04 January 2013

Other Christmas Books Read This Year

One was a "repeat," A Christmas Secret by Anne Perry, previously borrowed from the library, but I found an inexpensive copy at the library book sale. Domenic Corde and his new wife, Clarice, are assigned to a country parish during the Christmas holidays, to substitute for the vacationing cleric. Of course, a murder occurs. I have reviewed this previously.

Another was one of my annual Christmas reads, the Tuckers series book The Cottage Holiday. The Tuckers were a boisterous quintet of children, sixth grader Tina, fifth graders Terry and Merry (twins), second grader Penny, and kindergartener Tom, who lived in a big house in a town called Yorkville, with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who ran a variety store with his father. The kids play, quarrel, invent projects, and occasionally solve minor mysteries, as other juveniles from 1960s children's series in most of the books, but this one has a different slant: little Penny, the frail one of the family, is basically looking for her place in the scheme of things. She knows she's not as strong as the others, but she doesn't want to be forever sitting still and being careful. She comes up with the idea of the family spending Christmas at their lake cottage, where the kids prepare for the festivities, help some farm friends, and even participate in the adventure of an abandoned baby. But all through the story Penny also searches for her own strengths. It's warm, happy, and familiar, all perfect as a Christmas read.

• Decked With Folly, Kate Kingsbury
This is part of the Pennyfoot Hotel mysteries featuring hotel owner Cecily Baxter. Mysteries seem to find her, and this one hits particularly close to home: a man is found drowned in their duck pond. Except not only has the man in actuality been murdered, but he's known to the hotel staff as a rogue who married their head housemaid some time before without bothering to tell her he was already married. Gertie the maid thus becomes the police's prime suspect.

This book series seems to be well beloved for its British Edwardian setting and its Christmas and New Year's-themed special editions. Perhaps if I'd read them from the beginning I would have enjoyed the story more, although enough was explained about the characters that I was never mystified by their pasts. But no one ever quite came to life for me and Cecily and her husband seemed to be almost too good to be true as employers. The mystery was fine; I just would have preferred more depth to the characters.

Four Centuries of Virginia Christmas, Mary Miley Theobald and Libbey Hodges Oliver
This was a book I picked up at the Colonial Williamsburg gift shop, a simple but enjoyable read about the history of Christmas celebrations in Virginia, beginning with the stark holiday at the starving colony in Jamestown to the more festive celebrations as the colony found its footing. Theobald and Oliver chronicle the Christmas customs, food, and decorations over the years as they change or are amended to fit new eras or times of want like the Civil War. (A running theme is how the decorations at Colonial Williamsburg have changed, from greens to the "Della Robbia" period—the authors are quite pointed when they mention that in colonial times no citrus or tropical fruit would have been used as a door decoration; they were too expensive!—to the simpler modern wreaths and garlands featuring apples and greens only.) There are color and black-and-white illustrations, and many diary excerpts used, and the authors do not shy away from addressing "Christmas in the Quarters" (among the enslaved), although IMHO it was a bit glossed over.

The Dreaded Feast, edited by Michael Clarke and Taylor Plimpton
Another buy from the Colonial Williamsburg gift shop, a collection of writers "on enduring the holidays." Again, some of these essays appear to have been written because people feel they have to conform to holiday "standards": buy the best gifts, set the best table, etc. (George Plimpton's essay was particularly tied to this syndrome, buying useless gifts for rich people who don't need them.) That isn't what Christmas is all about; it's what society has made us think Christmas is all about. Sadly, there are certain people who force others (their children especially) to conform to these standards, and for them Christmas is miserable, overspending, forced to spend time with people they dislike, with selfishness welling all around them. No one should be forced into Christmas. So I didn't mind the wry commentaries about Christmas, like Calvin Trillin talking about fruitcake, or Corey Ford's essay about the office party (do these drunken Bacchanalia still exist with today's DUI laws?), others were just sad and painful, like Augusten Burroughs and Charles Buckowski and Hunter Thompson. One question: what on earth was Mark Twain's "Susie's Letter from Santa Claus" doing in here? Anyway, glad this one was half price.

A Kosher Christmas: Tis the Season to Be Jewish, Joshua Eli Plaut
Not only was this the most interesting book I read this Christmas, but it was one of my favorite books of the year, a discussion of the Jewish experience with the Christmas season in the United States. I was quite intrigued by the opening chapter about Jewish immigrants' experience with the pervasive holiday in the late 19th and early 20th century. Apparently German Jews celebrated the secular trappings of Christmas (trees, parties, gifts) as it was part of the society they came from; the more persecuted Eastern European Jews wanted nothing to do with the holiday, as any member of their congregation who stepped out on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in Europe was likely to be beaten up and possibly even killed by revengeful revelers who still blamed them for the death of Christ. Once here, many Jews picked up those secular customs to fit in, while others eschewed them. Another chapter addressed the "Chinese food on Christmas" trope. The most involving chapter is about how the minor festival of Hanukkah was remade to cope with Christmas: I knew that earlier it had been a minor festival only, but I didn't realize how extensively it had been "made over." Apparently the original gift-giving time at Purim was transferred to Hanukkah so that Jewish children would not feel left out when their Christian friends talked about Christmas gifts. The final chapters talk about Jewish people doing mitzvahs (good deeds) by helping out their Christian counterparts during the holiday season, and how "mixed holidays" like "Christmukkah" and secular holidays such as "Festivus" are appealing to modern interfaith and non-Christian families. Well-written with a lot of food for thought.

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