The Universal Notebook: Tales of Christmas past

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My favorite Christmas story is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by poet Dylan Thomas. We own two copies. One is a little hardcover edition with pictures by Trina Schart Hyman, one of the best children’s book illustrators ever. The other is a little paperback with simple woodcuts by Ellen Raskin.

I bought the little paperback on a pilgrimage to Thomas’s home in Laugharne, Wales, in 1980. I bought the hardcover for Christmas in 1988 when our two older girls were 6 and 7. Now their children are 6 and 7 as well as 5, 4, 3 and 2.

Reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” aloud to children is a wonderful experience, not only because it is so evocative of a Christmas day in long ago Wales, but because the language itself is so lyrical. It challenges children and they rise to the occasion. It’s like taking a child to see Shakespeare. They just have to go with the words.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

Thomas’s poetic prose is filled with family and friends, food, feasts, beasts, presents, caroling and snow. There is no religion to speak of, unless you count the last line: “I turned the gas down, I got into bed, I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

When the girls were little I tried to buy a new Christmas storybook every year. Most of the Christmas stories in our collection are not very Christian. It’s not that I’m not, but it’s hard to beat the Christmas story itself as presented in lessons and carols each Christmas Eve at church. No matter how mad and materialistic the season becomes, raising and lowering lighted candles in the dark to the singing of “Silent Night” and then sitting in flickering silence to await the ringing of the church bells at midnight to announce the birth of the Christ Child puts everything back in proper perspective.

So our Christmas bookshelf is filled with secular tales of the season from “The Night Before Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to “The Polar Express” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” illustrated by Jan Brett. The thing most of these stories have in common is the giving of gifts (not to mention the strangeness of someone sneaking into your home). Two of my lesser-known favorites, “Karin’s Christmas Walk” and “Fair’s Fair,” are less about Christmas gifts than they are about the spirit of the season.

“Karin’s Christmas Walk” by Susan Pearson, with pictures by Trinka Hakes Noble, is a small story about anticipating the arrival of a favorite uncle. It is subtle yet profound. “Fair’s Fair” by Leon Garfield and illustrated by S.D. Schindler is a long, magical story about a big dog who leads an orphan boy to a wondrous reward for his innate kindness, bravery, honesty and generosity.

There are a couple of Christmas books that have never really caught on with the kids. “Lucy’s Christmas” by poet Donald Hall features great woodcuts by Michael McCurdy, but I don’t think it’s been read since the Christmas of 1994, when I bought it. Another literary disappointment was Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” with illustrations by Beth Peck.

Two of my favorite Maine Christmas stories are Dahlov Ipcar’s fantastical menagerie in “My Wonderful Christmas Tree” and “One Maine Christmas Eve” by Douglas Coffin. I’ve perfected the accent for reading Doug’s book, a Downeast tale of the make-do ingenuity of Maine folk when Santa’s sleigh breaks down, such that I’d feel pretty confident performing it in public.

My only audience for these command performances, however, are our six grandchildren. Some configuration of four to six of them will listen to stories as long as we will read them. They pile onto the couch, commandeering its arms and pillows, colonizing my lap and shoulders, tucking the Thompson Lake throw around them, and settle in for the duration.

Having a houseful of children and grandchildren is a holiday blessing and a celebration of family. My gift is the reading. Their gift is the listening.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.