This is the Christmas Eve tradition in our house, as I’m sure it is in many others across the country: before heading off to bed, the children write a note to Santa, set it next to a plate of cookies and carrots, and then settle in by the fire to hear someone read “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” or, as it’s better known, “The Night Before Christmas,” the 19th Century poem by Clement C. Moore (attributed). Although the reader varies from year to year — sometimes it’s me, sometimes a grandparent or some other relative spending the night — and the version often changes (a few years back we moved from an over-sized picture book to the compact, elegant pop-up version created by Robert Sabuda) there is never any question as to what we read on that night. This is the way we did it when I was a child, it’s what I do now with my children, and, I hope, it’s what my kids will do with their offspring many (many!) years from now.
No, the question becomes, what do we read the night before the night before Christmas, to get in the proper holiday mood? And what about the night before that, or any of the other nights during the final week of advent? We have about a dozen or so favorite yuletide books and stories in our collection, and each year during the run-up to the big night I let the three kids choose which ones they want me to read at bedtime. Normally, there’s little debate, until we get close to the end, and then it gets tricky. Each kid has a favorite and, no matter what method I use to make a selection (oldest-to-youngest, pick-a-number, eenie-meanie, etc.), someone’s feelings always get hurt — and that’s a nativity no-no. So this year, with a nod to the recent elections, I put it to a vote. Not surprising, we had a three-way tie. So, rather than disappoint (no doubt there will be plenty of that in the morning), I plan to read each of the nominees. (It’s OK, I think I’ll manage.)
Here’s what I read this year, over the past week or so, in the order chosen by my audience.
Eloise at Christmastime, by Kay Thompson, with drawings by Hilary Knight. We kicked things off with this “classic,” the ideal holiday book to read to a six-year-old, blond-headed, “spirited” girl (there are two in my house: one current and one recovering). Published in 1957, this almost-poem chronicles the escapades of the eponymous girl on Christmas Eve, tempering her trademark manic mischievousness with jingles and trinkles of charm. Oooh, they’ll absolutely love it.
The Christmas Ship, written and illustrated by Dean Morrissey. This whimsical tale shows how selflessness, redemption, and a little magic can help a toymaker win over the heart of a dour mayor (sound familiar, fans of a certain Rankin-Bass production?) and change the fate of a seaside New England town. The illustrations in the book are reminiscent of the light-rich photo-realism of Chris Van Allsburg, whose Polar Express also is a favorite around here this time of year.
The Book of Christmas, edited by Neil Philip and illustrated by Sally Holmes. My sister gave my wife and me this compendium around the time of our wedding, “for continuing old traditions and beginning new ones,” as she inscribed on the frontispiece. And we have followed her suggestion to the letter. It’s a sackful of yuletide classics — such as Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Little Match Girl,” e.e. cummings’ poem “Little Tree,” and the lyrics to familiar carols and hymns. I especially like reading “Bertie’s Escapade,” by Kenneth Grahame, although I occasionally substitute the cheery, cheeky caroling scene from his book The Wind in the Willows.
The Lump of Coal, written by Lemony Snicket, with drawings by Brett Helquist. This is a new addition to our collection and equally delightfully upsetting as this duo’s other collaboration, the madcap and macabre A Series of Unfortunate Events. What’s more charming than a Christmas story about a lump of coal that wants to be an artist and is hoping for a miracle? Probably lots and lots of other books (see above, for example), but this one’s a keeper, too.
Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, written and illustrated by Robert Barry. When the title character’s tree in question arrives (“full and fresh and glistening green”), it proves too tall for the parlor. So the butler is called in to chop off the top, thus setting in motion this inventive variation on the idea that less is more, no matter your size or perspective, and that giving, even unintentionally, can be its own reward.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss. I suspect that most people know this story from the 1966 TV cartoon of the same name, a collaboration between the wascally Chuck Jones and creepy Boris Karloff that inspired, among other things, some unforgettable song lyrics (“you’re a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich, with arsenic sauce”). Nonetheless, the original book, published in the same year as Eloise at Christmastime, is equally remarkable and, I would argue, more impactful in its unadorned simplicity — as my daughter pointed out, the titular fiend “isn’t even green!” How could it be so?
How Murray Saved Christmas, written by Mike Reiss and illustrated by David Catrow. My kids love this offbeat, slightly screwy tale of how Murray Kleiner, owner of Murray K’s Holiday Diner, reluctantly agrees to take the sleigh-ride of his life after Santa is sidelined by a sudden elf-induced mishap. He may not grasp the finer points of the mission (for example, Murray has to bluff his way through the reindeer roll-call: “On, Lipstick! On, Dipstick! On, Pixie and Dixie!”) or fit into the super-sized red suit, but he understands that sometimes a person has to do “good things without a good reason.” Fodder for a Murray Christmas, indeed.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas. Neither a poem proper nor a fully formed short story, this brief, peripatetic “memoir-a-clef” is little more than a humorous recounting of boyhood memories of some holiday events in a seaside Welsh village from a bygone era. Yet Thomas tells his “tall tales” in three distinct, dreamlike sections, employing rich, lyrical language and many colorful characters, so that all his Christmases come together as one and “roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon,” captivating my crew every year in a way that no other book seems to.
So, there you have it, our suggestions for what to read on the penultimate night of Advent. Any and all of the above are great merry mood-setters and are sure to inspire visions of sugar-plums and other treats as your listeners drift off to sleep in heavenly peace.
Originally posted on December 23, 2008.