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 amazon.co.uk 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?