I’ve fallen into an unnatural role here at NW Book Lovers, that of holiday columnist. I say unnatural because I am by inclination someone who thrives on regularity and routine and does his best to follow Flaubert’s maxim: “Be settled in your life and ordinary as a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (Far more successfully in the former case than in the latter, of course.) Left to my druthers, I’d let most special days slide by with a minimum of comment or commemoration, but Christmas is too big for even the likes of me to ignore. It’s not always an easy thing to embrace, though.
The sheer scale of fuss and bother can be hard to cope with, especially for those of us in retail. T.S. Eliot wrote that “There are several attitudes towards Christmas, / Some of which we may disregard,” particularly citing “the patently commercial.” My position behind the counter at an indie bookstore doesn’t exactly put me in the crosshairs of American consumerism, but it makes me feel like I’m somewhere on the firing range. Most of the books I sell this season will be read and loved, but there are always a few perfunctory transactions, when someone buys a dozen copies of the same title to hand them out indiscriminately to friends and family of all ages and tastes, showing more concern for the giver’s feelings than for the recipients’. Or so it sometimes seems when the work day stretches into its tenth hour and the ribbon rolls are running out.
So if there’s a thing that everyone does at Christmastime, I try not to do it. When people are reading “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and enjoying its reassuring familiarity, I like to remind them that Clement Moore probably didn’t write it. My holiday poem of choice is John M. Ford’s “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station,” a steampunkish tour-de-force that turns Arthur’s knights into trainspotters and can be found in his collection Heat of Fusion. It sounds silly in description, but on the page it’s an elegiac wonder.
Instead of taking another run through A Christmas Carol, I recommend more innovative fare, specifically the story “The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree” by Michael Swanwick and Seattleite Eileen Gunn. No ghosts, but plenty scary nonetheless: “It was the middle of the night when the elves came out of the mirrors. … Silent as shadows, the warriors went from room to room. Their knives were so sharp they could slit a throat without awakening their victim.” It all ends in laughter, though, I promise. Not that I’m necessarily saying it has a happy ending. I don’t think that should be required at this time of year.
In this I go along with young Mamillius in Shakespeare’s late-period play, one of his most emotionally complex: “A sad tale’s best for winter.” For each Santa Claus I like to see a Krampus; for each open, smiling snowman a child builds I expect a visit from Edward Gorey’s Great Veiled Bear. Why do I insist on casting shadows over what for most is a purely joyous occasion?
A recent article in the New York Times offered an excellent answer, explaining the real significance of darkness and the solstice: “In times past people took to their beds at nightfall, but not merely to sleep. They touched one another, told stories and, with so much night to work with, woke in the middle of it to a darkness so luxurious it teased visions from the mind and divine visitations that helped to guide their course through life.” Without evening there is no morning, and without sin there is no forgiveness. We in the Pacific Northwest take as much pleasure as anyone at the return of the light, and we appreciate it all the more having experienced so much darkness.
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!