Take away the pine-cone wreathes and mistletoe, the chestnuts on the open fire, the sticky-backed bows and Salvation Army Santa -- and at the warm, beating heart of every Christmas lie resilient and resonant stories. The virgin birth, the animals' awe, the coming of the wise men: the first and most essential story. Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Scrooge, Christmas Past, Present, Future: the ever-powerful redemptive story. "A Visit From St. Nicholas": the believe-it-if-you-dare story. "The Polar Express": the story we read to our children so that we can re-read it again for ourselves.
Christmas is stories. The stories in books, the stories in church, the stories of our own families. Christmas, for me, is the memory of my Uncle Danny -- the velvet ornaments he made and hung on our tree, yes. The ridiculous gifts he ridiculously wrapped, of course. But mostly, the stories he inevitably told at my mother's magnificent table, his absurd, spectacular stories.
We are allowed to be sentimental at Christmas. We are allowed to be grateful. We are allowed to simply sit with one another, sharing our love and also our lore through the vessels that are stories.
This year, an overwhelming number of new Christmas tomes vies for our attention and embrace. There are books about Christmas angels; a book on the Christmas artist, Tasha Tudor; a collection of Christmas "Christian spirit" stories; an encyclopedia of Christmas terms; a Christmas in the Hamptons story, a collection of Irish Christmas stories; and pretty little parcels, such as the book, "Christmas Abundance," whose author, Candy Paull, is, according to a page in the back, "known for her encouraging lifestyle" and available for both "speaking and singing engagements."
Do we have room for so many new books during a season whose very purpose is to return us to the ancestral, the traditional, the familiar? Can we make way for brand-new tales and trivia while we heave the heirloom ornaments out of the attic and hunt down our grandmothers' recipes? Of all the Christmas books I've encountered this fall there are three that stand apart, three in particular that I'll be adding to my family's burgeoning Christmas shelf.
The first is an unexpected trill of a book whose cover and title hardly hint at its bounty, and which doesn't seem, at first glance, to be much of a story at all. Written by Karal Ann Marling -- the same art history professor and cultural hound that brought us the popular "As Seen on TV" and "Graceland: Going Home with Elvis" -- "Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday" (Harvard University Press, 432 pages, $27) is jammed with fabulous facts about toy villages, holiday lights, wrapping papers, window shopping, gifts, stocking stuffers, cards and just about every other external something historically associated with Christmas.
And maybe all that doesn't suggest a provocative, memorable narrative, but once one cracks "Merry Christmas!" open and starts to read, one discovers that Marling has turned the trappings of Christmas into a story all their own, shooting the whole thing through which such drama, sizzle and charm that it takes off like fable, like something her readers will find themselves inspired to repeat while stuffing stockings or stoking fires or settling down to Christmas turkeys.
"To look seriously at Christmas is to embrace the possibility that quotidian realities, like pleasure and purchase, might be defensible aspects of the human condition," she tells us in her preface, and it's just this pleasure about purchase that Marling's so darned good at conveying.
Here she is talking about the origins of our now glaring fetish with fine gift wrapping: "As long as the tree was a kind of gift-holder, then containers for small quantities of candy, nuts, raisins and the other confections bestowed on children were a mainstay of the decor. Instructions for making simple cornucopias from triangles of cardboard covered with colored paper appeared in magazines and local newspapers in the 1870s; fringed versions, adorned with pictures of angels and Santas, were also available cheaply in the stores and were highly recommended for holding marbles, thimbles, jacks and other little toys as well as the usual sweetmeats."