Christmas is not my favorite holiday. It is very cold on the prairie.
I try to get in the mood by reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, Willa Cather, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Ruth Suckow.
Christmas is different in the 21st century. Pa no longer fiddles, Lucy Gayheart doesn’t skate on the Platte, Abby doesn’t make homemade gifts after the failure of the harvest, and the Bonneys don’t rush off to church suppers. Nowadays we’re more laid-back: we sing along to old Doors albums (“Break on through to the Other Side”), pretend to knit scarves (I drop a lot of stitches), and attend old-fashioned taffy-pulls (they are fun candy-making parties).
But I do know how to make a nice Christmas for a cranky snowbound family.
Give them books.
Here are some tips.
1. Snoop around their bookshelves, or ask them to make a list. Your taste isn’t necessarily theirs, so it’s best to find out what they like.
2. Use “Best of” lists with caution. Some love critics’ recommendations; others go their own way. Elmear McBride’s prize-winning experimental novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, may or may not be ideal for the proponent of Susan Conant’s dog mysteries. In my own experience, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel about an Iowa minister, seemed the ideal gift for a super-religious second cousin, but she deemed it slow. On the other hand, she might want Lena Dunham’s racy memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. You never know.
3. Don’t order books from the UK. One year I begged my husband to order Stevie Davies’ novel, Into Suez, from the UK, because Margaret Drabble recommended it on a “Best of” list. I still haven’t read it.
4. Generally suitable gifts: the light reading option. I am better at buying gifts for women than men. The novels of Barbara Pym, Nick Hornby, E. M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady series, and D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books are usually suitable for women. And Golden Age Detective novels (Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, etc.) are appropriate for everyone.
5 Ask your bookseller at the local indie. Sometimes he or she can recommend books outside your area of expertise.
6 Classics are excellent gifts, but after a certain age we’ve read everything except Martin Chuzzlwit. I do like Library of America editions, however, and have had good luck with giving editions of Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott, and Sarah Orne Jewett.
7. Give Christmas books. Try Christmas poetry books: Christmas Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets), selected by John Hollander and J. D. McClatchy, includes 52 Christmas poems by the likes of Christina Rosetti, Walter de la Mare, John Donne, Dorothy Parker, T. S. Eliot, and Stevie smith.
And here is a list of free Christmas books available free at Project Gutenberg and manybooks.net.
Booth Tarkington’s Beasley’s Christmas Party (1909)
Louisa May Alcott’s The Abbot’s Ghost, (A Christmas Story), Or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation (1867)
The Bird’s Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1886)
A Budget of Christmas Tales by Charles Dickens and Others (1895)
The Christmas Books of Mr. M. A. Titmarsh by Thackeray
A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm (1912)
And now my shopping is done.