30 December 2014

Christmas Annuals, Part 1

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
"The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse...I don't suppose they woke up that morning and said to one another 'Let's go burn down Fred Shoemaker's toolhouse!'...but maybe they did. After all, it was a Saturday and not much going on."

Thus begins Robinson's now-classic story about six kids "from the wrong side of the tracks" who get involved in a church Christmas pageant after they're told there will be cookies and soda served. Their working-class mother is either laboring or sleeping, so they don't even know the Christmas story—and let's say their interpretation surprises everyone: they spend a lot of time trying to think up ways to off Herod the King to defend the infant Jesus. Eventually the tales about the pageant rehearsals get around and everyone is predicting this will be the worst pageant ever.

This is a humorous look at a group of undisciplined kids who have been left to their own devices so long that they appear to be budding criminals. The narrator (she's known as Beth in the television adaptation of this story, but she's unnamed here) takes a sharp, funny look at the Herdman kids and the other adults and children around her, especially snooty Alice Wendleken, and along the way some truths are revealed and even the horrible Herdmans have a lesson to teach about Christmas.

If you haven't read this book—why not? If you have, Christmas is the time to pull it out once again and enjoy.

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Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
Frances Frost's tetrology of books about growing up on a Vermont farm in the late 1940s were once perennials in school libraries. Now they are highly sought on book sites (especially the rare fourth volume), and while it's mainly for the story of Toby Clark and his Shetland pony Windy Foot as the seasons roll around on the Clark farm, passages like this might also be the reason: "The village lawns about the white houses lay withered and rusty yellow; the leaves had long ago been raked to the roadsides and burned; and the only brightness was the dripping scarlet of the barberry bushes around the north side of the square." "Up on the south hill the snow lay heavily on the dark green boughs of spruce and hemlock, pine and fire. Silently Toby and Betsy snowshoed through blue shadows and brilliant patches of sunlight...[t]here at the farther edge of the clearing, on the verge of the dark woods, stood a young fox, curiously unafraid, his fur golden russet against the snow, watching them with burning eyes."

As the Clark family prepares for Christmas by making and mail-ordering gifts, stringing popcorn, cutting a live tree, baking cakes and pies, and searching the woods for greens, they await the visit of their new friends the Burnhams. Toby can't wait to take Tish Burnham sleigh riding behind the sleigh he's cut down for Windy Foot to pull. The family goes to town to shop at the general store, and later to sing carols around the village tree, and Toby and Tish ski and share ice cream to their hearts' content. This book takes you into the family so you feel warm by the Clark fireplace and smell the delicious foods Mary Clark cooks and sing Christmas songs along with the family. You're there to see the gifts wrapped in tissue paper and held closed with stickers, the smaller ones inserted in the branches of the tree as was customary at the time. It's warm and happy, like a big hug from a favorite friend. Like a friend you see once a year at Christmas, it's there to welcome you to into the holiday.

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Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
Most of my favorite Christmas books are, except for A Christmas Carol, from childhood or the 1970s; the exception is this one, written in 2001 as part of the "Dear America" book series. It rings so true for me from the opening: "Mama and Papa believe in cold. That's why I tell Lady we have nothing to fear. You see, Mama and Papa have toughened us up on the sleeping porch. That's where we sleep with no heat and just screens, and not just in summer but all through the fall and beginning again in early spring. We're used to cold. But now we're going to be hardened off for the rest of the year in the rest of the house...[t]his is going to be an odd Christmas, no doubt about it. Instead of sugar plums and stockings stuffed with goodies and stacks of presents under the tree—a Time of Bounty—I am thinking of this as The Time of the Dwindling. Everything is diminishing: our money, the light of day, and even the hours that Papa works. But in my heart I know we Swifts are tough—hardened off like seedlings. I just know that somehow, someway, this shall be a Christmas. Not the same kind of Christmas as others in the past, but maybe one to remember all the same."

Still, even Minnie (our protagonist) would have lost faith if the family had not taken in a cousin from the Dust Bowl, a wispy child whose outer delicacy belies an inner strength that helps carry the family through hard times. Perhaps the characters seem so true to me because Lasky based them on her own family, so that they have an air of verisimilitude to them. A couple of times word choice gives me pause—for instance, Minnie's brilliant (we'd call him geeky) brother says something about cousin Willie Rae which her older sister calls "extremely insensitive" (back then I think she would have just said "rude"!)—and the standard "Dear America" epilog seems overly politically correct and even a little fantastic, but the book as a whole is endearing. I look forward to this one all year.

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