‘Bout this time of year, every year, I begin the hunt for my encore. In a better world, or more properly if I was a better organized man, I would already know. But I don’t. I never do. And thus, the hunt.
You see, every year at the bookstore I read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory aloud. (According to the press release, I’ve become “a bookstore tradition.” Imagine that. Though, I think they meant something more like, “a part of,” as I’m far from the only one reading this story every Christmas, or reading Christmas stories aloud, but still. Very nice, being a tradition.) Come Tuesday, then, November 27th, at 7 pm, I’ll do it again.
I happen to think Capote’s story perfect. I don’t make that claim lightly. I’ve read a lot of Christmas stories, trust me, from Dickens to Auster, and while there are stories I love, and stories I admire, there are few enough I think irreplaceable: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, obviously, and almost as obviously Dickens’ great Carol. As for the Americans, I think there are few things of greater significance or beauty than Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
A Christmas Memory is every bit as good as that, as universal, as distinctly American, as true. (Don’t believe me? Read it yourself, or come to the reading if you can.) For me, Capote captured exactly that last moment of magic in Christmas as we best remember it, and will never quite know again. It’s a small masterpiece and a joy to read aloud.
My reading of the story takes about half an hour and a bit, and with an introduction, perhaps forty minutes. I’ve learned to have something else with which to run out the hour. The Capote story ends on a very sweet, very melancholy note. It’s a wonderful moment, but not the sort of thing to send folks home in a holiday mood. I’ve learned to go with something lighter to close the evening.
And so my annual search through the Christmas anthologies. Old and new, used and remaindered, hardcover and paperback, I’ve been muddling through Christmas books for years now, and I’ve been lucky to have found so many good things along the way! I’ve read some very funny poems by Phyllis McGinley and Ogden Nash, classic stories by Bret Harte and Damon Runyon, Saki and Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome. One year, I got a bit ambitious and read “Christmas at Dingly Dell,” a famous holiday scene from The Pickwick Papers. I even read an abridged version of Dickens’ less known Christmas novel, The Chimes, as another night’s entertainment altogether. (A bit too ambitious, that last. Ah well, live and learn.)
Of all the anthologies I’ve found to date, perhaps my favorite is still Diana Secker Tesdell’s Christmas Stories, for the Everyman’s Pocket Classics (ISBN: 9781841596006, $15.00), which not only has the Capote story in it, but at least three others I’ve used as encores as well. Lovely little book, from a lovely little series.
The search, though, always makes me anxious, at least in part because I invariably put it off. Until, well, now. Somehow, despite years working in retail, I still can’t quite bring myself to think about Christmas until, at the earliest, it is time to make the grocery list for Thanksgiving. I know there are clever, considerate, even calculating souls, may I say, who are not so confined by the calendar, folks who have their Christmas shopping done by June and their decorations marshaled if not deployed as soon as the last pumpkin’s gone to glory, but I am not one of these. I am a man of mood. I need to feel the spirit. Perhaps I need a deadline. Anyway, now here it is and the day is nearly on me and I still don’t have my second story to read aloud!
And so I am now reading through great stacks of Christmas stories, wading through all manner of holly, ivy, carols and classics, contemporary melancholics and saccharine sentiment in Victorian ribbons and bows. Here’s something by a lady so obscure now she doesn’t even rate a Wiki. Here’s another that looks rather more promising, from the same very old book, but then I should have to explain too much perhaps about this kind of carriage and that . . .
I don’t mind, honestly. Truth be told, I thoroughly enjoy my work. I adore Christmas. (That said, I do feel myself entitled to at least one mildly unpleasant exclamation, to wit, Oh Holy Night but there is a lot of very inferior Christmas cheer down the years! Remember that rather horrid hard-candy that lived year-round in a dish in your great-aunt’s parlor? Like that: sticky sweet, unappetizing, inedible.) After all these Christmas readings, I pride myself on having developed something of a nose for the finer things in the way of a holiday story. None of your over-familiar O. Henry, thank you very much. Something if not altogether fresh then at least new to the most of us.
Oh dear. Anyway, I’ll find one. At this point, I’m like one of those very sensitive French pigs: not much to look at, I’ll grant you, but I have a nose for this sort of thing. Trust me.
Come if you can. There’ll be sweets. And cider. And stories of course. No actual truffles, come to that, but then it is free. Mustn’t be greedy, boys and girls.
Brad Craft buys used books at University Book Store in Seattle, blogs at usedbuyer2.0 and is the author of A Is for Auden: an Alphabet Book of Poets. Join him for A Capote Christmas November 27 at 7 pm at University Book Store in Seattle.