24 December 2008


• A Christmas Beginning by Anne Perry

Some years after starting two Victorian mystery series, the original Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series taking place in the later Victorian era, and the William Monk/Hester Latterly series taking place a generation earlier, Anne Perry began writing short Christmas novels involving peripheral characters in both series. The first featured a younger Vespasia Cumming-Gould from the Pitt series, the second Henry Rathbone from the Monk series, then Grandma Ellison and then Dominic Corde from the Pitt series. The newest entry, out this year, is about Emily Radley, also from the Pitt series.

A Christmas Beginning finds Superintendant Runcorn, William Monk's prickly ex-supervisor, on a remote Welsh island, trying to forget the quite unsuitable woman he has fallen in love with (she is of a higher social station and her brother treated Runcorn with contempt when he was working on a previous case). On one of his long walks, he returns to his boarding house through the churchyard and finds the murdered body of a young, vibrant young woman he saw at services earlier. As the investigation proceeds, Runcorn discovers the woman he loves is also staying on the island, and is engaged to the police inspector conducting the investigation—a man who does not have the experience to solve a murder of that kind.

I think if you are a fan of the Monk series you will enjoy this book as it sheds more information on the reclusive Runcorn.

• The Christmases We Used to Know, published by Reminisce Magazine

This is a collection of short stories and brief anecdotes about Christmas celebrations from Reminisce magazine. The stories range from the early part of the 20th century through the 1950s, with the bulk of them from the Depression and World War II eras. With the stories are a wealth of vintage photographs, both from stock and from the authors themselves. Eleven chapters address different Christmas themes like shopping, plays, decorations, all introduced by columns by the late contributing editor Clancy Strook. If you're a fan of Reminisce or Christmas memoirs, you'll love this book.

• Christmas in Pennsylvania by Alfred L. Shoemaker, updated by Don Yoder

It's Christmas Eve and there's a knock on the door. It's open to admit a hideous, furred creature, the Pelznichol or Belsnickel, who quizzes the children of the household if they have been good. He seems to know who has been bad and chastises them with a smart stroke or two with his whip. To the good children he gives candy and nuts. At bedtime the children put out dinner plates to hold their gifts, and during the night the Christkindl visits the home and leaves them a small toy or a book, an orange and an apple, perhaps some more candy—store-bought to boot!

In the 19th century Pennsylvania "Dutch," this was the normal way to celebrate Christmas. Stockings were not the custom and no one had heard of Santa Claus, except perhaps in the big city. Shoemaker's book, first printed in 1959, was the first to detail these "folklife" customs about Christmas, using diaries and newspaper and magazine accounts of celebrations. Along with the Belsnickel custom and using plates as receptacles for gifts, the book covers Christmas mumming, the various churches' objections to the newfangled "Santa Claus" custom, Christmas tree trimming, Christmas cookies and "putz" (nativity) displays under the tree...just for starters.

Great, great reading if you love learning about old Christmas customs.

Incidentally, in the afterward to this new addition, Don Yoder recommends several history of Christmas books. One of them was entitled A Book of Christmas by William Sansom. Not two days after I finished reading Christmas in Pennsylvania, I looked down at a display of Christmas books in a used book store and there on top was A Book of Christmas. It was at a very reasonable price, so of course I picked it up. I haven't finished it, but I already love it...how can you not love a book that starts thus?
     What is the colour of Christmas?
     Red? The red of toyshops on a dark winter's afternoon, of Father Christmas and the robin's breast?
     Or green? Green of holly and spruce and mistletoe in the house, dark shadow of summer in leafless winter?
     One might plainly add a romance of white, fields of frost and snow; thus white, green, red—reducing the event to the level of a Chianti bottle.
     But many will say that the significant colour is gold, gold of fire and treasure, of light in the winter dark; and this gets closer.
     For the true colour of Christmas is black.
     Black of winter, black of night, black of frost and of the east wind, black dangerous shadows beyond the firelight.
     Darkness of the time of year hovers everywhere, there is no brightness of Christ Child, angel, holly, or toy without a dark surround somewhere about. The table yellow with electric light, the fire by which stories are told, the bright spangle of the tree—they all blaze out of shadow and out of a darkness of winter. The only exception is an expectation of Christmas morning, the optimistic image of sunlight on the snow of Christmas Day and a sparkling brisk walk through the white-breath frosty air. But it only lasts a short while, and has its own dark frame, made up of the night before and the early dark of a December afternoon.

No comments: