It’s a damp, drizzly December out there. Christmas is two days away, though it doesn’t feel like it. It’s an unseasonable 68 degrees here in New Jersey with a tropical heaviness to the air. I must admit, I woke up this morning feeling a bit grinchy.
As I was sitting at my desk this morning, however, I had a sudden Christmas memory that managed to get me back into the Christmas spirit.
It’s actually a few memories from back in the early Eighties. My wife and I had just bought a little brick house (where we still live). For the first time in our marriage we had a working fireplace (yeah!!!) and would be able to set up a beautiful tree in the living room.
Due to a lack of college teaching jobs, I had recently left the Ph.D. program in English at Rutgers University for a job at a big advertising agency in New York City. Some of my best friends from the English Department would eventually move away to greener pastures . . . Wisconsin, back to California, up to New England. Away. But for a few years around this time, we were still all living in the same geographic area, still able to get together for our annual Christmas celebrations.
I have fond memories of getting together with my English Department friends and other assorted kindred spirits. After singing carols we would sit in a big circle and read aloud a Christmas story. Haven’t thought about that in so long. But I can still recall the fire crackling in the background as we read.
I know what you’re thinking . . . adults sitting around reading stories? Where are we, in a Victorian novel? But we actually used to do that. It was incredibly fun and moving and so Christmassy.
So what did we read back in the day? Three stories stick in my mind.
Two are children’s books written by Russell Hoban (and illustrated by his then-wife Lillian Hoban): The Mole Family’s Christmas (1969) and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1971).
These are two wonderful little stories that are chockfull of Christmas spirit, and are perfect for reading aloud. The Hobans are masters at creating these wonderfully quirky and believable little characters.
I can still recall how funny my friend Jack was at catching the folksy quality of Emmet’s and Mrs. Otter’s voices. (The story was made into a marvelous 1978 television production by Jim Henson–but don’t settle for just watching it on DVD. A good old-fashioned read-around is still the recommended way to experience this Christmas classic.)
The Mole Family’s Christmas may not be as well known as Emmet Otter, but it is an equally wonderful tale. Delver Mole is, of course, near-sighted and can’t see the stars that he’s heard so much about. He writes the “fat man in the red suit” for a telescope, and after some close-calls with a scary owl, everything turns out OK:
So that was the Mole family’s first Christmas, and they were very pleased with it. On top of the chimney they made an owlproof observatory out of an upside-down flower pot, and then they were able to look at the stars in perfect comfort. “I think Delver did very well to find out about Christmas as he did,” said Emma.
“Yes,” said Harley, “you never can tell what will happen when a boy like Delver puts his mind to something. Here am I, who never expected to see a single star, looking at all of them. I call that impressive.”
“It really is like singing, the way they glimmer and shine,” said Delver.
Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Story” (1956) is a bit tougher to read aloud, longer, sadder, and not so kid-friendly. But it is well worth the effort.
It’s such a great story. If you don’t know it, run out right now and get a copy. I mean right now. The story has been anthologized in several collections and there are a couple of nice stand-alone editions. (My favorite is the 1989 edition illustrated by Beth Peck.)
I remember sitting around the fire as we read about seven-year-old Buddy and his elderly aunt (two best friends) getting ready for Christmas in depression-era Alabama. Preparing fruitcakes, chopping down a Christmas tree, and making each other kites for Christmas (neither has the money to buy the other what they really would like to.) The autobiographical tale is by turns funny, touching, poignant.
As we sat by the fire, Susan, my wife, read the final paragraphs. There was not a dry eye in the house as she finished:
And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. . . . For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” . . . But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather.”
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.
So as a Christmas present to yourself, read these three wonderful little Christmas tales. And as an extra-special treat, read them aloud with friends, family, loved ones. Might be the best present we all receive this Christmas.