Walk into my three-storied neighborhood book joint only at the risk of being struck blind by the glittering displays of Christmas books. From Truman Capote to Jimmy Carter to that pioneer of self-help, M. Scott Peck, there is no shortage of writers who have jumped at the chance to spin their versions of the meaning of Christmas. And - at least if you're inclined to believe fulsome flap copy - most of them run that microscopic gamut from "heart-warming" to "an instant classic."
Why is my slightly maudlin, Christmas-loving heart largely unwarmed? Not a toughie. It's hard to feel anything more than manipulated when someone is trying so unmistakably to pull at my heartstrings, not to mention my wallet. So what makes a not-so-instant TV classic like "A Charlie Brown Christmas" work?
One of the most publicized new holiday books is Jan Karon's The Mitford Snowmen (Viking, 32 pages, $10.95). Although fans of the novelist's popular Mitford series may feel shortchanged by the book's slender length, it's extremely well-suited to reading aloud. Karon's book (which reads like a "Northern Exposure" episode - long on character and skimpy on plot) centers on a spur-of-the-moment snowman contest featuring the impressive prizes of "a snow shovel from th' hardware an' a dozen doughnuts from Winnie's."
The great strength of The Mitford Snowmen is in its understatement - doubly surprising considering the author's tie-ins with Hallmark, a company not known for holiday-related restraint. Not only is this slim volume free of hugs, it remains wonderfully free of any miracle larger than doughnuts for all. It's hard not to respect a contemporary work of fiction whose biggest moral dilemma is a conversation between 5- year-olds regarding the ethical ins and outs of consuming a gingerbread and marzipan Nativity scene.
My own vote for the latest bonafide Christmas classic goes to Olive, the Other Reindeer, published in 1997 (Chronicle Books, 40 pages, $13.95). Judged by its cover, it could easily be the most self-conscious Christmas book of the decade, with authors J. otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh guilty not only of inconsistent name capitalization (a major felony in my, um, book) but such coy copy as, " J. otto draws all of the time. He draws on a computer, which makes him sort of like a scientist. But he doesn't wake up until noon, which makes him like an artist."
But wait, is this a forgivable offense? Yes, indeed, for Olive is a visually arresting book with an irresistible plot. (Its hipness credentials were confirmed when Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, chose to produce the animated version).
This is the story of Olive, a small dog with a fondness for Christmas carols, who, when she mishears a line in that song about Rudolph as "Olive, the other reindeer," takes it as a sign that she should head for the North Pole to be of assistance. Naturally, hijinks ensue, but lest you think Olive might be something less than a success as a reindeer, Santa does ultimately say, "Olive, won't you guide my sleigh this morning?"
Those inclined toward fantasy of a more elevated sort can look forward to spending happy evenings with J. R. R. Tolkien's Father Christmas Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 160 pages, $20). Tolkien began sending an intricately illustrated series of letters from Father Christmas to his own children in 1920, continuing for over two decades. Collected and edited by his daughter-in-law, Baillie Tolkien, they were first published in 1976.
Ostensibly tales of elves and polar bears and goblins, these letters actually offer a peek into the international political climate of those crowded years. This latest and most complete edition reproduces the beautifully drawn letters in Tolkien's spidery hand, along with their highly detailed envelopes.
For everyone else, let me be the one to tell you that the book your friends are secretly hoping to find under their tree this year is William Wegman's take on The Night Before Christmas (Hyperion Books for Children, 32 pages, $16). Although it may count as a guilty pleasure (at least for grownups), all but the most staunch cat fanciers should find the famous photographer's signature Weimaraners perfectly compelling dressed up as Santa and the reindeer, et al. Trot this one out to read aloud and watch kids of all ages come to blows over who gets the best seat.
Let's face it: Christmas is the only time of year when your average Joe might possibly be talked into reading poetry aloud. (A little spiked eggnog. The Night Before Christmas. Stranger things have happened.) Luckily, not only is there almost as much good Christmas poetry as bad Christmas fiction, but the reading of a poem takes up roughly the same amount of time that most people have to spare during the holidays.
American poets John Hollander and J. D. McClatchy have assembled a volume elegant both in design and execution for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. Christmas Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 254 pages, $12.50) brings together an abundance of delights: such obvious choices as John Donne's "Nativity" and T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" are well matched by such surprises as Philip Larkin's "New Year Poem" and an uncharacteristically tender Dorothy Parker effort, "The Maid-servant at the Inn."
The defining poem of the season, courtesy of Hollander and McClatchy, is "Christmas," by John Betjeman, my ideal antidote to all those greeting-card sentiments:
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.
Linus couldn't have said it better.
Elizabeth Teachout is a New York opera coach who is on the faculty of Mannes College. She currently has singers appearing at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera.