catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 22 :: 2013.11.29 — 2013.12.12


The stories of Christmas

I cannot imagine Christmas without Christmas books.

I was the middle of five children, home-schooled by a mother who raised five readers. My mother knew that good books were the keys unlocking the doors of learning, of creativity, of imagination, of knowledge and wisdom. Books were seamlessly woven into the daily pattern of life — from the chapter of the children’s story Bible she read us in the morning, to the bedtime story at night, and all the other books in between. We each received a book among our birthday and Christmas presents every year, and a book in our Easter baskets. If our family could have afforded it, I’m pretty sure my mother would have given us each books at Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July as well.

No surprise, then, that my earliest memories of Christmas involve my family’s traditional inauguration of the season: getting out the boxes of Christmas books from the crawl-space closet on the first of December. The tree, the cookie-baking, the decorating of the house, stringing lights outside, getting out the holly-patterned Christmas dishes — all of these things came later. We began our Christmas season with books.

This was (and still is) no skimpy collection. Even in my earliest memories, it took up an entire big shelf on the bookcase in the family-room; in later years it expanded and overflowed onto a second shelf. Classic Christmas books, such as A Christmas Carol, sat next to out-of-print and far less popular stories. Many are children’s picture books. There are novels, Advent devotionals and books about Christmas carols. There are several collections of short stories, essays, articles, poems and recipes, including The Saturday Evening Post’s Christmas book. This large and handsome volume was published in 1976 and features many of Norman Rockwell’s holiday illustrations. Our family’s copy has always had a distinct, musty smell to its pages that is as much a part of Christmas scents as the smell of cinnamon in cookies and the tang of the Christmas tree. When my mother found me a second copy of the book to have for my own after I married, the first thing I did was smell it. Much to my delight, it had the same unforgettable scent.

These books and the stories within them served to shape my own ideas about Christmas. I had never met anyone like awful old Imogen Herdman from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, but the story of the “worst kids in town” who take over a church’s Christmas pageant, taught me that Christmas is good news not just for the obedient and well-behaved church kids like the narrator of the story (and like myself), but for the misfits and troublemakers like the Herdmans.

I never believed in Santa Claus, but Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas showed me the beauty and importance of fantasy and imagination at Christmas. I decided that someday my own children would believe in Father Christmas; that they would fully experience the “magic” of Christmas, which Christians are too often eager to do away with entirely.

Marguerite De Angeli spoke to my adolescent angst about Christmas through her charming and poignant story Turkey For Christmas. The main character, 13-year-old Bess, and I both struggled to learn where the true joy of Christmas lies. We both had to realize that the sense of anticipation and excitement, which in childhood is so often rooted in the presents, must grow and change into something deeper and stronger, to become an excitement expressed by practicing sacrificial love in our families and communities.

One of my favorites, a story that has haunted me into my adulthood by its skillful weaving of Christmas wonder and heartbreak, is Eleanor Estes’s A Coat Hanger Christmas Tree. Marianna’s mother doesn’t go in for hugs and kisses, and she doesn’t let Marianna or her brother Kenny have a Christmas tree because “she doesn’t want to be like every Tom-Dick-and-Harry.” Marianna’s sorrow at having no tree, her loyalty and love towards her mother, and her unarticulated determination to keep alive the spirit of Christmas even if she is not allowed any of the outward trappings of Christmas, form a beautiful, bittersweet story.

The list could go on and on. All throughout the month of December there were books to read every day and every night. The climax came on Christmas Eve when, after we came home from the Candlelight Service and had our simple supper, my whole family would gather together to listen to my mother read Rebecca Caudill’s A Certain Small Shepherd. Sometimes I wondered why we didn’t read the Christmas story out of the Gospel of Luke, like other families did in the books I read. I wondered why some years, at the end of the story, when little Jamie in his shepherd’s cloak hands over his Christmas orange and says in a clear, strong voice, a voice that has never been heard before, “Here’s a Christmas gift for the child,” my mother’s own voice would crack, and she would start to cry, and my father or my older brother would finish the last few lines of the story. And then as I grew older I realized that the Christmas story and A Certain Small Shepherd told me the same thing — as Jamie’s father declares, “Surely, the Lord does live this day, and all days. And He is loving, and merciful, and good.”

Jesus, the Incarnate Word, as John tells us, became flesh and dwelled among us. What better way to celebrate Immanuel, this Word-God being with us, than by the words of beautiful stories that bring the meaning of Christmas home to our hearts?

Now I have been married for two years, and my husband’s Air Force career has taken us far away from my family. I cannot be in my parents’ house in Colorado on the first of December to help dig out the Christmas books from the crawl-space closet. But in my house in South Carolina, buried in the guest bedroom closet, is a box that holds the beginning of my own collection — books I have bought for myself, and books given to me by my family for my birthday and Christmas. I have copies of most of my very favorites from my mother’s collection, and I have been finding new stories as well, recommended by friends. Last year, I read many of the stories out loud to my husband, who didn’t grow up with Christmas books. I shared with him the stories of Christmas that have shaped my understanding of Christmas, and I will do it again this year, and all the years after. Someday, God willing, I will read them to our own children. Our family will celebrate our Savior’s birth with music and gifts and candles and ornaments. There will be trees and twinkling lights and cookies. But at the heart will be stories. For all good Christmas stories, whether overtly sacred or seemingly “secular,” point us to the One True Story of God out of love coming down to be with His children, to rescue them so that they can be with Him forever. 

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