The tail end of the year is a stressful time for retailers, what with all the concerns about whether they’ve ordered enough of the books that people want or too many of the ones they don’t, but here’s the inconsequential thing that keeps them (OK, me) up at night: What do you say to your customers when they’re walking out the door with their newly purchased books?
Now, I was raised in a “Merry Christmas!” family. Our carols were hymns, our tree had an angel on top, and I narrated the dramatic appearance of a star over a manger during the grade school pageant. But these days I wish everyone “Happy holidays!”
It’s not just to get under Bill O’Reilly’s skin, although that’s a perk. It’s mostly because I want to acknowledge that not everyone shares my cultural background, but it’s also because I don’t like the pressure that comes from putting all my eggs in one holiday basket. There’s more buildup and promise in December than one day can fulfill, so I like the idea of spreading festivity around as much as possible. Celebrate celebration, I say, and borrow a little joy from wherever you can.
That’s what I did this year, starting with Hanukkah, which came early. It occupies almost the same space in the hearts and minds of many Americans that Christmas does, as A Kosher Christmas indicates. Not to mention The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. When I was ready to take Hanukkah straight, I sampled Isaac Bashevis Singer’s classic Stories for Children.
St. Lucy’s Day was next, on December 13th. No one came through the doors wearing a crown of candles, but I did remember to read John Donne‘s “Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day.” He calls it “the midnight of the year,” apparently under the misapprehension that the sun shows itself most briefly then. Did he not realize that the solstice falls a week later? Speaking of which, Graves’ The White Goddess and Frazer’s The Golden Bough are great sources for fun family solstice traditions, not all of which involve human sacrifice.
Then came Christmas, when my kids again failed to notice that Santa uses the same wrapping paper we use at the store. What can I say? They’re book smart, not street smart. Too much Dickens and Dylan Thomas, not enough TV, I guess. The 26th was the beginning of Kwanzaa, and also Boxing Day, when tradesmen like me used to get gifts from their social superiors. Many years back, a customer pointed this out to me in very imperious fashion, which I would have minded less if she’d given me an actual present along with her snobbery.
And the season is far from finished. New Year’s Eve is still on the horizon, and after that, another great day for book lovers, one closely connected with two of the most noted figures in the literary pantheon. The Feast of the Epiphany (also known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas) takes place on January 6th, and in times gone by, was celebrated by the upending of social conventions. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written especially for the occasion, is the go-to text for exalting the Lord of Misrule and the historical aspect of the day.
The modern sense of “epiphany” as flash of insight and illumination comes to us mostly through James Joyce, who used the term to describe the unexpected moments of realization his characters experience in Dubliners. The last and greatest part of that collection is “The Dead,” which ends with an all-encompassing epiphanic revelation for Gabriel Conroy as he watches the faintly falling snow after an awkward family dinner in honor of–what else–Epiphany. It doesn’t sound like the cheeriest thing, I know, but for my money, there’s no better holiday story around.