Christmas Books for the Old, the Young, and the Restless

Despite the holidays being a huge, routine-shattering annual occurrence, relatively few books (for adults anyway) mine everyone’s favorite time of the year for wider themes without resorting to gimmicks or sticky sentimentalism. While classics like A Christmas Carol or O. Henry’s short story A Gift of the Magi live on as near-perfect embodiments of the holiday genre, if you’d like to branch out to more recent titles, here’s a list of Christmas novels, memoirs, and short story collections for adults, as well as a few fun books for kids.

1. Holidays on Ice: Stories – David Sedaris

When I Googled “Christmas books,” this one came up on 8 out of ten recommendation lists. Seriously. I’ve read Sedaris’ non-fiction in bits and pieces (and I’m a huge fan of his sis Amy and will now use this as an excuse to mention Strangers with Candy, possibly the best Comedy Central show of all time), but nothing from this collection. A quick glance at a list of included stories was very promising: one is titled “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” apparently a take-down of childrens’ Christmas pageants written in the style of a supremely bitchy theater critic, while another is called “Santaland,” the real-life chronicles of the horrors of working as a Macy’s elf when one is not Will Ferrell and one is told:

“You are not a dancer. If you were a real dancer you wouldn’t be here. You’re an elf and you’re going to wear panties like an elf.”

I’m so getting this, even if I won’t be able to read it until after Christmas.

2. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

While Franzen’s no David Foster Wallace (meaning I didn’t immediately rush out and buy his entire canon upon completing Corrections), he’s managed to perfectly capture the familial angst and unwelcome return to childhood roles that so often accompanies trips home for the holidays, without neglecting¬† the glimmering hope of redemption and rebirth. Corrections is about a family that originated in the Midwest, but while Alfred and Enid still occupy the same suburban, small-town home, their three grown children have scattered to seemingly greener pastures. As Enid tries to corral everyone together for one last perfect Christmas, the childrens’ struggles with infidelity, sexuality, self-worth, careers, and identity all begin to surface.

3. All Through the Night – Mary Higgins Clark

Ok, I know I bashed gimmicky Christmas novels just a few paragraphs ago, but MHC always gets a pass from me. Her murder-ey melodramas hold a special place in my heart, so if you’re going to buy a trashy paperback Christmas novel, I recommend this one. It’s a departure from Higgins’ usual suspenseful plots, in that there are no stalkers or babies switched at birth (though a baby does get left on a church doorstep and accidentally kidnapped by a church-robber!) or sociopathic mass murderers. It’s more of a feel-good number–orphans about to be turned out in the cold feature prominently, and I’ll bet you can never guess whether they get to keep their orphanage or not!

4. In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash – Jean Shepherd

Shepherd’s autobiographical collection of short stories about growing up in small-town Indiana during the Depression includes a paean to his beloved Little Red Ryder BB gun and a re-telling of his father winning a “major award” that turns out to be a lamp shaped like a comely female leg. Sound familiar? If so, it’s because some of Shepherd’s stories were pulled to make up a great deal of the classic movie A Christmas Story (IMHO one of the top 5¬† live-action Christmas movies ever made). In God We Trust is not entirely about Christmas, but fans of Ralphy will want to see how he progresses through his teen years (spoiler: it involves awkward blind dates and some bittersweet losses).

5. Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad – Mercer Mayer

I love the Little Critter books to distraction, and the only one I’ve read more than this Christmas book is I Was So Mad (most cathartic book for children ever). As usual, Little Critter’s heart is in the right place, but he can’t seem to get things quite right–he tries to wrap presents, but the tape is too sticky. He tries to help decorate, but can’t help getting tangled in the lights. And he’s not quite sure why Mom and Dad aren’t thrilled by his decision to bring his presents up to their bedroom on Christmas Day–at 6 in the morning. This book is light on text, but heavy on hilarious pictures.

6. The Sweet Smell of Christmas – Patricia M. Scarry and J. P. Miller

Is scratch-n-sniff a fad that went out of style, or is it still alive and well in the realm of children’s books? It seems that the latter is true, but I’m childless so I lack recent, first-hand experience. Anyway, this book excels as far as realistic scratch-n-sniff pictures go (or at least it did in the early 90s)–the orange actually smells like an orange, the apple pie like apple pie, etc. I even remember skipping the picture of a pine tree because its scent was so pungent it made my nose burn. Sadly, I scratched this book one too many times and most of the pictures wound up worn through or torn, but it had a good run for at least two or three years. The story of Little Bear waiting for Christmas is cute, though somewhat superfluous to kids interested mostly in plastering their noses to the pages.

7. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever – Barbara Robinson

Sally J. recommended this book for inclusion, and I’m glad she did because, although it’s been a decade since I first read it, all sorts of memories of the way this book made me feel about Christmas and religion came flooding back. While at first it seems all the righteous churchfolk are correct to loathe the awful Herdman children, who take over the Christmas pageant and cuss and smoke cigars, that feeling of delicious judgey-ness is completely undermined by the continual revelation of the Herdman family’s background (this book basically introduced me to the concepts of single parenthood and welfare). The Herdman kids’ un-calculated performances ultimately teach the church congregation a powerful lesson about belief and who exactly religion is “for.”

What Christmas (or other holiday) books do you all remember fondly, and which are on your to-read list?

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