By BRUCE HANDY Published: December 2, 2011
What’s with Christmas? So anxious. So self-conscious. Always fretting about its “true spirit.” Always taking its own temperature or rummaging around for “the real meaning of.” Increasingly paranoid about the “war against.” Begging, inevitably, to be saved — December after December after December. Does any other holiday demand magic when a mere day off and a pleasant dinner would suffice? If Christmas were a friend, I’d beg her to go on Zoloft or maybe Thorazine — at least talk to someone, for God’s sake. Or eat some fudge and shut up.
The one good thing about Yuletide angst is that it has provided generations of writers and artists and producers of television specials with one of pop culture’s most reliable narrative engines. No one worries about the real meaning of Halloween; no one would care or perhaps even notice if the Grinch stole Father’s Day. But threaten to spoil Christmas — sabotage Santa’s sleigh, hold a gun to a carton of eggnog — and you are guaranteed drama, tears, miracles, the bestest Christmas ever, God bless us every one, except Charlie Brown, that blockhead — but no, him too! A Christian might argue that this redemptive trope goes back to the original Christmas narrative: the ticking clock of Mary’s pregnancy, the schlep to Bethlehem, the inn with no room, the lo-and-behold manger, the big, starlit finale. . . . Why, plucky Christmas has been triumphing over adversity since (truly) Day 1!
Cut to the present day: Did someone tell publishers there’s a market for Christmas books? Looks like it, judging from the red and green covers, especially in the children’s section. Then again, Christmas is often said to be “for” children, so perhaps no one is too young to shoulder its peculiar narrative burdens. And sometimes the results really do approach magic, as with “Lighthouse Christmas” and “A Christmas Tree for Pyn.”
I was particularly affected by “Lighthouse,” set during the Depression on a remote island off the coast of Maine, where young Frances and Peter’s father works as a lighthouse keeper. Their mother has recently died, though the loss serves only as a kind of sad, sustained cello note, underscoring the tale with something more resonant than merely the threat of a storm-ruined holiday. And Toni Buzzeo’s text homes in on just the right details to keep her narrative grounded in both physical and emotional reality. Equally restrained yet full of feeling, Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations, a mixture of pen and ink and watercolor, hit an evocative, cinematic peak in depicting a nighttime rescue at sea, a harrowing event that propels the story to its happy ending. The holiday’s true meaning is discovered in shared humanity — in family, that old holiday canard — with the assist of a deus ex machina. (Which I suppose is theologically apt.) What I’m grateful for this Christmas is that rather than bang readers over the head, Buzzeo and Carpenter end their story on a quiet note of inclusion involving a one-eared cat. Here is true grace in unlikely surroundings — away in a manger, so to speak.
“A Christmas Tree for Pyn” plies parallel waters while striking a more folkloric note. “On top of a steep craggy mountain lived a bear of a man named Oother and his small daughter, Pyn,” begins our story, which appears to take place in a Northern European Neverland. Here, too, Mama is absent; dead, again, it is presumed. Fortunately, there are no wicked stepmothers or witches, just a gentle tale of how the search for a Christmas tree allows Oother to break through his implied grief and native reserve to show his love for little Pyn. It’s a neat trick Olivier Dunrea (“Gossie”) pulls off, using the trappings of a timeworn tale to tell a story with a contemporary, learning-to-live-again moral; imagine a cross between the Brothers Grimm and a Diane Lane movie. But I’m making “A Christmas Tree for Pyn” sound gooier than it is. Dunrea’s illustrations reflect the canny, emotional subtlety of his storytelling. Sweet and plainspun but also modern and graphic, they remind me a bit of the work of prewar picture book makers like Esphyr Slobodkina (“Caps for Sale”) and Wanda Gag (“Millions of Cats”). If Christmas needs saving this year, you could do much, much worse than these two books, and probably have.
By Toni Buzzeo. Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
32 pp. Dial. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 5 to 9)
A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR PYN
Written and Illustrated by Olivier Dunrea
32 pp. Philomel Books. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 3 to 8)