October 1843 was the worst of times for Charles Dickens, Les Standiford explains in The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Despite early successes and a secure place in the literary canon, at 31, Dickens found his career, finances and marriage at low points. And yet, he rallied to write one of the most enduring tales of all time in just six weeks. Showing how the Carol (as Dickens referred to the novella) developed in Dickens' mind—inspired by a lifelong love of Christmas, a belief in social responsibility and a hope of quick financial rewar—is just one of the accomplishments of Standiford's entertaining book. He also covers the publishing and copyright industry of the mid-1800s, the history of the Christmas holiday and provides a view of life in England during the Victorian Age. Standiford includes a succinct paraphrasing of A Christmas Carol as well as a rundown of some of the thousands of adaptations and parodies of the work.

As an antidote to the more saccharine expressions of holiday cheer, turn to John Grossman's fourth holiday book, Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas. Culled from the author's collection of antique postcards and advertisements, this parade of evil spirits, surly Santas and bad children also has a (slightly) softer side, showing the evolution of the old elf from European figure to all-American icon.

Christmastime in the city
Whether you use A Very New York Christmas as a planner for Christmases future or memory book of Christmases past, this little book makes a delightful Christmas present. Featuring the beautiful artwork found on Michael Storrings' NYC-themed holiday ornaments, the book takes readers on a colorful watercolor tour of Manhattan and the other boroughs, starting with the Macy's parade. Snowflakes—Swarovski at Saks and Baccarat at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue—follow, along with St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Plaza, the Guggenheim, scenes of Central Park and a giant menorah. Then it's on to the American Museum of Natural History's Origami Tree and the tricked out Dyker Heights neighborhood before returning to Times Square for New Year's Eve. A map at book's end (rendered in watercolor, of course) shows the location of all the pictured sites.

Visions of gingerbread

If decorating a tree isn't enough of a challenge, try the confectionary wonders in Susan Matheson and Lauren Chattman's witty The Gingerbread Architect: Recipes and Blueprints for Twelve Classic American Homes. For each of the architectural styles, architect Matheson and former pastry chef Chattman include ingredients, step - by - step instructions, a dollop of history and suggestions for even more elaborate decoration. Even those of us who lack patience or coordination may be tempted to try the structures, which include an urban brownstone, an art deco gem, a Corbusier - esque "modern" house, a Victorian farmhouse and a Cape Cod.

Simpler gingerbread creations are described in Yvonne Jeffery's The Everything Family Christmas Book, along with a Spirit of Christmas Present-worthy bounty of holiday-themed games, lists of Christmas movies and TV shows, party ideas, decorating tips, etc. This is a great resource for new families or households, someone hosting the family Christmas for the first time or otherwise seeking to establish new traditions. Among the treats Jeffery includes: suggestions for reducing holiday stress and dealing with guests; the top gifts of various decades and how much they cost; and how the holiday is observed around the world.

Holidays on nice

Have a box of tissues handy when you sit down with Ed Butchart's More Pages from the Red Suit Diaries; David Sedaris, he ain't. Butchart was the official Santa at Georgia's Stone Mountain Park for 18 years and in this follow-up to 2003's Red Suit Diaries, he shares more heartwarming stories of his adventures as a real-bearded Santa. In vignettes familiar to viewers of made-for-TV holiday movies (and a couple reminiscent of Miracle on 34th Street), Butchart astounds little kids with his insider knowledge, puts parents at ease and delights in seeing second-generation visitors. He also makes a few miracles happen through the ministry he founded with his late wife, Friends of Disabled Adults and Children (FODAC).

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