Think of Christmas books the way you think of Christmas carols—as in, you know, that strange moment every year when something about some particular carol reaches out to seize you and drag you into the season.
For me, it always seems to be a different song each December, re-centering me in that Christmas world where time has turned somehow weightier, denser, and more real. Last year, it was Barbara Dickson's old version of "Down in Yon Forest," for no reason except that it caught me at the right moment. Another year it was a boy soprano singing "Once in Royal David's City." A melancholy country-western recording of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman." Nat King Cole singing the line "born that man no more may die."
Well, Christmas books and Christmas stories work much the same. There is no permanent literary trigger for Christmas sentiment, apart from the gospels themselves. One year, it will be Lillian Smith's underrated 1962 remembrance of a Southern childhood in Memory of a Large Christmas that suddenly somehow breaks through into a feeling for the season. Another year, a genuinely awful 1885 St. Nicholas Magazine short story called "How Santa Claus Found the Poor-House," by the appropriately named Sophie Swett. Yes, better written books are more likely to help usher in the season, but quality isn't always the key. What matters is the moment, the confluence of time and text. And this year, the text that brought me home to Christmas was "Dulce Domum," the Christmas chapter in Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's classic, The Wind in the Willows.
I've never understood the giving of Christmas books for Christmas. That is to say, the giving of books about Christmas—to be opened on Christmas Day. A bunch of paperback mysteries for Christmas presents, sure. Some new science fiction, maybe. A hefty political biography or the history of a Civil War campaign, why not?
But by Christmas morning, Christmas is pretty much done for: If the season's sentiment hasn't taken root by that point, no last-minute perusing of Henry van Dyke's 1895 tearjerker, The Other Wise Man, or Kate Douglas Wiggin's 1887 insipidity, The Birds' Christmas Carol, is going to do the trick. The yellowed pages of those Victorian volumes are bearable, even charming, while Christmas is still coming and the goose still getting fat. Once the goose is cooked, however, they just need to be put away for another eleven months or so.
This year, as every year, you can find dozens of lists of books to give as Christmas presents. Books, that is to say, that aren't about Christmas. For that matter, a quick online search will find you any number of lists of books about Christmas that, even now on Christmas Eve, there still might be time to read. You know the kind of thing: The literature of the season has grown so vast that a list of just the classics fills pages—from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol to Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Clement C. Moore's "The Night Before Christmas" to O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story to Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales.
Even the anthologies that collect these stories run into the hundreds. The Christmas Almanac and The Little Big Book of Christmas. Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Christmas Collection and The Kingfisher Book of Classic Christmas Stories. The Collected Christmas Stories of Charles Dickens, for that matter. Of the anthologizing of Christmas tales, there is no end.
Still, the existence of all those Christmas anthologies proves that there are plenty of great stories out there that have a chance to put you in the Christmas mood, even as late as Christmas Eve. If it's a little Yule comedy you want, try Max Beerbohm's parodies in A Christmas Garland. I’ve always had a soft spot for O. Henry's perfectly constructed tearjerker "The Gift of the Magi." Damon Runyon's "The Three Wise Guys" will never let you down, to say nothing of the second chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke.
I have written more on Christmas, I think, than any other topic—with a book of Christmas memoir, and Christmas short stories, and Christmas carols, and Christmas reflections in more magazines and journals than I can remember. But it's never writing that brings me to a Christmas mood. How could it? The Christmas season is to be experienced the way we experience a song. The way we experience a book. Christmas is a tide that washes us out to the deep theological sea.
So I could recommend the Christmas chapter in The Wind in the Willows, and, in fact, I do: Kenneth Grahame had the most perfectly delicate prose of anyone who ever wrote children's books. Sometimes I think the most perfectly delicate prose of anyone who ever wrote any book. And that fifth chapter's tale of Christmas is sweet and funny and wistful and kind—everything you could want in a story. Just look at this description, as Rat and Mole trudge through a village at night:
It was from one little window, with its blind drawn down, a mere blank transparency on the night, that the sense of home and the little curtained world within walls—the larger stressful world of outside Nature shut out and forgotten—most pulsated. Close against the white blind hung a bird-cage, clearly silhouetted, every wire, perch, and appurtenance distinct and recognizable, even to yesterday's dull-edged lump of sugar. On the middle perch the fluffy occupant, head tucked well into feathers, seemed so near to them as to be easily stroked, had they tried; even the delicate tips of his plumped-out plumage penciled plainly on the illuminated screen. As they looked, the sleepy little fellow stirred uneasily, woke, shook himself, and raised his head. They could see the gape of his tiny beak as he yawned in a bored sort of way, looked round, and then settled his head into his back again, while the ruffled feathers gradually subsided into perfect stillness. Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as from a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way.
If you don't like that, you don't like writing. But even here, I can't quite demand that everyone I know dash through the snow to read Grahame's book. Maybe it's Dickens that will bring the season crashing in on us this year. Maybe it's A Child's Christmas in Wales. Maybe it's something as deep as T.S. Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi," or maybe, God help us, it's Sophie Swett's "How Santa Claus Found the Poor-House."
The text isn't what matters so much as the result—a Christmas sentiment and a Christmas joy. A Christmas warmth in the winter's cold.