Today, it snowed here for the first time this winter, making me think of Christmas. Although I work in retail, I have the ability to be shockingly unaware that Christmas is actually coming. I can wrap presents, recommend books, and hear people say “Two Christmas gifts taken care of!” for weeks, still apparently thinking it’s not really going to happen this year, until something, like the first Advent service at church or the first snow of the year, wakes me up.
On my daily walk, as I admired the snowy landscape, I began thinking about Christmas in books. Not Christmas books, as such, but Christmas scenes in books. I have a number of favorite books that are not about Christmas, but that include a memorable Christmas celebration somewhere in the story.
Faith Richardson’s wonderful young adult novel Tree Root and River Rat contains a beautiful Christmas celebration. David and Arabella, two seriously ill children, harvest a live tree and trim it with homemade decorations as a gift for their parish priest and schoolteacher, Father Bernard. At home with their foster mom, Annie, they celebrate with mostly homemade gifts. It’s a poignant Christmas because David knows it will be his last, and it’s marked with true love and ingenuity. I love that the children are far more excited by what they’re giving their friends than by what they get.
Christmas celebrations aren’t always about presents. In Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge, set immediately following World War II in England, family and friends celebrate Christmas with a glorious pageant that’s as much about the wild forest creatures surrounding their home as it is about the coming of the Christ Child. The pageant, written by teenaged Ben, presents some characters out of The Wind in the Willows, the children’s favorite story. It also includes Annie-Laurie, a woman with a tragic past, dressing as a Christmas tree to perform an incredibly beautiful dance. This might sound corny, but it isn’t. It’s beautiful and evocative and leads to Annie-Laurie’s reconciliation with her estranged husband.
Speaking of The Wind in the Willows, who could forget the scene where little field mice tramp through the deep snow to sing Christmas carols for Rat and Mole? It’s been a while since I read the book, but I vividly remember the mice stamping their feet to keep warm as they sing, then coming in for hot drinks, swinging their feet from the too-big chairs. I feel like I was there!
I also felt like I was there throughout Susan Fletcher’s wonderful book Alphabet of Dreams. Two orphan children, adolescent Mitra and her vulnerable younger brother, Babak, join the caravan of the Magi traveling to Bethlehem. Fletcher transported me completely to another place and time, traveling across the desert by day, locked inside the walls of caravansaries at night for protection from bandits and wild animals. This tale, while deeply spiritual, is not specifically religious; rather, it’s historical and mystical. It evokes an almost magical place and time and a new perspective of being present at what we now call “the first Christmas.”
Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite Christmas scenes in books? I’m also aware that there are other important holidays in December. I can’t bring to mind any books where the characters celebrate Hanukkah or Winter Solstice or Kwanzaa, so I’m hoping some of you can tell me about some of these books, too! I look forward to hearing about your favorite literary holiday celebrations.
Amanda MacNaughton is a bookseller and event planner at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond. After over ten years in retail, she’ll admit Christmas isn’t her favorite time of year–but she still loves snow, Christmas carols, and candlelit Christmas Eve services, and is still moved by great Christmas scenes in books.