Mom’s Cure for Christmasitis

Real holiday page turners

By Nancy Oakley

When I was a child, Christmas always came late. Incredible as it seems in this age of ushering in the Yuletide season the day after Halloween, my parents didn’t put up a tree until the Solstice — and often waited as late as the 24th of December to finish shopping. “You’ll get tired of Christmas,” they’d say to my sisters and me. But their delay tactics only exacerbated our feverish excitement, a condition that Mom dubbed “Christmasitis.” To abate it, and to assure her own peace on Earth and goodwill toward us, she allowed a couple of seasonal concessions: Advent calendars, which we’d get in Sunday school and tape to the dining room window on December 1, and Christmas books.

The latter were stored in a large, flat, department-store gift box in the hall closet. Its annual appearance ramped up our collective case of Christmasitis — momentarily. For once we delved into the trove of tomes — storybooks, chapter books, picture books, coffee-table books — all was calm, all was bright. At least until Mom could get dinner on the table.

There were the classics, of course, Scrooge and his modern-day counterpart, the Grinch. We had two copies of The Night Before Christmas, one of which contained quaint and muted, turn-of-the-century illustrations that my eldest sister preferred. I, on the other hand, liked the edition with rosy, 1950s-style illos of Santa, and Ma-mah in her kerchief and the narrator of the poem in his cap and purple dressing gown. My boisterous middle sister had an inexplicable penchant for The Birds’ Christmas Carol, a maudlin Victorian tale about a saintly girl too ill to get out of bed who nonetheless arranges a festive Christmas for her poor neighbors — and then croaks. Talk about holly-jolly.

We didn’t much care for a paperback — another Sunday school handout —  about the three Wise Men chasing the Star of Bethlehem. It had ugly orange-and-green cartoonish illustrations. We, however, loved unfolding an accordion book with the lyrics of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” on one side and “The Friendly Beasts,” on the other. My eldest sister developed an obsession for the partridge and the symbolism of the 12 gifts, and my middle sis, for the “donkey all shaggy and brown” on the book’s flip side, prompting her to sing the carol — over and over.

We pored over an anthology with its glossy cover of a red candle dripping wax. It consisted of several poems and short works, such as Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” with our favorite sentence, “The dog was sick,” and O.Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” To our young minds the poor husband in the tale got a raw deal; after all, the girl’s hair would grow back and she could use those pricey tortoise-shell combs, but he’d never see that watch again. But what really worried me was the tale in Christmas Stories ’Round the World about the little girl who puts a wreath of lighted candles on her head for St. Lucia’s Day.

By far, our favorite book — and the one that endangered Mom’s peace and goodwill because we fought over it so often — was the overisized, Golden Book of Christmas Tales. In spite of its worn and dog-eared condition, the book’s illustrations are still vivid, if not lurid, starting with the angel on the cover in flowing red robes, skydiving toward Earth with a baby doll in her hands. Equally sensational are the stories, most of them biblical: the cherry tree that bends over so a pregnant Mary en route to Bethlehem can pluck a few healthy snacks from its branches; the cock that crows on its serving platter, scaring the, well, bejesus out of King Herod; and even more frightening, the wolf-like monsters called Callicantzari that fly around terrorizing Greek peasants who haven’t painted a cross on their doors.

An antidote to the thrills was a story in the tiniest book in the box, A Pint of Judgment, in which a little girl attempts to acquire an item jokingly scrawled at the bottom of her mother’s Christmas wish list: “a quart of judgment.” Puzzled, the child asks her congenial uncle for a definition. He tells her it’s common sense, which she understands to be common “cents,” so she saves all her pennies, which amount to only a pint. Still, she puts them in a cup inside her mother’s Christmas stocking, which then spills out on the floor on Christmas Day, giving everyone a good laugh. As it surely made my mother laugh when she was about the same age as the story’s protagonist. For written in neat handwriting on the book’s inside cover is an inscription: “To Ann from Daddy (because she had a pain in her stomach). December 11, 1939.”

Which just goes to show, whether for stomach-ache or Christmasitis, a good book can cure what ails you.  OH

Nancy Oakley’s grown-up Christmas reading includes David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries and a coffee table book about kitschy Christmas decorations. Some would argue she could use a good deal more than pint of judgment.

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