Many of us are running around like the proverbial headless chickens right about now, wondering how we’ll ever get the cookies baked and the presents wrapped in time. Which means we’ve forgotten, at least temporarily, the magic of the holiday season.
I was feeling that way, too. Until, while hurriedly browsing through my boxes of Christmas decorations the other day, I stumbled across my stash of Christmas stories. Suddenly, all that holiday stress melted away, and I felt the same glee I once felt as a little girl when the Christmas books would come out. I quickly brought them inside, my arms wrapped around them as though I was carrying precious gifts of the Magi.
The books now sit in my home office waiting for me. I can’t wait to put on my pajamas, curl up with a blanket, and flip them open in front of a warm fire. Even though the kids are grown, these Christmas stories still have a magical power in the way they can knock the world’s troubles aside and create space for the little girl from long ago.
The Nutcracker, Adaptation Daniel Walden, Original Story E. T. A. Hoffman
It’s nearly impossible to turn to the first page without hearing Tchaikovsky’s accompaniment to this story, so entwined is this well-known tale with the ballet. But this version isn’t the original one as written by Hoffman, whose aim was to “reveal an unknown kingdom to mankind” by bringing inanimate objects to life. You could say the same is true of Stephen King’s work (who also brings inanimate objects to life) and it’s my understanding that Hoffman’s original version Nutcracker and the Mouse King wouldn’t be much more kid-friendly than Stephen King’s stories. The version I have on my desk, adapted by Daniel Walden, does gloriously fit the bill however, and the illustrations by Don Daily in this 1996 edition, published by Running Press, are utterly delightful.
Olive the Other Reindeer, J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
Dogs have never been more popular in the literary world, and Olive is one lovable pup. The story is cute, but the illustrations–and the catchy title–are what make this one of my favorites.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Robert L. May
Olive would never have made it to the page without Rudolph in this classic cheer-for-the-underdog story that belongs not only on the list of must-read Christmas stories but also on the list of must-read anti-bullying stories. What makes this especially charming, though, is the backstory. May was a struggling ad man for Chicago’s Montgomery Ward store when he was assigned the task of writing a Christmas tale in 1939. His boss didn’t love the result, and his wife died during the project, but May stuck with his vision and lived to see the story, and the song it inspired, become a true legend.
The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg
Yes, it won the Caldecott Medal. Yes, a movie was made from this book. And yes, the artwork is so gorgeous that I’m half-tempted to rip the pages out of the book and hang them on my wall (especially the scene with the lean wolves roaming through wilderness). But what really makes this a classic is its powerful message to believe, against all odds, because belief in that which cannot be proven is what ultimately give us hope for the future. I cry every time I read it.
The Night Before Christmas (initially entitled A Visit From St. Nicholas), Clement C. Moore
A narrative with an incredible arc encompassing suspense, a glimmer of hope, a surreal appearance by a magical being, and a bittersweet goodbye. A tale with superb imagery: visions of sugar plums, a clatter on the lawn, dry leaves flying, whistles and shouts to reindeer. An account founded on word clusters that, even when not fully understood by young ears, roll over the tongue as naturally as water over pebbles.
When I was little, my family sat in our cozy living room on Christmas Eve, and we passed this book around and took turns reading the verses. In later years, we sat in our slightly larger living room trying to recount the poem from memory, the way story tellers of old shared tales. I remember the anticipation as we gathered to imagine a silent house where no creatures stirred and the twinkle in my own father’s eyes when he recited the line about a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer appearing. I remember how we all laughed when we forgot phrases, and how proud I felt when I was finally old enough to recite that trip-over line about dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly meet with an obstacle mount to the sky. I will always carry with me a vision of an old man clad in fur, his robust tummy jiggling like bowls full of jelly, which no doubt was strawberry jelly like we had in our Frigidaire. And I will never forget that thrill when, by happenstance, I’d be the luckiest one in the family who got to recite the final line aloud, the one who got to pronounce the ending to a story that brought finality but also brought joy to my parents and siblings alike.
Many years have passed since those days, and I confess the holiday season no longer brings the awe that it once did. But I remain grateful knowing there once was a time when I felt the magic deep in my core, and I’m also grateful that books like these are still alive and well–stories that let me, and others who keep an open heart–experience the enchanting spell of Christmas.