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If you know me, then you’ll have guessed that the “all new” in the title of this post does not, in fact, refer to newly released books. In fact, once I went looking for links online, I realized that almost every single book I wanted to tell you about is out of print.
But don’t let that deter you! Fortunately, the internet makes searching for and purchasing used books very easy. You can follow the amazon links below, or you can search Abe Books or Powells. You could also do what I do: keep a list of authors to look for the next time you visit a used bookstore or thrift store.
So, what do I mean by all new? I mean that these are some of our favorite seasonal books, but I have never mentioned them on the blog before. You can find all of the Advent and Christmas books I have already recommended over here on one handy page.
Why so many books? Who has time for reading during this, one of the busiest months of the year? I love what Sarah Arthur has to say in Light Upon Light:
So the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read. Who has time for that? But it is a Word that has come to us, and words that tell the story of that Word from generation to generation.
First, lest you imagine that picture books are only for children, I recommend Lisbeth Zwerger’s version of The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Zwerger is a prize-winning illustrator from Vienna. Her art is strange but lovely and is the perfect thoughtful foil for the disturbing whimsy and intelligence of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker tale. While I have shared this long picture book with my older children, I think this book would make a wonderful gift for any adult who appreciates art and literature.
The next book I’ll mention couldn’t be more different than Zwerger’s, but it is a new favorite in our house. Christmas For 10 by Cathryn Falwell is a counting Christmas book featuring multiple generations of an African-American family. My four-year-old loves it because she can count along, my older kids are drawn into it because of the bright cut-paper illustrations, and I love it for its depiction of ordinary Christmas fun like stringing popcorn and filling gift baskets. I am also grateful to have a Christmas book featuring a non-white family. Unfortunately, this is still very rare in Christmas picture books.
The Christmas Party by Adrienne Adams is more than a little unexpected (a Christmas book about a family of Easter egg-painting rabbits??), but it is a thrift store gem. I had never heard of Adrienne Adams before I picked up a used copy of this book, but her illustrations are so appealing.
And though I picked this one up for the pictures, the story is wonderful, too. It’s a bit of a Christmas coming-of-age tale, as the rabbit children turn the tables on their hardworking parents by surprising them with a memorable outdoor Christmas party. Adams’ illustrations of an egg-decorated Christmas tree and rabbit families sledding a snowy hill under a full moon are equally memorable.
Christmas in the Country by Cynthia Rylant is my favorite kind of picture book. It is almost like a picture-book version of a literary memoir: Rylant’s recollection of a country Christmas from her childhood is spare and straightforward, yet the small memories seem to add up to so much more than is at first apparent. I could read this one over and over.
My children, on the other hand, much prefer The Worst Person’s Christmas by James Stevenson. I wasn’t even planning to mention this story of a truly awful Christmas curmudgeon, except that my kids have begged for it every night this week. When I refused to read it one more time, my oldest decided that she would read it out loud instead. Three pages in and my boys were howling.
Fortunately, the horrifying behavior of “the worst person in the world” can’t persist against the unrelenting cheer and kindness of his neighbors. His insults may be horrifying (to me) and hilarious (to my children), but the story has a sweet ending.
If you need a break from the picture books, I’ve been enjoying Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope. These Victorian short stories offer the best of an old-fashioned British Christmas with the usual concerns of nineteenth-century literature. These are stories of roast beef, plum pudding, property, and humorous misunderstandings neatly resolved by the end of Christmas Day.
I’ve always enjoyed classic British murder mysteries from the 1930s. A Christmas Party: A Seasonal Murder Mystery by Georgette Heyer is wickedly fun and clever. I recommend reading it near a roaring country house fire. However, I found that a small kitchen woodstove will do in a pinch.
Happy reading and blessed Advent.
For years, my children have sung the same old tired song. It goes like this: it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.
I used to argue with them. I tried banning those words, altogether. But for the past year or so, I have said only this:
In our house, we don’t do fair. We do love. Do you want fairness or do you want love?
I heard the familiar complaint again as we sat around the dinner table Sunday night. My mind was elsewhere, my body tired, so I let the conversation take it’s course. The kids didn’t argue. They traded ideas with more civility than is typical. But they never could decide what a fair distribution of the baguette might have been. The baguette they had already polished off between them. Four pieces, each? Wait, no, that doesn’t work.
I hesitated before I spoke. I hesitated because I wasn’t sure if it was right to say it. I wasn’t sure if I could say it without tears. But I said it:
Do you think what happened to your cousins in Hawaii was fair?
They looked at me with wide eyes and said, No.
Do you think God loves you more than them?
They lowered their heads. They whispered, No.
No one at the table said anything for a long while. We know the truth, we hold it in our hands like the shell my daughter brought home from the beach, but that doesn’t mean we understand it.
While I was in Hawaii, I heard a young child cry, It isn’t fair.
And she’s right. It isn’t fair.
“Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” Job 21:7
Why would such a good man, such a loving and much-loved man, die young? I don’t know the answer, but I know that the God of heaven and earth is something better than fair. He is love.
So many have asked. How are you? How is your sister? How are the kids? I can only speak for myself, but I think that we are all walking the wild, unfamiliar edges of a very great love.
We are discovering that God’s love is deeper than the great depths of the ocean only a mile off Oahu’s North Shore. We are finding that God’s love is higher than the mountains that climb like great green fingers to a crumbling, volcanic rim. We can see that God’s love is wider even than a rainbow so wide it embraces the horizon.
This loss, this sorrow, is enormous. It stretches out as far as we can see. But, there, too, matching it, overtaking it, is this love.
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” Job 42:3
Every day God gives good gifts. He gives those ordinary miracles of day and night, work and rest, bread and wine and laughter. But, too often, we receive those gifts as if we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. The irony is that when life is good, when life seems easy, too many of us do not feel loved. And we do not feel safe.
I have long believed that life is a journey of love. More and more, I am becoming convinced that some days are for love’s gentleness. Other days for its wildness.
There is evening, and we sleep in love’s quietness. There is morning, and our eyes are opened to love’s vast, almost unfathomable borders.
Today, we are wide awake.
“I am walking every day nearer to the edge. I committed myself almost with a running leap … but there is always this edge running through our lives and our days. … it is the cliff edge between winter and spring. The fault line between death and life. … I am realizing how frequently we are invited to dive into the unknown. To make a flying leap toward light and life and love. How frightening it always is. And how necessary. And also how well cared for we always are, even if we are never, at least not exactly, safe.” – Christie Purifoy, Roots and Sky
It is true that we are loved, but it is also true that we are not safe. Not in the way we take that word to mean. Shoes do drop. Suffering knocks on our door, but this isn’t because some cosmic scale has tipped. This isn’t because we have reached the end of God’s goodness. Or of our supply of good gifts.
To have your soul awakened. To have your eyes opened.
Those are also good gifts.
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job 42:5
If you pray for us, perhaps you might pray for sleep. If wakefulness is a gift, it is one we cannot bear for long. We need at least a few hours when our eyes can close.
We need, sometimes, to forget. We need darkness, especially when, all day long, we cannot seem to stop staring straight into the sun.
I wrote a version of this post last year for the website Deeper Story. It feels even more true this year.
I am standing in the yard with a rake in my hands when I feel the circle of the year begin to tie itself up with a neatly finished knot.
Since moving to this old farmhouse on the hill, my late November chores are always the same. Chopping up the great drifts of fallen maple leaves with the mower. Cleaning out the brittle tomato vines and the slimy, still-green nasturtiums from the vegetable garden. Covering each raised bed with a winter blanket of chopped leaves.
I tear the blackened cords of morning glory and moonflower from the porch, scattering the seeds of next summer’s flowers in the process. Our compost bins overflow.
I circle the fruit trees in our tiny orchard with deer fencing. I mound the roses with wood chips.
The year is dying. The trees and shrubs prepare to sleep. And every wheelbarrow load of mulch underscores the end of our year’s work.
My friend and I meet each week in the local, big-chain coffee shop. December was still weeks away when I walked in to find that our familiar corner table now sat beneath dangling paper bells. And was it snowing in there? I am sure it was snowing glitter.
It felt so deeply wrong but also festive, and I wondered if I had become a thirty-seven-year-old curmudgeon.
I’m not the bah-humbug type. I don’t begrudge anyone their seasonal fun. But it was clear to me, sitting in a coffee shop that shone like red tin foil, that my heart, mind, and soul were tuned to some other rhythm.
It was still November, and I was not ready for Christmas feasting. The old, dying year hadn’t yet been laid to rest.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world …”
I’ve known those words since childhood. But I think that it is only now, having watched the year circle this hilltop a few times, that I feel the rift, small but growing, that lies between me and long familiar patterns.
It turns out there is a difference between the earth and the world. One is a circle, a globe if you will, shaped by the shifting tides of work and rest. The other is also a circle, but it is more like a hamster’s wheel jangling away beneath twenty-four-hour floodlights.
I am increasingly out of sync with the world. I am longing to inherit the earth.
December blows in on a polar wind. We mark this month’s progress with a circle of candles. Sunday after Sunday there is more light by which to see.
What I see, from the top of this hill, is an earth gone to sleep. While the world spins itself out in dizzy circles of consumption, the earth recognizes that its work is done. New things, like new years, begin with sleep (which is to say, surrender), and winter is a season for rest.
I like to think that this is what it looks like to store up treasure in heaven. The trees know they need only wait. A few more months, and heaven will return every good thing we have lost. That is the meaning of spring.
The world knows little of Advent and will be, I fear, all worn out by the evening of December 25. The traditional twelve days are too many when the feast began in mid-November.
But the earth has one sermon that has never lost its power.
When spring returns, even the weary world rejoices.
“you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls”
We have arrived at those muddy, brown days between winter and spring. When I cross the yard to the chicken coop, it feels as if I am walking on a sponge. We have had a few warmer days and a few sunnier days, but it is not yet clear to me if the damage of this winter can be undone.
Somehow I find it harder to believe in spring the closer it comes.
My daughter is learning about the Holocaust in school. Every afternoon she shows me some newly acquired fact, as if she half believes that this time, this time, I will contradict her teacher. I will say, No, no, it wasn’t as bad as that. Instead, I only ever say yes. Yes, it’s true.
Here is what she does not say: How do you go on living in a world where such things have happened? Still happen?
Here is what I do not say: I don’t know.
As a writer, I pick up the pieces. Even the ugly, broken pieces. I arrange them and rearrange them, and I search for hidden meaning. I find patterns, and they always say the same thing. They say, Look! Here is something beautiful. Here is good news.
Except that recently, I can’t seem to find the pattern. The broken pieces remain only broken pieces.
They are so many. They are so sharp.
Because it is Lent, we begin each Sunday service with The Decalogue rather than a hymn. We hear the list of God’s ten commands, and they are like stones that form a wall that enclose a garden.
Gardens grow best within the shelter of a wall, but we have torn down the wall with our own hands.
Perhaps we must first listen to the bad news if we hope ever to hear the good.
Perhaps it is sorrow for all the broken pieces and all the tumbled stones that gives us courage to stand up. To rise up, leave the sackcloth and ashes, and go searching for our new name.
“He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. … On the land of Lorien there was no stain.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien
I recently placed myself in something like a writer’s Time-Out.
It was similar to the break my younger son is often required to take when his grumbling about the breakfast oatmeal reaches a critical stage. I simply told myself I must stay away from this blog until I had something better to contribute than complaints about the weather.
But then January turned into February, and though the weather has been, if anything, more disappointing than ever, I decided it was probably time to let my words out again.
We’ll see what happens.
My older son received snow shoes for Christmas. Though he has taken them out for a few test runs each time the snow has drifted into something resembling reasonable depth, for the most part, they have sat, ready and waiting, by the laundry-room door.
For a few weeks, those new snowshoes looked optimistic. Expectant. They perched neatly with their accompanying poles. Yesterday, I realized that they had fallen behind a pile of cardboard waiting to be recycled. Their metallic blue surface was dimmed by dust.
Whether or not you are the proud owner of new snowshoes, I do not think there is anything more miserable than sheets of rain and a high temperature of thirty-eight degrees.
This morning, the winter sun shone. Elsa and I walked the neighborhood sidewalks like puppies released from a kennel.
I noticed, as I walked, that the sky was a very pale, very delicate blue. It looked like porcelain. It looked as if a bowl of fine bone china had been turned upside-down over the treetops.
It was one of the loveliest skies I think I have ever seen. But it was also a thoroughly winter sky.
There are no skies like bone china in June.