The real spirit of the season
The holidays mean different things to different people. Whether Christmas triggers your inner Grinch or inspires you to do something good for your fellow man, read on and find just the book for you.
When I think holiday cheer, I think curmudgeonly comedian Lewis Black. Okay, maybe not. Still, his irreverent and poignant I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas is well worth your time this season.
Black—a regular contributor to “The Daily Show” whose Me of Little Faith hit the bestseller list in 2008—makes it obvious (often in all caps) that he abhors “the claustrophobic and cloying warmth” of the holidays. He’s kind of an angry dude, but you can’t say you weren’t warned. He starts his book thus: “This book has nothing to do with those of you for whom this holiday is one of the cornerstones you rest your life on . . . This book is really for the rest of us.”
Indeed. Black spends much of the book hilariously skewering the excess of it all, the overeating and excessive spending. And yet, given his cynical view of organized religion and holiday cheer, this book finds Black in a surprisingly reflective mood. He’s at his best when he reflects on the good in humanity, such as when he describes his recent USO tour in Iraq, or muses on the disastrous earthquake in Haiti:
“No one was worried about being a Republican or a Democrat,” Black writes. “There was no debating a budget. There were no arguments over which side had the cheapest Band-Aids. There were no words, just action.
“We are quick to help when someone’s ass is kicked or when we think someone’s ass needs to be kicked. We are great at that. We just don’t know how to take care of ourselves. We are a country where many of our people are living on the edge of catastrophe if not in the middle of it. Maybe we could turn Christmas into a holiday where we help those who are buried here in our country.”
Happy holidays to you, Lewis Black.
And now for something completely different: a new book by Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s biggest megachurch, Lakewood Church in Houston. In The Christmas Spirit, Osteen argues that instead of toys and jewelry, the best Christmas gift is the gift of our time.
Osteen posits that we spend too much time trying to create the perfect Christmas, and that sometimes it’s the imperfections that make a Christmas memorable. He tells of his brother, Paul, a young surgeon struggling to find the joy in the season. With three young children at home and a busy career, he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in years. An elderly patient who had just lost her husband listened patiently to his woes before telling him, “Dr. Paul, I would give anything to be where you are now as a young parent. I’d give anything to hear the pitter-patter of little feet, to change a diaper, or to make formula for my babies again. I miss that so much.”
“The wise woman reset Paul’s clock that Christmas,” writes Osteen. “She reminded him that he should slow down, live in the moment, enjoy and be grateful for every minute as a parent.”
Osteen’s memories may be seen by some as exactly the kind of holiday treacle Lewis Black so thoroughly excoriates (Osteen grew up in a town called Humble, Texas, for goodness’ sake). But he is so sincere, and his message so simple—spend time with the ones you love, and give to those less fortunate—that even Black might struggle to find fault with Osteen’s Christmas Spirit.
A LEGACY OF COMPASSION
Former Washington Post investigative reporter Ted Gup knew his grandfather, Sam Stone, as a mischievous man who loved to tell jokes and could pull a quarter from young Ted’s ear. But Sam Stone was born Sam Finkelstein, a Jewish boy who immigrated from Romania to Pittsburgh, growing up in a loveless, impoverished home where the children spent hours in the attic rolling cigars to help the family make ends meet.
Sam Finkelstein eventually moved to Canton, Ohio, renaming himself Sam Stone. A successful businessman and father of three, Stone and his wife, Minna, dreamed up the idea of helping those left in dire straits by the Depression. They placed a newspaper ad as “B. Virdot,” an anonymous benefactor who offered $10 each to dozens of families one Christmas season.
After Stone died, Gup’s mother gave him the suitcase of letters sent to B. Virdot in response to his ad. Gup reached out to interview descendents of the letter-writers, and in A Secret Gift, he relays their remarkable stories of distress and recovery in Depression-era America. He opens the door on the quiet shame so many felt in asking for help:
“For many today it is difficult to understand the stigma attached to going on the dole or accepting charity,” he writes. “The shame of poverty was tolerable—so many were in distress that Christmas of 1933—but the loss of face that came of publicly applying for relief, of claiming that one’s needs were equal to or superior to another’s, of enduring the gauntlet of probing questions, of surrendering one’s dignity and privacy, for many was too much to ask.”
As affecting as the letters are, the heart of A Secret Gift is Gup’s loving and painstakingly reported account of his grandfather—an ordinary man who gave an extraordinary gift when it was needed most.
WORDS OF WISDOM
In the Dark Streets Shineth, a quietly powerful book from Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough, combines photos and text to tell the story of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came together in December 1941 to encourage their nations during one of the bleakest holidays in modern history.
Adapted from McCullough’s performance at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert in 2009, the book includes photos from the somber 1941 holiday season and the full text of the addresses that Churchill and Roosevelt delivered from a White House balcony at the lighting of the national Christmas tree.
“This is a strange Christmas Eve,” Churchill told a crowd of 20,000 gathered on the White House lawn. “Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. . . .
“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us. . . .”
McCullough—best known for his biographies of presidents Harry Truman and John Adams—also meditates on how classic American Christmas carols figured during this dark time. Although the two subjects seem slightly disjointed, McCullough manages to weave them together, and there’s no denying he perfectly evokes the uncertainty and fear of the time in this beautifully designed book.