I don’t know a single person in retail who likes Christmas carols. Booksellers are no exception. Having Bing Crosby piped into their ears year after year tends to to turn them a little grinchy, I suppose. And that’s not all they have to deal with. Take the longest, most exhausting shopping day you can imagine—hours on your feet, crowds in your way, the difficulty of finding the right gift for a dozen different friends and relatives. Now compound that—extend the hours, enlarge the crowds, try finding appropriate presents for scores of different people (none of whom you actually know). Then repeat every day for a month or more. It’s no wonder that retailers would want to express their Christmas joy in a somewhat subdued fashion.
That’s why I like books that don’t oversell the holiday. Such as Dusk by Uri Shulevitz, a simple, lovely picture book in which Christmas sneaks up as slowly and naturally as the setting sun. Two iconic figures, “boy with dog” and “grandfather with beard,” are on an excursion through the city as day turns to night. The sky darkens, but holiday lights begin to glow on the streets and in shop windows, holding winter at bay yet again. Dusk has a wonderful unforced quality, generating considerable seasonal cheer without making it an explicit subject of the text. Another subtlety: Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa candles share equal billing with Christmas trees in the illustrations. More than ecumenical, which is just the way I like it.
My all-time favorite Christmas book likewise deals with the holiday obliquely. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban tells of a father and son, wind-up mice purchased as a present and later discarded when they wear out. Battered and broken, they’re rescued and partially repaired by a tramp, who sets them wandering in search of a home. Danger finds them in the form of a malicious rat and battling shrews, they find philosophy in the form of a scholarly turtle at the bottom of a pond, and thanks to their persistence, the plot eventually leaves them quietly triumphant, with a new family and a place of their own to celebrate the winter season. You’ll normally see this book shelved in a section for middle-grade readers, but it has all the depth and nuance of adult literature. It’s exciting and eventful even while it occasionally touches on dark, melancholy themes—desperate parental love, war, existential angst, and poverty among them. The story covers the full calendar year, but it begins and ends at Christmastime, and it’s filled with a pure hopefulness that’s not at all maudlin, so I always think of it in December and have ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago.
I lied just a little at the beginning of this column, by the way. I actually do know one bookseller who likes Christmas carols: me. I attribute my high tolerance to two factors. First, at the shop where I’ve worked for the past six years, while we do play music, we don’t change the playlist for the holidays. No “Little Drummer Boy” here. Second, in my previous bookstore gig, where the carpet of holiday music was laid wall to wall, we defined “Christmas carol” very liberally. “Here Comes Fatty Claus,” a scatological ditty from A John Waters Christmas CD, was in heavy rotation, for example, along with stuff like “Christmas Was Better in the ’80s” by the Futureheads. So I still enjoy listening to traditional Christmas music. Semi-traditional, anyway. I’m still partial to holiday songs that come at you sidelong. “Good King Wenceslas,” say, which is all about cold snaps, kindheartedness, and December 26th. And there’s never a bad time to listen to Vince Guaraldi or John Fahey turn the standards on their heads. So you’ll understand that I’m fully in the holiday spirit when I join with Shane McGowan and Kirsty MacColl to wish a very Merry Christmas to every bum, punk, and maggot out there in the NW Book Lovers audience. You especially.