poverty of my own vision.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart,” exclaims Dickens’s redeemed miser,

and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!

And then discovering he does indeed have a precious second chance, he is “checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had every heard”:

Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to his window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

Only one of the two novels feels like a revelation.

It is of course not fair to insist that someone writing about Dickens should try to write like Dickens. The results would probably be pretty awful, actually, so Silva was almost certainly wise just to write her own novel in her own way. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, though, to expect that a novel so heavily invested in another writer’s work will engage with it in some transformative way: even if that endeavor too is likely to fail (or at any rate I don’t know of many great examples, and I can think of some really dreadful ones) at least the attempt will be more interesting–and I just didn’t find Mr. Dickens and His Carol particularly interesting. There are aspects I would have tried to make more sense of for a more formal review, such as how consistent it is to make the story of Dickens’s Christmas redemption turn as much on the commercial success of his new book as on any spiritual revelation–but I don’t think much would really have come of that exercise.

On its own terms, though (and I honestly don’t mean to be damning it with faint praise) Mr. Dickens and His Carol is readable and kind of charming, and it has stretches of prose that, if not truly Dickensian, are still wonderfully tactile and evocative:

The night was an embroidery of stars on a taffeta sky so blue it bled all the black away. No more drab-colored December fringed with fog. The even of Christmas week burst into the world, clear and dry, the streets one continuous blaze of ornament and show. . . . Shops sat in their best trim under bright gaslights turned all the way up, with evergreen plumage four stories high, like a great forest canopy. There were great pyramids of currants and raisins; brown russet apples and golden bobs, Ribston Pippins and huge winter pears; towers of jams, jellies, and bonbons; solid walls of sardines, potted meats, bottled pickles, drummed figs. . . . Over grappling horses’ hooves, roaring drivers, and chaffering dealers, rose the harmonies of an oboe, French horn, and flute, warbling a pastoral Christmas tune.

All of London seemed set upon suffering gladly a sprinkle of brotherly this and that, but cheer most of all.

And the novel is sometimes even touching, as Dickens struggles through his writing slump and emerges–thanks to some visitations of his own and some hard-won insights into his own life–renewed and filled with the spirit of Christmas: “He turned his face to the star-kissed winter sky, from which tiny, glittering snowflakes began to fall. He couldn’t have been happier had he been transported to Paradise.” Silva says in her Author’s Note that “the book is, most of all, a fan letter”–and the sincerity of her appreciation for Dickens and his brilliant little Christmas ornament of a book is palpable and more than a little heartwarming.

This Week In My Classes: A Brief Lull!

advent2016We had our last day of classes yesterday. Owing to a very peculiar scheduling plan devised (of course) by a committee, although yesterday was actually a Tuesday, it was designated an “extra Monday” to make up for “losing” a day of Monday classes to Thanksgiving (so much for the concept of a day off — must everything be weighed and measured?). Anyway, that meant two days of Monday classes in a row to bring us to the end of term. As I am not giving final exams in my courses, I now have a lull in immediately pressing teaching-related activities until the final essays come in, the first batch on Friday, the second on Sunday. Then I have to dig in and get through them all, and then do all the final record keeping so that I can compute and submit final grades.

I wrapped up my classes feeling pretty satisfied about how they had gone. In some ways it wasn’t a terribly demanding term, as I was teaching just two classes, and both were upper-level ones as well as ones I’ve done more than once before. That turned out to be a good thing, though, because it was a difficult term in other ways as I pursued the appeal of my promotion case and then waited for the outcome. More than once I felt, as I had back in the spring term when the case first started going badly, that teaching was my salvation. This term my seminar on the ‘Woman Question’ went particularly well (I thought, anyway) the first day I had to teach after learning the bad news: I was in a pretty deep funk when I came into the room, but the students were so well prepared and engaged and full of intelligence and humor that they just lifted me right up — and it meant so much to me that I told them so the next time we met, because I don’t know if students realize that, just as we can make a difference in their lives, so too they often make a difference in ours. I was a bit worried that it would be weird for them if I broke the frame in that way, but at the time I had rather had it with being “professional.” (Still, I didn’t tell them why I had been feeling so low–just that I had been, and that they had really helped.) They seemed to appreciate what I said. They really were a great group to work with, not just that day but all term.

tree-2013Though the cessation of classes doesn’t mean there’s not anything else to do at work (just for instance, today I put some time in organizing the Brightspace site and readings for one of next term’s courses), I usually take advantage of any break in the schedule at this time of year to get some holiday shopping done, especially for things I want to mail out west to my family.  I was especially motivated to get as much done as I could today because so far (unlike my family out west, in a rare reversal!) we have no snow to deal with yet. Sadly, that can’t last, and everything gets harder once the roads and sidewalks are wintry. So once I’d taken care of some business at the office, out I went, and had a pretty nice time puttering around at the mall and in the rather more interesting shops at the Hydrostone Market. I’ve written before about the approach we take to presents in our house: to me they are partly symbolic, ways of making tangible the connections between us and the people we care about. I’m always full of thoughts of my friends and family as I look around for little offerings for them, which usually makes it both a happy and a faintly melancholy experience for me as so many of them are so far away. Here in Halifax we do have our own cheerful holiday traditions, though, which help ward off any gloominess that threatens: this weekend, for instance, we had ‘Advent Brunch,’ and I expect we’ll put our tree up next weekend.

I don’t expect I’ll be quite done with my grading by then, but my goal is to be industrious enough every day next week that I don’t feel guilty relaxing with some Baileys and a book (perhaps one of the three I’m supposed to be reviewing this month) in the evenings.

From the Novel Readings Archives: Santa Clause is People!

The lull is over: papers are in, exams are incoming, and for the next little while I’ll have my head down taking care of business. Last week, while I waited for the work to arrive, I got in some Christmas shopping, including wrapping and shipping some things to my family out west as well as browsing for gifts for family and friends here in Halifax. I know this kind of thing makes some people grumpy, and if I let myself get frazzled over it, I can lose the Christmas spirit too. But basically I love doing it: it’s not just about commercialism or obligation — presents, to me, are one way of connecting to people we care and think about. Gifts create a tangible trail across our lives: they become concrete representations or reminders of our histories, and especially of our relationships. Since I probably won’t have time to write a new post any time soon, here’s one I wrote a few years ago about this. Things have changed a bit in our household since then (the kids have grown up a lot, for one thing!) but the sentiments are the same.


IMG_0861Years ago, when our children were very little, we decided we were not going to lie to them about the existence of Santa Claus. Though as I recall we did debate it a little, in the end it was not a difficult decision, and it is not one we have ever regretted. As far as possible, we always try to be honest with our children and didn’t like the idea of one day disillusioning them–not just about Santa, but about us (“Yes, Mommy and Daddy lied to you repeatedly, because we thought it was cute!”). Of course we understand that people who pretend Santa Claus is real do so in the cheerful spirit of fun, fantasy, and fairy tales, and overall it’s probably a harmless kind of thing, but we also have a general aversion to unreality when it comes to explaining how things work in the world. No astrology, no alchemy, no holistic medicine or faith healing, no supernatural beings,  no Santa Claus.

The thing is, taking what might sound like a ‘hard line’ approach has not meant any diminution in our household’s appreciation of the wonders of the world we live in. We find it extremely uplifting and inspiring, for example, to contemplate the vastness of the universe: my husband has been reading Sizing Up the Universe and sharing all kinds of astonishing facts that expand the imagination beyond the utmost bounds of human thought. Who can watch Planet Earth and not be overwhelmed with the beauty and terror of nature in ways that could be described as spiritual? Richard Dawkins’s wonderful series of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Growing Up in the Universe, is an eloquent and invigorating appreciation of our known place in time and space; his new book The Magic of Reality is wrapped and under the tree now, tagged “for the whole family.”

Yes, under the tree, because as I’ve written about before on this blog, I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy in a family of atheists celebrating Christmas. The spirit we celebrate in is that expressed by George Eliot in a well-known line from one of her letters: “The idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the ideal of a goodness entirely human.” Ours is a Christmas–and a Santa–that is “entirely human,” and known to be so. Our kids know that the presents under our tree come from their friends and family. Instead of being (putatively) supernaturally outsourced, our gift-giving is between us, the presents tangible reminders of and connections to our friends and family. I think it’s actually much nicer to think that someone thought of you particularly and wanted to bring some pleasure and interest into your life by giving you something they knew you would enjoy. “It’s nice to know presents come from people who love you,” Maddie said to me the other day as we looked at the cheerful array of packages, and I completely agree.

We have a somewhat unusual approach to Christmas presents in our household. Some years ago, reflecting on the effect Christmas morning was having on us all–cluttered and overwhelmed–we decided to spread out the present opening across Christmas break. Now the children open one gift each every morning starting the day after school ends (the parents take turns too, though a little less often). We put on a little festive music, the parents sit down with their tea and coffee, the kids take turns reading our daily installment from our Christmas Carol Advent Calendar, and then they pick something out and open it while everyone is relaxed, attentive, and cheerful. It’s much easier to appreciate a gift when it’s the only one you are opening that day! Also, because of the kinds of gifts we tend to give in our family–lots of books, but also puzzles, games, and cozy things to wear–this also makes the break more fun, because each day there’s something new to read or play or snuggle in. (We don’t take a particularly extravagant approach: I learned from my mother that Christmas and birthdays are good times to restock the basics.  My kids always know they will have both new books and new socks by the end of the season!)  Sizing Up the Universe was one of my husband’s gifts this year; Maddie has been enjoying the new Jacqueline Wilson novel she opened yesterday and snuggling in her new soft hoodie from Aeropostale; Owen has been reading avidly in Cliff Pickover’s The Math Book and having a lot of fun playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn with the rest of us;  I’m looking forward to starting Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That [update: here’s what I thought of it!].  There’s a box under the tree that sounds an awful lot like a new jigsaw puzzle, which will be nice to work on with some music playing, on one of the snowy afternoons I’m sure we’ll have. Each present we open (like each present we send–and we do a lot of sending, since all of our extended family lives far away) always feels to me like one end of an invisible thread connecting us to the other people in our lives. Santa Claus makes for some great stories, but the reality is every bit as nice to think about, and it has the added virtue of being true.

(Originally posted in December 2011)

Other Holiday-Themed Posts:

Christmas Music (December 2009)

Christmas Books (December 2010)

Holiday Concerts (December 2012)

Holiday Traditions (December 2013)

 

 

Holiday Traditions

Tree 2013

On Sunday, while the snow and sleet and freezing rain made a mess of things outside, we stayed cheerful inside as we carried on one of our favorite holiday traditions: decorating our Christmas tree while listening to Michael Bawtree’s recording of A Christmas Carol. There aren’t a lot of activities, holiday-related or otherwise, that all four of us are equally enthusiastic about, so one reason this is such a special time is that we really feel together during it — even though we all  participate in different ways (Maddie and I do the actual decorating, while the other two get cozy and just listen).

Rituals of one kind or another are of course fundamental to a sense of belonging, whether to a family or to a community, and one feature of academic life that I’ve written about here before is that because you rarely get to choose where you settle, you’re likely to be transplanted, and thus to be disconnected from the traditions that helped shape your identity. That’s not always a bad thing, I realize: when you are separated from your family it’s perfectly possible to idealize proximity! But rituals are something my own family was (is!) always very good at. Things weren’t absolutely the same every year (we used to joke about coming up with “brand new traditions”) but when I think back on my childhood I remember fondly (to give just one example) how we would “always” play charades until midnight on New Year’s Eve and then wait on the front porch until we heard the ships in the harbor before banging wildly on pots and pans to welcome in the new year. (We weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood who did this, so it didn’t make us pariahs…I don’t think!)

When my husband and I were first married, we usually traveled to stay with one or the other of our families at Christmas, but winter is not a good time for trips, especially if you’re teaching on both sides of the break. Then after we had children, the increasing costs and complications made our decision to stay home overdetermined. We’ve had the occasional visitor out here, if not for Christmas itself, at least for the lead-up to it (and one memorable year, because my brother was also living in Halifax, all the rest of my family came out!), but now by and large the four of us are on our own through the holidays, and we’ve gradually figured out what traditions work for us. The tree decorating is one. Another is an adaptation from my past: one of our traditions was “Advent Brunch,” a festive occasion usually on the first Sunday in December which marked (for our wholly secular family) the launch of the Christmas season. We broke out the holly-patterned china and the Santa decorations and the Christmas mugs and all the other paraphernalia that of course can’t have been, but seemed, eternal. We unpacked the Christmas records, too, and the books, and we got tiny presents (I especially remember, because I still have most of them, the new holiday pin tradition!).

Advent Treats

Something like this (though with a more modest menu and not quite so many trappings) has also become part of the Maitzen Family Christmas. We try to stick to the rule that there’s no (or very little) Christmas activity before then: though local stores had their Christmas stuff up before the Hallowe’en decorations had quite come down, there were no carols or decorations in our house before December 1!  (I’m with Monica: “Rules help control the fun!”) The kids mock me about this rigidity sometimes, but I think they actually appreciate that special occasions stay special because they aren’t every day.

One ritual we came up with ourselves is our unusual strategy for gifts: we dole them out one per day once school gets out, keeping things relaxed and allowing time for appreciation and gratitude. We used to go on a Christmas lights drive around town on a suitably ice-free night; this tradition was cut short by a tragic car-sickness episode a couple of years ago … but we used to really enjoy it, so we are weighing the risks of trying again. Or maybe bundling up for a Christmas lights walk around our quiet neighborhood: that might make an excellent brand new tradition! Then there are the Christmas movies: we all love The Muppet Christmas Carol, so that’s another good time for togetherness, and then different combinations of us can be counted on to watch ScroogedWhite ChristmasA Miracle on 34th Street, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and It’s a Wonderful Life at least once over the school break. All through December, we also enjoy our Advent calendar routine: we have one that has an (abridged) installment of A Christmas Carol for each day, so the kids take turns reading it — and, lately, acting it out (as of today we’re up to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come). This year we got another beautiful calendar that has an ornament in every window that then gets hung on the tree you can see as the centerpiece in the picture of our Advent Brunch table.

Holidays 2010 028

Because of our one-a-day present opening, Christmas Day itself is not the hyped-up occasion it is in many households, but we do keep up the tradition of putting out and filling Christmas stockings. I find it’s an excellent way to restock the kids with socks! I have a lot of fun picking out other little goodies for them too, and I keep up another of my family’s traditions by always topping the stockings off with a book. We have a traditional Christmas breakfast (pancakes) and dinner (roast pork with fixings), and dessert (apple crumble). The predictability adds to the pleasure: for one thing, it makes the preparation easier, and we all know we will enjoy the results. (Last year I actually made the radical decision to serve lamb instead. It turned out well, but it also turned out that Maddie doesn’t like lamb and we don’t like it a lot, or not as much as we like the pork — so this year we’re going back to the usual, though I have flirted with doing roast beef, which is what my grandmother “always” served us when we went over to her house for Christmas dinner.)

We’ve arrived at our family traditions through some trial and error. It was important to realize that we needed to find rituals that worked for us, with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies, rather than trying to relive our childhoods (or at least not entirely!) or live up to some imaginary ideal of what families should do on holidays. It turns out that we like things quiet: we’d rather see a few friends than have a big party (or go to one); we have no urge to stand outside in a crowd to cheer in the new year but prefer to watch a movie and turn in when we’re tired;  a holiday for us means time with fewer obligations and stresses, not more. Every so often it seems a bit too quiet to me, especially when I get reports from back home about everyone going to and fro and having all kinds of sociable fun. But we rush around a lot as it is, and so now, really, my favorite tradition of all is just taking my book and my Baileys and sitting to read where I can bask in the calming beauty of the tree.

Do you have holiday traditions you particularly enjoy? I know I’m not the only one who’s far from the people and places, and thus rituals, that I grew up with: what brand new traditions have you developed that work for you where you are now in your life? Do you embrace the quiet or relish the social whirl?

Previous holiday posts:

Christmas Music

Christmas Books

Santa Claus is People!

Holiday Concerts

Holiday Concerts

IMG_1397

Every year we attend at least one school holiday concert, events which are as much a part of our family traditions at this time of year as seasonal music, books, and presents. School concerts are not my favorite special events. I find noisy, chaotic environments very stressful, I find it frustrating to have performances disrupted by restless toddlers and to see adults blatantly disregarding the principal’s directions to keep the aisles clear and to wait until the end of each piece for pictures (really! what kind of example does that set?), and I struggle with the ‘everyone participates’ ethos for band and choir that means there’s no baseline skill demanded — which, for the school band especially, means the playing is typically dreadful but must be applauded nonetheless. (I’m all for kids participating in band, don’t get me wrong, but not every beginning effort deserves a captive audience.) And then between the need to be inclusive and inoffensive and the difficulty (or so I assume) in acquiring rights, the music itself is hopelessly tedious pablum. Add in the likelihood of icy roads and you have a perfect storm of reasons for me to grumble and whine every time one of these events draws near.

And yet for all my grumbling, I’m always won over by the events themselves–not by any specific performance, but by the spirit they embody, by the ideal they bring so naively to life. There in the shabby school gym, on the uncomfortable plastic chairs lined up in rows that are always too close for comfort, with terrible acoustics and (except for the lucky winners of the ‘front row seat’ lottery) pretty poor visibility too, we are brought together because we love our children. Different as we may be from each other in some respects, this is something we in the gym share. We love them, and we want them to flourish. We cherish their innocence and the wide-eyed delight with which they look out at a familiar space transformed for them by our presence. On these occasions we also get a glimpse of the life they lead without us: we see their trust for their teachers and their friendships with each other. Though they sing for us, they sing with each other, and there is no more beautiful, more hopeful sound.

I was busy with work and put off writing about the concert we went to last week. Then on Friday, like everyone else I was overwhelmed with the news of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then it has been very hard to think about how or what to write – not just about the school concerts, but about anything. There’s a sense, of course, in which that terrible event has nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t presume to have anything special or useful or important to say about it. But I don’t know how to not say anything about it at all and just go back to writing about my life and my books and all the rest of it without at least acknowledging it. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” says Donne in his famous Meditation. The deaths of these beautiful, innocent children and the brave, dedicated women who loved and cared for them diminish us all.

Santa Claus is People!

Years ago, when our children were very little, we decided we were not going to lie to them about the existence of Santa Claus. Though as I recall we did debate it a little, in the end it was not a difficult decision, and it is not one we have ever regretted. As far as possible, we always try to be honest with our children and didn’t like the idea of one day disillusioning them–not just about Santa, but about us (“Yes, Mommy and Daddy lied to you repeatedly, because we thought it was cute!”). Of course we understand that people who pretend Santa Claus is real do so in the cheerful spirit of fun, fantasy, and fairy tales, and overall it’s probably a harmless kind of thing, but we also have a general aversion to unreality when it comes to explaining how things work in the world. No astrology, no alchemy, no holistic medicine or faith healing, no supernatural beings,  no Santa Claus.

The thing is, taking what might sound like a ‘hard line’ approach has not meant any diminution in our household’s appreciation of the wonders of the world we live in. We find it extremely uplifting and inspiring, for example, to contemplate the vastness of the universe: my husband has been reading Sizing Up the Universe and sharing all kinds of astonishing facts that expand the imagination beyond the utmost bounds of human thought. Who can watch Planet Earth and not be overwhelmed with the beauty and terror of nature in ways that could be described as spiritual? Richard Dawkins’s wonderful series of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Growing Up in the Universe, is an eloquent and invigorating appreciation of our known place in time and space; his new book The Magic of Reality is wrapped and under the tree now, tagged “for the whole family.”

Yes, under the tree, because as I’ve written about before on this blog, I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy in a family of atheists celebrating Christmas. The spirit we celebrate in is that expressed by George Eliot in a well-known line from one of her letters: “The idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the ideal of a goodness entirely human.” Ours is a Christmas–and a Santa–that is “entirely human,” and known to be so. Our kids know that the presents under our tree come from their friends and family. Instead of being (putatively) supernaturally outsourced, our gift-giving is between us, the presents tangible reminders of and connections to our friends and family. I think it’s actually much nicer to think that someone thought of you particularly and wanted to bring some pleasure and interest into your life by giving you something they knew you would enjoy. “It’s nice to know presents come from people who love you,” Maddie said to me the other day as we looked at the cheerful array of packages, and I completely agree.

We have a somewhat unusual approach to Christmas presents in our household. Some years ago, reflecting on the effect Christmas morning was having on us all–cluttered and overwhelmed–we decided to spread out the present opening across Christmas break. Now the children open one gift each every morning starting the day after school ends (the parents take turns too, though a little less often). We put on a little festive music, the parents sit down with their tea and coffee, the kids take turns reading our daily installment from our Christmas Carol Advent Calendar, and then they pick something out and open it while everyone is relaxed, attentive, and cheerful. It’s much easier to appreciate a gift when it’s the only one you are opening that day! Also, because of the kinds of gifts we tend to give in our family–lots of books, but also puzzles, games, and cozy things to wear–this also makes the break more fun, because each day there’s something new to read or play or snuggle in. (We don’t take a particularly extravagant approach: I learned from my mother that Christmas and birthdays are good times to restock the basics.  My kids always know they will have both new books and new socks by the end of the season!)  Sizing Up the Universe was one of my husband’s gifts this year; Maddie has been enjoying the new Jacqueline Wilson novel she opened yesterday and snuggling in her new soft hoodie from Aeropostale; Owen has been reading avidly in Cliff Pickover’s The Math Book and having a lot of fun playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn with the rest of us;  I’m looking forward to starting Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That.  There’s a box under the tree that sounds an awful lot like a new jigsaw puzzle, which will be nice to work on with some music playing, on one of the snowy afternoons I’m sure we’ll have. Each present we open (like each present we send–and we do a lot of sending, since all of our extended family lives far away) always feels to me like one end of an invisible thread connecting us to the other people in our lives. Santa Claus makes for some great stories, but the reality is every bit as nice to think about, and it has the added virtue of being true.

So, from me to you, Merry Christmas!

Previous Holiday Posts:

Christmas Books

Christmas Music

The Little Child Had Come To  Once More Link Him with the Rest of the World” (Silas Marner)

Christmas Books

Music isn’t the only thing that evokes memories and helps us celebrate the holidays. Around this time of year we also get out our stash of holiday books; their beautiful (or, sometimes, comical) illustrations and unfailingly heart-warming stories add some welcome cheer as the days grow shorter and darker and colder. Here are a few of our family favorites.

Raymond Briggs, Father Christmas. I just love this charming curmudgeonly Santa. Who doesn’t sympathize with the dreariness of having to plod off to work on a cold day? And whose spirits wouldn’t be restored by a little wine and cookies at mid-shift? Inevitably, at some point in the next little while, one of us is sure to look out the window and exclaim “Bloomin’ snow!” But at the end of the day, it’s all about making merry with the people (or, if you’re Father Christmas, the pets) you love.

John Burningham, Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present. This is the story of the little Santa who could. Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail nor transportation mishaps of any type will stop him from delivering that last gift. It’s part of Burningham’s genius to end his long saga of misadventures with just the right question about Harvey’s present: “What do you think it was?”

The Twelve Days of Christmas. Growing up, I loved Jack Kent’s humorous version in which the ardent lover brings the entire growing list every single time. Things get pretty crowded by the end: you can’t blame his beloved for trying to run away as he pursues her with that one last partridge in a pear tree! That version doesn’t seem to be available any more, and the copy I used to read is back in Vancouver with my folks. Happily, we have two versions of our own out here, one Jan Brett’s beautifully illustrated edition, the other a whimsical one with illustrations by John O’Brien that is rather in the Jack Kent spirit (the poor beloved does not find her headache much helped by the drummers around her bed).

We have a couple of other lovely Jan Brett books for the holidays, one her Christmas Trolls, the other her gorgeous version of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. In the spirit of never having too much of a good thing, we also have Tasha Tudor’s The Night Before Christmas, which is equally beautiful in a very different way.

Another of my own childhood favorites is also by Tasha Tudor: The Doll’s Christmas, which tells the adventures of the two dolls Sethany Anne and Nicey Melinda as they prepare for and host a very elegant Christmas party in their home, the equally elegant Pumpkin House. Their lucky owners get to come too, with their friends!

A more recent addition to our collection is Jan Fearnley’s charming Little Robin Red Vest, which tells the story of how a selfless little bird gives away all his sweaters to colder, needier friends until he is left huddled on a snowy roof trying to stay warm. Luckily he’s scooped up by someone with a “gruff, jolly” voice whose kindly wife pulls a thread “from a big, bright red coat” and knits him a cozy vest to wear.

Another beloved Christmas book from my past is Ezra Jack Keats’s gorgeously gold and sepia-tinted edition of The Little Drummer Boy. This one too still lives in Vancouver, but I just discovered that it’s still in print, so may be next year it will be the traditional Advent book for my children. Par-rum-pum-pum-pum!

I’m happy with this year’s choice, though, which my daughter was reading to me tonight (since I have no voice!). It’s the wonderful new edition of Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy, with illustrations by Barbara Cooney. Three lonely hearts, three wishes, a girl, a doll, and a home without children–how can it help but end well? What a treat it was, after a couple of hard days, to sit and listen to my lovely girl reading it with such pleasure and feeling, and making sure to show me every affectionately detailed picture. That nice experience inspired this little post–which I hope will inspire you to tell me about your favorite Christmas books.