Christmas Rereads: My Yearly Literary Wellness Check

They read the same book more than once.
They are the people with way too much time on their hands.
~ Dogbert

As we drove home last evening, my daughter laid down a challenge of Copernican proportions: “Can we watch ‘White Christmas’ before New Year’s Eve this year?” Cecilia was planning an overnight with her friends to watch the ball drop, but she didn’t want to miss out on our family’s quirky annual cinematic mismatch.

WhiteChristmas“But it’s tradition,” I argued – case closed. For reasons that are clouded by decades of obscure family lore reaching back to my Boulder, Colorado (read: quirky) childhood, we’ve always reserved the Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye spectacular for December 31st.

No doubt you have your own movie rituals this time of year: “Home Alone” and “Christmas Story,” “Wonderful Life”and “34th Street,” and apparently the first “Die Hard” for some (though not for us – not yet anyway.)

Aside from the Gospels themselves, how about books – any Christmas traditions? Here’s my own list – every year (with rare exceptions), these four stories, and usually in this order:

  1. The Story of the Other Wise Man, Henry Van Dyke (1895): The story of a fictional fourth Wise Man who missed out on following the Christmas Star, and who was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to appropriately honor the prophesied King.
  1. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843): The classic Christmas ghost story with the original miserly Scrooge at its center – although the converted Scrooge at its conclusion is a template for Christian generosity and joviality.William_Sydney_Porter_by_doubleday
  1. The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry (1905): A short story about sacrificial giving that captures, in so few words and so memorably, the essence of Christmas extravagance.
  1. What Men Live By, Leo Tolstoy (1885): Always last, always last (preferably Christmas Eve, if I can stay awake), this gem is about a fallen angel that finds redemption in the imperfect charity of very human community.

And it’s not just the stories themselves, mind you, but the actual, physical volumes. They’re like medical records, with my dated initials on the back flaps, year after year. So important are these volumes to my personal yuletide observances that I keep them by my bedside year round – to prevent their being absorbed into the maelstrom which is our library, never to surface again.

I had just begun to work through my canon last week when I happened upon a very relevant reflection by Christopher B. Nelson. “In a sense, rereading the same book produces new insights because the reader is a different person,” Nelson proposed. “Indeed, a good book is very much like a mirror: The glass is the same year after year, but the reflection in it changes over time.”

He’s so right, although I see my Christmas rereading in terms of a yearly check-up – spiritual, moral, and otherwise. Will I still sympathize with the fourth Wise Man and thrill at the appearance of Dickens’ spirits, Past, Present, and Future? Will I still cry at the christmasbooksend of O. Henry’s tale? And what about Tolstoy’s angel – will his humility appall or appeal after all these years?

“It’s Christmas, a generous, gentle time,” Garrison Keillor suggested this weekend. “Interesting things happen.” Yes, holiday leisure and lethargy nudge us toward introspection, and interesting things indeed happen – including weighty evaluations of past decisions and sober assessments of life direction. In the midst of all that, I’ve found that rereading my treasured Christmas classics every year helps me track the pulse of my soul.

I know that sounds a bit lofty and grandiose, but so be it – ’tis the season. Anyway, how about you? What’s on your annual Christmas reading list?
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2 Comments

  1. Kim

     /  December 22, 2015

    Advent of the Heart (Ignatius Press) by Father Alfred Delp, imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Nazis. I read it every Advent and every year it is profound for different reasons.

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  2. TheOtherAndrewB

     /  December 23, 2015

    I try to read at least one new Christmas book and re-read at least one Christmas book each December. One great favorite is “The Dragon of Wantley” by Owen Wister. It has been read by generations of my family since my grandmother received it as a gift for Christmas of 1902. Another tradition is that each new member of the family receives “The Tailor of Gloucester” by Beatrix Potter, one of the most charming of Christmas tales. My grandson, who is only 3 months old, has already been initiated into the tradition.

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