At this time of year I’m reminded of a young mother I once knew. Christmas was always her favorite time of year, and each year she baked the family’s traditional cookies and the annual bishop’s cake. With the family in tow she bought or cut down the season’s Christmas tree, and hauled the ornaments from the attic to be carefully unwrapped and placed on limbs by little hands. At night she read The Night Before Christmas or The Grinch out loud, when she wasn’t attending school concerts to listen to her children sing or play the instrument of the year.
Like everyone else at that time of year she also shopped for gifts, sometimes at garage sales during the lean years, when old wooden sleds got a new coat of paint and doll clothes a careful wash and mending. Finally on Christmas Eve, with the children asleep after the traditional candlelight church service, she and her husband played Mr. and Mrs. Santa and assembled, wrapped and placed gifts by the lights of the Christmas tree, pleased with all they’d managed to do.
By Christmas morning, of course, she was exhausted. It happens, even at Christmas. After the cranberry bread was served, the gifts opened, the merriment at a lower key, she had one more joyful ritual to look forward to.
She read her Christmas novel.
You see, somewhere along the way, the young woman’s husband happened to buy a novel for her Christmas stocking. The family lived where there was no bookstore, but when one of the few gift shops in town added a shelf of books, he wandered in and asked for a recommendation. The novel, Shanna, was by a new author, Kathleen Woodiwiss, not at all the kind of novel the young woman had read before.
But that year it was the star on top of her personal Christmas tree.
Now every year during the Christmas season, my husband reminds me of that starry-eyed mom. He laughs at the way I retreated into Shanna and all the other novels that followed through the years. I remember that Christmas well, of course. The utter fascination with someone else’s life. The much-needed retreat into a quiet space inside my imagination–and the author’s. The thrill of escaping into my own new world as my children escaped into theirs.
Books for Christmas. And never, at any time as I read that first Christmas novel, did I think that perhaps, one day, I might write my own.
I still believe in books for Christmas. Not because now I write them and hope for sales. Because I know that the simplest story can transform a life, even for an afternoon. And if we give a book we’ve loved? Then we’ve said something about ourselves. We’ve shared a point of view, a different look at the world, a treasured memory.
I no longer need a new novel at Christmas. My bedside is piled high with books I want to read, and the holiday is no longer the exhausting race to the finish line that it once was. Now I live in a city with bookstores everywhere, but I’m always grateful to be given a new book anyway. A book I might never have tried on my own. A book that meant something to the person who chose it for me.
I hope this year you’re given the gift of a book, as well. If someone loves you that much, if you’re that lucky, don’t feel a bit of guilt. Take it from one who knows. Put your feet up on Christmas afternoon and savor it.