Thursday, December 4, 2008

Reading and the Holidays

Elizabeth Zelvin

Holiday shopping season is upon us, and not only do books make wonderful presents (to give and to receive), but books also played a part in shaping my perceptions and expectations of the holidays. I suspect that this is true for many people.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the great opening line of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “ ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.’” Yes, all the way back in 1870, there was no surer way to disappoint a child than not to provide Christmas presents. Thanks to Alcott’s high moral Transcendentalist principles, what the March girls actually do is quit complaining, decide to put their annual one-dollar spending money into presents for their mother instead of treats for themselves, and end up giving away their festive holiday breakfast to an impoverished immigrant family with too many children. Generations of American girls have internalized the lessons in that story.

I can’t remember the name of the 1950s children’s book in which the family had a tradition of reading Dickens’s A Christmas Carol aloud on Christmas Eve, but the idea of such a tradition has stuck with me all these years. I also remember that the youngest boy was in the choir, and there was great tension about whether he would be able to hit the high note in his solo, “Glory to God in the highest,” presumably from Handel’s Messiah. (He did.) I shouldn’t have been paying attention to Christmas at all as a kid, but my Jewish parents were so afraid we’d feel deprived if we couldn’t participate in the general fuss that we decorated what we facetiously called a “Chanukah bush” and got stockings stuffed with presents on Christmas morning. Today, I’m sure there’s an abundance of books about Jewish families celebrating Chanukah and other holidays, but I don’t remember any back then.

In my ecumenical present-day family, we celebrate both holidays. I must admit that rather than reading aloud, we watch movies made from the great books already mentioned: Alastair Sims as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and the Gillian Armstrong version of Little Women, which my husband and I both like in spite of the the terrible miscasting of Winona Ryder as Jo. I recently learned that an old friend from college and her family read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales aloud every year. So I know that the tradition of holiday reading does survive.

No gift list in our family is complete unless it includes at least one book. Bookstore gift certificates are also a guaranteed successful present, but I, for one, am not happy unless there’s at least one fat hardcover by a favorite mystery author that I wouldn’t have bought for myself under the tree, so I can curl up on the couch with it at some time during the long, lazy day. Books are the present of choice for my stepdaughter and her husband, who live in London, because we can order just what they want from their wish lists and have them shipped free. Talk about books I’d never order for myself! And one of the great shopping pleasures these days is buying books for my granddaughters. In the 21st century, there are children’s books about everything. On my last visit the almost-two-year-old had me read her one entitled It’s Potty Time, with separate illustrated editions for boys and girls, and it’s only one of dozens on the subject.

What books are on your holiday gift list? What books, if any, shaped your image of how holidays should be?


Susan D said...

I just read "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and have ordered a copy for my mother for Christmas, because I know she'll love it, as has everyone in my on-line book group. A book filled with humour, humanity, romance, suspense, betrayal and wonderful characters.

And if you've never read "Miss Buncle's Book" (1934) by D. E. Stevenson, it's just been reissued by Persephone Books (U.K.) and is great read, about a woman in an English village who, falling on hard financial times (now THAT we can relate to) decides to write a book to bring in a little cash, but resorts to using her neighbours as characters. They are so not amused, but we are.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Susan, I'm already ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) at the idea of writing a book as a way to make money. :)

Lonnie Cruse said...

Every fall I buy the latest in Anne Perry's Christmas series (this year it's Christmas Grace) and wait until December to read it. I started this one yesterday, and I'm loving it.

When my grandchildren were small, I read THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS to them every year because we always celebrate with them on Christmas Eve. Sadly, they have outgrown it now, though I haven't.

Great post, Liz. Merry Christmas!

Susan D said...

Yes Liz, I know. But it's fiction, eh?

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm amazed at how prolific Louisa May Alcott was--but then, she needed the income.

I feel very lucky to have a vinyl recording of my grandmother reading Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. She used to volunteer for the Lighthouse for the Blind in New York City, and that's how it came about. The record is transparent red vinyl. I treasure it because of my much-loved grandmother, of course, but also because Thomas's story is so lovely.

Terri said...

I never get tired of a Christmas Carol and love Patrick Stewart's reading.

I always give books to friends and family but I dont get that many because people are afraid (probably rightfully so of getting me something I already have) BUT that is what Amazon's wish list is for. LOL

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, you reminded me--it wasn't a holiday tradition, but when I was a kid we had a vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas himself reading A Child's Christmas in Wales and the poem Fern Hill. What a magnificent, rolling, sonorous voice the man had. Died young of alcoholism, alas.

Auntie Knickers said...

Sheila, you should immediately, if not sooner, get your grandmother's reading on vinyl transferred to a digital file and keep up on changing formats -- what a wonderful legacy and should not be lost!
I think the Dylan Thomas reading of A Child's Christmas in Wales is still available, and may even be on the Internet somewhere. Another treasure.
I do recordings of Christmas stories for my daughter each year for a few years now (my blog has details). She will be 24 Christmas Day -- and still enjoys it (I had to go to recordings when we moved away from where she lives). Of course, I intersperse some more adult stories now.

Susan said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Susan D said...

My Christmas reading always includes our vintage copy of "Christmas is Together Time", a Peanuts book, which says, as my little brother always reminded me(and at 50 still does): "Christmas is the time you hug your little brother."

Julia Buckley said...

We used to read A CHRISTMAS CAROL every year!

And all my family are big Dylan Thomas "Wales" fans, including the beautiful PBS movie made from his Christmas poem.

Laura Benedict said...

My daughter's list is full of books, as always. This year, it's simple novels in French, Broadway songbooks for teens, a portable Shakespeare, and James Bond.

I keep telling her that Daniel Craig DOES NOT come with the Bond books, but I don't think she believes me!

Susan said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.