At the Back Fence Issue #287

December 17, 2007 

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Reading at Christmas

What are your favorite Christmas or holiday stories?  Are any of them romances?  Do you read them every year?

I love reading at Christmas.  Christmas reading ties one year to the next and creates a stream of memories of good stories of Christmas’ gone-by.   Memories of great Christmas reads come back every year.  Some of these books are Christmas stories, others are just stories read on Christmas.  During elementary school vacations, I read the Little House books with their chapters describing Christmas on the frontier.  In high school I read  Kenneth Roberts’ historicals – and imagined myself living  life in colonial America – and Daphne DuMaurier romances set in 1940s England.  Scholarly history books dominated my college Christmas vacations. Alice in Wonderland, read one Christmas when I was newly married, seemed witty, wise and not a bit scary – so different from my childhood memory.   On a Christmas trip in Rhode Island, when I was in my mid-forties, I read Mary Balogh trads.  I read those books with the same kind of concentration that I’d had in adolescence.  I doubted that experience would repeat itself until a few years later, when The Bronze Horseman kept me awake over a New Year’s weekend, worrying about the fate of two lovers during siege of Leningrad.

For me, Christmas reading can be a special pleasure when the stress of gift buying, wrapping and food preparation has ended.  On Christmas night I read in my chilly winter bedroom in my mother’s old house in Rhode Island.  I grew up in this house; in this very small room with its slanted ceilings .  My bed, covered with worn cotton sheets and heavy wool blankets, looks much the same as it did when I was small.  Curling up under the covers with my book peaking out to catch the light of the bed lamp, I hear my children, husband and mother downstairs watching a Christmas special on television.  The laughter of my 15-year-old daughter playing cards with her grandmother comes up the stairs, as well as the sound of my son chuckling as he plays with Mimi, Grandma’s dog.  What to read?  What to read?

My favorite Christmas stories are ones where the characters seem to find something beyond themselves in the meaning of Christmas.  Yes, I know this sounds sentimental, but if you can’t be sentimental at Christmas, when can you be?   I love Carla Kelly’s short story, An Object of Charity, from A Regency Christmas Present, about a seaman who rescues a brother and sister only to discover that he is the truly needy one of the three.  I love A Charlie Brown Christmas for its conclusion.  When Linus steps out onto the stage and tells Charlie Brown that he knows the true meaning of Christmas, and reads from Matthew, it’s beautiful, not just for the religious feeling, but because it points out that, beyond all the hype, Christmas is about something significant.

I am also a great fan of A Christmas Carol, not only the book, but the cartoon, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.  Okay, laugh if you want, but I maintain that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is the best dramatization of Dickens’ classic ever.  Not only does it have music that stays in your head for years, it has a love story.  Sigh.

 So what did  I buy this year?

Isn’t buying romance novels absolutely the best break from gift buying?  I tell myself that  I must buy some Christmas romance novels.  It’s a necessity. There must a  thousand books in my house but I never stop stocking up for emergencies.   What if there was a terrible blizzard in Rhode Island, and we were snowed in for days, with no way to get more books?  What if we lost power?  What if I lost all my money?  Buying romance novels at Christmas is my version of putting up strawberries and zucchini.

 This year, the pickings in local bookstores seemed thinner than usual, not in terms of romance, but in the numbers of Christmas romances. There were not many books.  In fact there seemed to be a lot more Christmas murder mysteries than Christmas romance novels.  What is going on that there were so few Christmas romance novels this year?  Is it the political correctness of Bethesda, or is this the case everywhere?  (My children’s elementary school once deemed the song Must be Santa as too religious for the “Holiday Concert,” so its entirely possible that no one around here wants to be overly Christmas oriented.)

There were a few interesting titles at Borders including The Sheik and the Christmas Bride by Susan MalleryAccording to  the cover, this is the story of how  “Prince As’ad of El Deharia,” blackmails teacher Kayleen James  into marrying him so that he will adopt three orphan children. Okay I get it, but why Christmas?   A Christmas Sheik romance?  What’s next, The Rabbi’s Christmas Bride?  This is one for the collectors.  I thought of buying Mallery’s book, but decided that the chance I would be flinging it against the wall were too likely for me to pay for it.

Usually romance aisles are packed with an assortment of Christmas books from September on.  I arrived at my local Barnes and Noble ready to buy at least six Christmas books, and walked out with only three: Suzanne Brockmann’s latest, All Through the Night; Michelle Styles’ A Christmas Wedding Wager; and The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, by Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Eileen Dryer.  This book looked a bit like Christmas, but is in fact about magic.

The book I had been looking for, the one that tells me that the Christmas romance season is upon us, was sold out at Barnes and Noble and at Borders.  This was Regency Christmas Wishes, 2007’s title in Signet’s annual trad Regency anthology. As with many romance readers, this book is a tradition with me.  It’s the one anthology that I always buy, and this year it has a story by Carla Kelly.  Its nice to see how popular it is.

At Borders I picked up more romance.  Eloisa James’ An Affair Before Christmas was the only Christmas book that tempted me.  The book begins with a rather intriguing conversation between a duke and his betrothed about kissing.  The heroine cannot seem to get her mind around the idea that kisses might involve more than pecks.  Hmm.

Coming home I tucked into Brockmann’s All Through the Night.  Robin and Jules, the gay couple from Brockmann’s recent books, are getting married.  There’s another romance (heterosexual), but Jules and Robin are the main event.  This is one of those books that you read mostly so that you can spend more time with characters of past books. I loved Jules and Robin so I’m pretty much in happyland reading about these two.    I’m not a bit fan of cameo walk-ons  in romance novels, but my tolerance for this kind of thing improves at Christmas.  Yes, I know you need a story, but sometimes its nice to just hang out with some familiar friends, you know?

Isn’t romance great?  I am the mother of  two teenagers, a busy woman with a hectic job, messy house and a purse full of bills.  But on  Christmas night I will smile at the Christmas tree in my mother’s house and remember all the years I spent there waiting for Santa.  I’ll climb the stairs and open a book.  I am ten years old, 16, and 25 all over again.   A hero, tall, dark and strong, but kind with a dry sense of humor is naturally madly in love with me…turn the page.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanza…have a great Holiday.

Questions for Consideration:

Before heading off to the ATBF Forum, we’d like you to consider these questions. Remember that discussion is not limited to these questions, but they should provide a jumping off point.

What are your fondest memories surrounding this time of year? Are there particular family traditions you experienced as a child that you’ve kept alive with your own children?

Do you get the chance to read at this time of year? Is life to hectic, what with shopping, parties, and cooking/baking to read, or do you find reading is practically a necessity as it gives you time for yourself and allows you respite from the tumult that surrounds the holidays?

Are there certain books you associate with Christmas…perhaps you re-read them during the holidays?

Do you like to read Christmas stories – romance or otherwise?

If, like Laurie, you don’t celebrate Christmas, do you feel particularly humbuggy this time of year? Or do you get into the spirit of giving regardless of your religion, and enjoy Christmassy things like lights, the cold, and stories set during the season (Laurie is actually reading Balogh’s The Christmas Bride right now, listening to James Taylor sing Christmas songs, and recently watched favorites such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Meet Me in St. Louis)?

Do you have a favorite Christmas read? Tell us about it!

Robin Uncapher

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