Those days before Christmas felt like an eternity when I was a kid. But I didn't mind. One of the best parts about the Christmas holiday was that cozy feeling I got sitting on the couch, by the tree, reading stories and poems from old Christmas treasuries.
This is a Christmas treasury with bunnies. The Christmas treasuries we had did not have bunnies on the cover.
In December, my mom brought out these oversized hardcover books which contained stories like, "A Gift for the Magi," poems from John Donne, and classic Christmas carols like "Silent Night." ("I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" was not in any of the Christmas treasuries I beheld, which would have been a great disappointment to my daughter, Ella, who thinks this is the greatest song ever written in the history of the world.) They included some Dickens, the Christmas story from the book of Luke, and maybe a recipe or two of some kind of complicated Christmas cookie that looks pretty but probably tastes gross. The treasuries generally hearkened back to Victorian Christmases, when people actually put lit candles in their Christmas trees. On a related note, there were a lot of house fires in the 1800s during the holiday season.
Naturally, I didn't feel like my children's Christmases would be quite right without Christmas treasuries to leaf through during December. Christmas treasuries, I believe, should be an integral part of the season.
I began browsing local used book stores for Christmas collections. I started at the bookstore in my own town of Spencerport, which is a magical place that kind of looks like an episode from Hoarders. Organization at the aptly named Book Centre is secondary to massive book accumulation, so one has to commit a certain amount of time for searching through and restacking piles of books that will inevitably tumble. It's a whole long process.
I did not find a Victorian Christmas Treasury, but I did find a fascinating little book entitled "The Curious World of Christmas." Did you know that both the debonair Humphrey Bogart and the delightful Annie Lennox were born on Christmas? Or that February 2 officially marks the end of Christmas according to the Christian Calendar? (The period between Christmas and February 2 is known as "Candlemas" and it commemorates the ritual purification of Mary, evolved from an ancient Jewish belief that women were unclean after the birth of a child. They were unclean for 40 days after giving birth to a boy, and for 60 days after giving birth to a girl. I don't know what happened to women who gave birth to boy/girl twins.)
The book also included a recipe for "Stir-Fried Spicy Red Cabbage with Apples" which I will not be making, and "Drunk Christmas Cake" which I might. The recipe is as follows, and it really bears reading out loud:
1 pint water
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups dried fruit
1 tsp salt
1 cup demerara sugar
3 cups nuts
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 orange rind
1 very large bottle of whiskey
Try the whiskey to check for good quality. Find a large bowl. Check the whisky again to make sure it hasn't gone bad in the meantime. Just to be extra sure, pour a proper glass and drink. Repeat until absolutely certain. Turn on the food processor, and beat up the butter in the large bowl. Add sugar and beat the buffer again. Check the whisky is still room temperature. Turn up the volume of the processor. Lob the five beggs into the board and chuck in the fup of cried druit. Mix on the whizzy turner thing. If the fired druit gets stuck in the professor's blades, lisdodge the gunk. Sample the whiskey to check no one has sneaked in and diluted it. Next, the salt,. Or whatever. Make sure whisky is still smooth to the tongue. Now shit the lemon juice and strain your nuts. Add one table of lemon. Do the sugar or something. Whatever's to hand. Wash down the oven. Turn the cake tin to 450 degrees. Burn off the food professor. Drop the bowl on the floor, go to bed taking care to bring whisky bottle with you in case it falls into wrong hands. Lie down and enjoy a warm glow of satisfaction at a job well done.
I purchased the book specifically for that recipe.
I soon took my search for a more traditional, child-appropriate Christmas anthology to the internet, and ended up purchasing an treasury that was not oversized but had the requisite stories, poems, carols, and recipes included within. I put the book in a prominent location and waited for the my kids to casually pick it up and become absorbed in its magical renderings of Christmases past.
This didn't happen.
I suggested to Caleb one evening that he look through the book.
"Maybe later," he said, disinterestedly.
And then I learned that forcing your children to sit down on the couch and read from Christmas anthologies does not evoke in them the same warm and cozy feeling I had as a child. It actually evokes resentment. And sighing and eye rolling and maybe even the words, "this is stupid."
Subsequently, I threw a tantrum and said something along the lines of "FINE! I will sit here and drink cocoa and read from this book ALL BY MYSELF!" and "Trollope had good things to say about Christmas!" and "I AM NOT BEING MEAN!" And that's how it came to pass that one cold and dreary evening, I sat on the couch, miserable, reading the classic "The Bird's Christmas Carol," which is not a good story to read when one is miserable. Because it's about a dying child at Christmas.
There is a lesson to be learned here! You can't force holiday cheer. It has to come in unexpected moments, like when you find that your daughter has drawn a beautiful Christmas tree with your lipstick on your bathroom door. Or when, at your kids' Christmas piano recital, you realize that your son has no intention of ever finishing a spirited rendition of "Must Be Santa," and that after the third time through, you must start clapping or else everyone is going to be there all night. Or when you take your boys to see "A Christmas Carol," and your eight-year old turns to you, confused and slightly devastated to see a future where Tiny Tim has died.
Fortunately for my kids, I hate "life lessons," and tonight they will be listening to a lively performance of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Christmas at Sea" given by yours truly.
It's in the Christmas treasury.