I own three illustrated copies of The Night Before Christmas, one pop-up, one with windows and one with little tags you pull to get special effects, like St Nicholas’s belly shaking like a bowl full of jelly. My son Sasha is now eighteen, but we’ve had these books since he was very young. The other day I spotted Jan Brett’s version and almost bought it. We own Jan Brett’s Twelve Days of Christmas, a truly beautiful book with wonderful details in all the pictures, and this was in the same style. I managed to restrain myself because it was quite expensive and, as I just said, he’s eighteen. He won’t even want to read the three versions we already have, I thought. As I unpacked the books with the other Christmas things, I mentioned that I’d been tempted. “Why didn’t you get it?” he asked, disappointed. So this is clearly a book one never grows out of. Good.
We have a tradition of Christmas reading. At our New Year’s Eve party everyone reads something aloud after dinner. And when Sasha was younger we often read a book aloud every night over the holiday. One of the best books for this is L.M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, in which a boy goes to his mysterious great-grandmother for Christmas and makes friends with some ghosts. It’s definitely a children’s book, but I still enjoy it. Another favourite Christmas children’s book is Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. I’ve read it aloud several times. Last year I went to bed early and read it all through on Christmas Eve. In some ways it’s a very standard children’s fantasy, with a collect the plot tokens plot. It’s better than that, though, it reaches deeper. I think a lot of what makes it an enduringly good book is the way in which Cooper writes about Will coming into his magic and being a child and an adult at the same time, which is something universal. She also writes extremely evocatively. I can almost see the morning when he wakes up and sees snow and shouts aloud while his family sleep on magically.
The third book I often read at Christmas, and which I am two-thirds of the way through at this moment, is Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. This is a story about a time traveler inadvertently being sent back to the Black Death at Christmas while an influenza epidemic paralyses the future Oxford she has come from. It has all the problems you’d expect from an American writer writing about Britain. It has anachronisms in the historical part. But I don’t care at all, I love it anyway. The very strange thing about this book is that you’d think it wouldn’t re-read well at all. There are two plagues in two time periods, and the tension drives the book. When you know who lives and dies and how it comes out, you’d think that would be it, but not a bit of it. Willis has an amazing ability to make me want to read just a bit more. Her sentences lead you on to the next sentence. The tension is just as great when you remember everything. I can’t analyse what she does to make me sink into the story and believe every word of it, but it gets me every time. She has that same thing Heinlein has where I pick up a book to check something and find myself utterly absorbed. Anyway, this is a heartwarming Christmas book about epidemics, and I heartily recommend it.
Anyone else have some Christmas favourites they’d like to share?