SOME FAMILIES, I suppose, read A Visit from St. Nicholas every Christmas Eve, and some prefer to read about Scrooge, but when my brothers and I were children, we always requested a section from The Wind in the Willows. It wasn't the section you'd expect, either -- the part where the field mice come caroling. No, this was what we called "the Wild Wood story," in which Mole got lost in a fearsome, eerie forest in the depths of winter.
One of my brothers was so terrified by the Wild Wood that you could hear his teeth chattering all the while our mother read to us. His chin would take on a pinched look, and his eyes would grow nearly black with fear. The rest of us were not so comfortable ourselves. As Mole wandered through the forest, with chittery sounds on either side of him and wicked little faces glimmering in the underbrush, we'd sit closer and closer. Wouldn't we like to switch to something less upsetting? our parents asked, but we'd shake our heads and beg for more.
Mole started hearing whistles. He started hearing patters. He started running and stumbling and falling into holes. The far corners of our living room looked very dark and forbidding.
Now, why would anyone choose such a story for Christmas Eve?
If you'll remember (as any self-respecting ex-child ought to), Mole's nightmare ended well. Rat strapped on his pistols and came to the rescue, and the two of them took shelter for the night with Badger in his cozy burrow. That transition from snow-filled forest to warm, bright hearth would make the most venturesome reader supremely happy to be snug at home, safe from the howling winter night, sitting close with his family.
Which is exactly how you want to be feeling at Christmastime.
A Christmas Treasury omits any mention of the Wild Wood, but it manages even so to have the proper effect. It's a bountiful plum pudding of a book, stuffed with blizzards and firesides in equal parts. I can imagine reading it aloud, straight through, to an audience of all ages -- beginning with the Nativity story as told by Luke and Matthew, continuing with such classics as O. Henry's "Gifts of the Magi" and the "Yes, Virginia" editorial.
For wintriness, try Dickens' "The Holly-Tree," in which the street lamps flicker in the wind "as if the very gas were contorted with cold," and all the church clocks are frozen stopped, and a coach is a veritable snowball traveling through a countryside in which "it snowed and snowed, and still it snowed, and never left off snowing." For homeyness, try Robert P. Tristram Coffin's "Christmas in Maine," full of aunts and uncles and cousins, strings of popcorn and cranberries, and lists of wonderful foods. (The best Christmas stories are nearly always packed with lists, you notice, to lend an atmosphere of holiday plenty.)
There's literary excellence in abundance -- for instance, Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," which grows more luminous with every reading or Dylan Thomas' "Conversation about Christmas," where fortunate children receive "mittens made for giant sloths . . . and balaclavas for victims of headshrinking tribes . . . and once I had a little crocheted nosebag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us."
There's sentimentality, both of the kind that works (how touching, really, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir Tree" continues to be!) and the kind that doesn't (a story by Dostoevski, of all people, another by Eugene Field, and a perfectly dreadful little moral tale by Eleanor Roosevelt).
There's the refreshingly untraditional -- George Plimpton's description of a Christmas bird-count, and Arthur C. Clarke's scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. And there's the purely comical, such as Saki's tale of a deadly dull Christmas house-party where a guest goes on exhaustively about the beasts he's bagged on his hunts, "giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm underthings for winter."
A peculiarly endearing quality of this collection is that it's arranged in strict alphabetical order. Henry David Thoreau, James Thurber, and Queen Victoria lie cheek to cheek, as do Herman Melville and H. L. Mencken. This is somehow fitting, for the book has the exuberant, non-judgmental, anything-goes aspect of a German Christmas tree.
Christmas Observed, another holiday sampler, differs significantly from A Christmas Treasury. There are only a few duplications, and it's generally more selective, more determined to avoid the commonplace, perhaps even a bit austere. Some of the older pieces could not possibly be read aloud unless you were a master of obsolete dialects, but they're fascinating nonetheless and convey an appropriate sense of the past.
Piers Compton gives a stunning description of an unofficial cease-fire initiated by the soldiers in the trenches on Christmas of 1914, and Samuel Pepys dutifully records his Christmases from 1660 to 1668 -- all very much alike, with the exception of the one where his wife had to stay home from church because he'd given her a black eye. A few selections seem to be included merely because they happen to take place on December 25, with no further relevance; but since one of these is P.G. Wodehouse's delightful "Sundered Hearts," concerning a marriage built upon the game of golf, how can we quibble?
It's odd, too, the note of bitterness one finds in this collection. Contributions by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ambrose Bierce bear witness to the continuing selfishness of humankind, Christmas or no Christmas, and Thomas Hardy's "Christmas, 1924," reads, in its entirety:
"Peace upon earth!" was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.
Christmas Observed seems, therefore, less suitable for children than does A Christmas Treasury, but it's a valuable and intriguing collection even so.
For sheer visual beauty, I doubt anything this season will rival A Christmas Testament. Handsomely slipcased, printed on heavy white paper, it was conceived as a new form of Christmas service for Grace Episcopal Church in Washington. It combines choice reproductions of religious paintings with a scripture-based narrative beginning not with Jesus's birth but with Genesis, so that readers develop a sense of anticipation as they progress through the old Bible stories and prophecies and arrive, at last, in Bethlehem. There is fine calligraphy throughout, with attentive flourishes such as a tiny ink-drawn apple, missing one bite, at the end of a line about the serpent.
Obviously this book was meant to be read aloud; but I think it would do as well with individual families as it would in a church setting, particularly since the Scripture has been condensed without sacrificing any of the more beloved verses. And there are those magnificent pictures to hold up for your audience. A 19th-century work by Erastus Salisbury Field shows a sweetly homely, sexless Eve reaching for apples in what appears to be an African veldt. Breughel's "Census of Bethlehem" presents a flock of very Flemish-looking Judeans skating across ice and wading through snow. And there's a wonderful Fra Lippi Nativity, all earth tones and wood, with none of the costly trappings other painters have seen fit to inject.
Given these three books, you might set your more erudite uncles in a corner on Christmas Eve with Christmas Observed, start the rest of the family off with readings from A Christmas Treasury, and gather everyone together at the finish for A Christmas Testament. That ought to last you till a very late bedtime -- and I hope you're all blessed with little white beds like the ones Mole and Rat took shelter in, the linens smelling of lavender, so you can slip between the sheets "in great joy and contentment."