Books to Get Me in the Christmas Mood (While the Cookies Burn)

Christmas is coming and all of our family Christmas books have been brought down from the attic. Our collection includes old favorites like Peter Spier's Christmas, a family story told through richly detailed drawings, and The Christmas Crocodile, written by Bonny Becker and illustrated by David Small. A book from my childhood is there, my very own copy given to me on Christmas morning thirty-eight years ago of Lois Lenksi's Christmas Stories. My favorite story when I was a girl was the New England story, "How Christmas Came to Blueberry Corners" but I also liked the Puritan Christmas tale (Day of Work and No Cheer) and the one about city kids in straitened circumstances but who have a great holiday anyway ("Christmas on Macdonald Street"). Now my favorites are the one about a sharecropper Christmas ("An Uninvited Guest") and the one set on a Christmas tree farm ("Before the Snow Flies").

I will read through our collection of picture books, short stories, and novels, a few every day, as I prepare for the holiday. In fact, I am more likely to put off the chores of getting ready for Christmas in favor of sitting down and reading "just one" (then two, then three) from our collection of holiday books.

Every year I add to the assortment but as my kids have grown older, the books have changed. Last year I brought in Augusten Burrough's You Better Not Cry, Wally Lamb's Wishin' and Hopin', and A Rumpole Christmas by John Mortimer, along with a nonfiction reflection on modern Christmas celebrations, Tinsel by Hank Stuever, and one mystery, Holiday Grind by Cleo Coyle, all of which I reviewed here.

This year I've picked up the new paperback edition of an old collection of David Sedaris' holiday stories, Holidays on Ice. I haven't started in on it yet but I plan on reading and baking over the weekend (alarms set to ensure no cookies are burned just because Sedaris has me laughing into my eggnog -- by the way, my favorite brand of prepared eggnog is Old New England, delicious and lethal). I also plan on picking up An Amish Christmas: A Novel by Cynthia Keller, a recommendation from a favorite librarian who assured me the book is better than its title, warm and lively and cheer-inducing.

This past weekend I left the decorating of the tree to the kids (I did put in all the lights) and sunk down into two very different but very holiday spirit-raising mysteries, Mistletoe and Mayhem by Kate Kingsbury and Christmas Mourning by Margaret Maron.

Mistletoe and Mayhem is a never-before published addition to the Pennyfoot Hotel series, starring the independent-minded Cecily Baxter Sinclair and her rambunctious but efficient staff at the Pennyfoot Country Club. The time is the early 1900s, the place is a charming village on the coast, not too far from London, and the plot is murder, murder, and more murder. Arthur Conan Doyle plays a cameo role, and the novel, fast-paced and well-peopled, satisfies straight through to the conclusion.

Margaret Maron's Christmas Mourning is the latest addition to her Deborah Knott series, and although the plot sent shivers down my mother-of-a-teenage-driver spine (kids are texting and dying while driving), the characters of the southern community caught my interest, the factoids about southern-style holiday rituals stimulated my appetite (bourbon balls? yum!), and the final resolution was good enough for me.

Before the New Year comes, I will also be sure to reread two favorites of the season. The very best Christmas book ever is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and merits rereading again and again. In fact, A Christmas Carol should be required reading for everyone of all ages and religions because (despite its title) it has little care for the religious dictates of Christianity and instead makes very clear how superlatively important are the universal tenets of compassion, empathy, and community. There is a new lesson to be found in every reading of A Christmas Carol (and for that matter, in every stage version: Tazewell Thompson's production of A Christmas Carol at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2007 enriched my Christmas and my life).

The second holiday must-read for me is not so life-changing but it certainly enhances my enjoyment of the season. It is a book I picked up from the discount shelves of Barnes and Noble over ten years ago. Entitled Ghosts for Christmas, it is an anthology of English ghost stories all centered around the celebration of Christmas, edited by Richard Dalby and including stories by Dickens, J.M. Barrie, Mrs. Alfred Baldwin, Mrs. B. M. Croker (what a name! -- and what a riot, to be a published author and yet identified by the name of your husband!), Robert Louis Stevenson, Edith Nesbit, and J.B. Priestley. Spirit-raising in all meanings of the word, hair-raising as well, and perfect fare for the holidays upon us.