Gingerbread and dirty Santas, nativity scenes and maxed-out credit cards: the holidays bring both highs and lows. During this most special time of year, there are cooks cooking, crafters crafting—and people creating wacky Christmases of their own making, as celebrated in these new books.

Strange stories of the season
Count on Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors, A Wolf at the Table) to have a droll but dysfunctional take on the most sacred of holidays. You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas is a stepbrother of sorts to that antidote for forced merriment, David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice. In “Two Eyes Made Out of Coal,” Burroughs attempts to impress his mother with a gingerbread house as seen in a magazine but decides to use “imagination” instead of the chump’s choice—following the recipe—and ends up with less fairy tale castle and more “public housing unit.” The mandatory participation of the holiday season strains Burroughs’ spirits in “Why Do You Reward Me Thus?” as he realizes how much he despises the “sheep shoppers,” the being-with-friends thing and the hijacking of Hanukkah. So he searches Manhattan for Jews, Chinese and others “on the outside of the snow globe” who “don’t give a [expletive] about Christmas either.” In a denouement worthy of O. Henry, he finds bums wanting to talk semiotics and a homeless angel who brings Burroughs out of his despondent drunken stupor with a Puccini aria instead of “The Chipmunk Song.”

It’s the hap-happiest season of all, so take a spin through the holiday madness in The Upside-Down Christmas Tree: And Other Bizarre Yuletide Tales. Authors Delilah Scott and Emma Troy uncover kooky traditions, presents from hell, weird holiday food and drink, unusual decorations and dysfunctional family antics from Christmases around the world. From the festive kiviak—or rotten auk meat—of Greenland and trees decorated in tampon “ornaments” to the clever “divide-and-conquer” in-laws’ Christmas, the “Yankee Swap” created by the original frugal re-gifters and the number of Santas peed on by children (34 percent), this compendium of all things kooky, charming and Christmas will provide plenty of laughs at the holiday table.

Pop-culture writer Hank Stuever enters the world of the Christmas crazy willingly in Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present. Relocating to a Dallas suburb over the course of three years to follow “true holiday believers,” Stuever—an award-winning writer for the Washington Post Style section and author of Off Ramp—creates an utterly charming yet sobering profile of the music, traditions, money, pressure and sheer nuttiness of the city’s seasonal celebration. Traveling with the proprietor of Two Elves with a Twist home trimming service, visiting with homeowners who light up their house so brightly it’s visible from space, meeting collectors of the twee Department 56 miniature villages and witnessing a single mom as she tries to provide a good holiday for her kids, Stuever is part sociologist, part psychologist and always a perceptive observer, placing American holiday rituals in a new light. “Our sense of Christmas is nothing without the narrative of heartbreaking need,” he writes. “Mary needed a place to give birth and nobody would give her one. This need for need exists so that our children can distinguish it from the concept of want.”

Help for the holidays
Hostesses who fear they won’t have the mostest this holiday season only need a few hours with Best of Christmas Ideas to boost their spirits. The editors and stylists of Better Homes and Gardens magazine can be counted on for “fresh, fast and fabulous” ideas for stylish holiday decor, table settings, floral centerpieces, wreaths, cards, wrapping and treats in styles that range from fashion-forward (lime-green tree trimmings, blue velvet stockings) to traditional-contemporary (feather tree decorated with dried orange slices and pine cones). Need fast decorations? A Tiered Meringue Tree of either homemade or store-bought meringue cookies looks like it took hours but only requires a bit of stacking skills. Expecting last-minute guests? Spend an afternoon making and freezing hearty soups—like Smoked Sausage Split Pea—along with easy rolls and ice cream sandwiches (recipes included), and you’ve got dinner-in-a-minute for a crowd. Kids driving you crazy? Put them to work making paper cones stuffed with ornaments or pinecones to decorate the tree. Need quick hostess gifts? Try Herbed Toasted Almonds, or dress up a store-bought red pillar candle by gluing stick peppermints along its base. Each recipe, craft or sewing project is illustrated with full-color pictures and complete instructions and patterns (most only require basic crafting or sewing skills), and a list of sources at the back will help harried cooks or crafters place their overnight orders.

If Mother Earth is on the gift list, Anna Getty’s I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas: Gifts, Decorations, and Recipes That Use Less and Mean More has stylish ideas for celebrating, giving and reflecting on the season that recycle and reuse but still give plenty of joy. Sections on Nesting and Entertaining feature homemade decor and place settings using natural and recycled elements (Recycled Wool Wreath, Newspaper Stocking), and Trimming has ideas for earthy decorations (Sugared Crabapple Ornaments, Twig Stars). The Giving section suggests packaging homemade treats in repurposed containers, such as bamboo steamer baskets. Sophisticated but easy recipes are also included (Cranberry Prosecco Cocktails, Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Ginger and Mascarpone, Pan-Fried Chicken Breasts with Chestnut Stuffing and Port Gravy), and the book is rounded out with lush photographs, “green tips” by famous eco-experts, a resource section listing useful websites and sidebars on green greetings and shipping, recyclable parties, low-impact gift and wrapping ideas and “composting Christmas.”

Bakers who are mystified by royal icing and luster dust will feel merry about the elegant designs in Cookie Craft Christmas. Valerie Peterson and Janice Fryer—the bakers behind the Cookie Craft series—have created a tiny treasure of a book complete with full-color illustrations of their bakery-worthy holiday creations ranging from easy to elaborate. A few basic rolled-cookie recipes and lessons on pre- and post-baking decorative techniques are followed by instructions for more than 70 distinctive designs, plus tips on freezing, shipping and swapping home-baked treats. From white reindeer and gingerbread sleighs to sweet treats for New Year’s and Hanukkah, these cookies are designed to create lasting memories.

Deanna Larson writes from Nashville.

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