True tales of Christmas joy
These three books about Christmas have little in common, which should come as no surprise. We each observe the season in different ways. There is one common thread between these books, though, and it’s not jolly old Saint Nick: Each features an absolutely hair-raising drive through a holiday blizzard. Read, enjoy—and don’t forget your snow chains.
Julia Romp’s The Cat Who Came Back for Christmas gives away the story’s end in the title, but once you’ve met single mother Julia and her son George you’ll still cheer. For years, neighbors and teachers complained about George’s disengaged and combative behavior, but nobody knew what was wrong or how to fix it. One day mother and son took a stray cat to the vet. When they came to check on the animal, George began to open up to it, speaking in a high voice, making eye contact and almost instantly warming up. They adopted “Ben,” and he became a lifeline for George, who by now had been diagnosed with autism. When Ben runs away, George regresses, turning his rage on his mother. But Julia applies the same persistence to finding Ben that she had to caring for George, and things end well. Romp tells a hard story, and it’s easy to sympathize when she asks for help repeatedly and is instead viewed as a potential child abuser. Her love for her family—son and cat both—shines through, and if you’ve put off microchipping your pet, this story will encourage you to make that appointment.
BEHIND THE BEARD
Sal Lizard was just a working stiff with a bushy white beard when someone asked him to play Santa as a one-time gig. Being Santa Claus details Lizard’s journey into work as a full-time Santa, working in malls, making home and hospital visits, and loving the job. As one might expect, bringing cheer to terminally ill children is heart-wrenching work, and the hospitals he worked at had designated areas where employees could cry without the patients seeing. The hard times were offset by a job that let him bring joy to old and young alike, and Lizard seems made for the task. He’s playful with older kids who doubt Santa is real, and willing to get on the floor and play with younger kids who are scared by him (to the consternation of mall staff). Lizard tells his story with the help of Jonathan Lane, who interviewed him extensively and collected his best stories here. It works well; reading the book feels like being entertained, possibly over milk and cookies, by a relative overflowing with heartwarming anecdotes.
THE SPIRIT OF THE SEASON
Joseph Bottum’s The Christmas Plains is considered a memoir, but it’s as much about Christmas, language and landscape as it is his personal history. Moving his family to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where he lived as a boy, to reclaim a sense of fixed geography for his daughter, Bottum muses about his childhood holidays and considers the works of Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton and Dylan Thomas, and the ways in which they have influenced our experiences and recollections of Christmas. Bottum has a fresh take on the perennial complaint that Christmas is too commercial, pointing out that the inflatable snowmen and profusions of tinsel come from a knowledge that “a real thing comes toward us in December, and they layer it over with whatever fake or genuine finery they can find—not to hide it but to honor it.” His spare descriptions of the desolate Western plains alongside the hustle and bustle of New York City at Christmas are lovely, and his gentle insistence on the spiritual amid the commercial is a welcome tonic.