December when the children were little – before any interesting mail, or cookies or any of the color of the holiday – could loom long in Alaska. At some point we’d get out the Christmas books and begin to read, but we mostly kept the anticipatory fever damped down.
Now with an emptier house – and much darkness, though less cold outside – I can declare the whole month a time for red and green, warm lights, and festive food. I try for cheerful music, scents of cinnamon or rosemary, and appreciate the small, the best things that make up the holiday.
My mother, who loved Christmas, had simple gift-giving rules – we each got some one thing (usually clothing), a treat (Katydids or turtles for me), and a book.
We weren’t far off that with our children – sometimes to their disgust. A particularly egregious year when friends got Nintendos, they got flannnel-covered down comforters (I think I am still not forgiven), also books, always books.
When our sons were in their adventuring years, we weren’t always together for Christmas. Our older son spent two seasons in Antarctica – their summer, our winter – working at McMurdo Station. The little boxes I packed up for him were really for me – reaching out to say we miss you, sending a new red plaid flannel shirt (a Christmas favorite for me to give, who knows how received) and photos of his dog Bill. And books.
In those days before reading devices, I’d patrol the aisles of Anchorage’s fine used bookstore and select a stack I thought might engage. I had a captive audience, and the only reject I remember was the first book of Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy, “Kristen Lavransdatter.” In spite of the Nobel Prize for Literature, rejected because of an unfortunate bodice-ripping cover. I still think that son might like it.
One day while I stood in the bookstore’s fiction section, a stranger remarked, “You have a lot of books!” I told him about my son in Antarctica, that I was trying to think of books to send him, but was nearing the end of known-to-me sure things. The stranger plucked a book off the shelf and handed me “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa – unknown to me and perfect. I packed up the Scandinavian woman and the Sicilian nobleman and sent them to Antarctica.
It’s truly satisfying, because not easy, to arrive at an “ah ha this will be loved” moment. Although so many people don’t read paper ones anymore, I still love to give books – they smell good, they’re easy to wrap. During the year I try to pay attention to reviews – thinking who might like what – some years I get way ahead. And others not.
I wish I had things wrapped and tucked away now. But the first step is priming the idea pump – thinking about books!