With the holidays just around the corner, many readers are likely making plans and preparing for the recurrence of long-held, or newly-minted, holiday traditions. One holiday tradition that needs no preparation, (and is a generations-old family tradition in this writer’s home), is the reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas (colloquially known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas) by Clement Clark Moore on Christmas Eve. From copies of the book gifted to my sister and myself as children to my grandmother’s beautiful edition from the early 1930s (which features Santa Claus as a small chubby elf in a brown furry suit – a common Santa look before his red suit became ubiquitous), these books hold a special place in our hearts and holiday season.
Books not only play a special part in traditions but are a frequent and well-loved gift, often remembered fondly as a treasured holiday memory. We caught up with Emma Kaas of The Norwich Bookstore to chat about the connections between the holiday season and books.
Kaas says, “To me, a book is one of the best gifts you can give. They can be a balm, an escape, a comfort in difficult times. They can also be a window Curling up in front of a fire with a good book is a holiday highlight for many. While Kaas has special memories around A Child’s Christmas in Wales, her favorite books to read during the holidays aren’t entirely holiday-themed at all. Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, the collected essays of Shirley Jackson about her life as a writer, mother, and wife living in Vermont in the 40s and 50s, are her go-to reads. “This is comfort reading for when my brain can’t focus on much else after a long day of recommending books. Jackson’s stories are a bit like my favorite lemon cake, sweet but with a bite. They are both light-hearted anecdotes of childhood antics and incisive examinations of life as a writer in a time when women were expected to put their husband and children above all else. Jackson is wry, insightful, and always a pleasure to re-read.” While the books appear not to be related to the holidays, Kaas notes that “Each book ends right around the holidays, so they deliver those cozy holiday vibes, too.” into another experience, one that can challenge you and expand your worldview. The best books manage to be both these things.”
Kaas has her own special memories around books during the holidays. One, she recalls, is the first time she spent Christmas with her partner Sam’s family, which was the first she spent away from home. “At my house, Christmas is a boisterous, chaotic affair, with small children, competitive games, and a lot of noise,” Kaas says, “Sam’s family is much more relaxed – there is wine, a puzzle, a fire, and quiet conversation. I felt welcomed but a little out of place. And then they introduced me to Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales which they often read aloud on Christmas Eve.” The story recalls Thomas’ Christmases as a young child; Kaas recommends that readers get to know the “slim gem of a book” and make reading it aloud a holiday tradition. “It is a delightful, nostalgic poem that makes me feel like I’m curled up under a blanket in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa.”
Receiving books as a gift is another common memory many of us share, from picture books as a young one (I myself remember a beloved copy of Tomie dePaolo’s Strega Nona being unearthed from under the tree) to a variety of genres as an adult. As a bookseller, Kaas notes that it is rare that anyone gives her a book. However, every Christmas Eve, she and Sam have a tradition of exchanging books, and one sticks out in her mind. “A few years ago, Sam gifted me The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a book I’d been anticipating but then completely forgot about. I read a lot of books, but the ones that completely sweep me away come few and far between. This was one of those books. It is an immersive experience, a winding, plotless novel about a medieval nunnery that I found utterly engrossing, irreverent, and amusing,” Kaas says, “It’s always so special to receive a book that winds up being exactly what I needed in the moment and one that sticks with me for years to come.”
Being the giver of a gift is just as pleasurable, if not more so, than being the recipient, and giving the gift of a book is no exception. Finding a book with a topic or story that just perfectly suits the person you have in mind is a thrill and once given, lets your giftee know how much you were thinking of them when selecting the title. A gift can say a lot to someone you care for and a book has all the words to help you say what you want to say. When Kaas’ best friend moved away, she gifted them a copy of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, and copied the annotations from her own book into the gift book. “[The book] is a middle-grade book about a young girl who is spirited off to another land where she has to take down the reigning monarch. But, to me, it’s a book about going on a difficult journey, and it was so special to know that, as my friend moved across the country, as far away as we could be from each other, they’d be reading this book and noticing what had stuck out to me when I’d read it for the first time, what I’d bracketed and underlined, the few places where I dared write some words – like an asynchronous book club,” Kaas says.
“I still think that’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever given.”
Editor’s Note: In the spirit of giving, The Norwich Bookstore has partnered with various community organizations for many years to help provide books to kids in need throughout the Upper Valley during the holiday season. As this article shows, the thoughtful gift of a book can make the biggest, most meaningful difference in someone’s life, and can become a memory that will last a lifetime.
This season, the “Book Angels” program organized by the Norwich Bookstore gives community members a way to touch the lives of Upper Valley children with the gift of a book. Book requests are written on paper angels, and you can be a Book Angel by visiting the bookstore in-person and choosing a specific book wish to fulfill, or making a monetary donation in-person or online which the bookstore will use to fulfill all requests. To donate online, visit norwichbookstore.com/book-angel-gift-card. Give the gift of reading, be a Book Angel!