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Two Delights for the Christmas Season

December 03, 1987|ROSELLE M. LEWIS

An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Dennis Pepper (Oxford University: $13.95); The Oxford Merry Christmas Book, written and designed by Rita Winstanley (Oxford University: $13.95).

Oxford University Press has issued two literary delights this holiday season. In "An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories," editor Dennis Pepper has selected 30 short stories written by British authors. Nine of the pieces were commissioned for this collection.

The book begins with a traditional retelling of the Nativity, printed on its endpapers, moves on to thematically linked stories that focus on aspects of Christmas and winter--with such titles as "Grandfather Frost," "The Snowman" and Charles Dickens' "Mr. Pickwick on the Ice"--and concludes with contemporary fiction. "Ghost Alarm" describes ridding a haunted house, during the Yule season, of an extraterrestrial creature, and "Call Me Blessed" takes a decidedly modern look at Mary's virgin plight and childbirth ordeal.

Robin Klein's "Get Lost" is a touching account of a poor, tough-talking child, hospitalized at Christmas, whose cynicism and rude tongue are finally tamed by a thoughtful gift from his beleaguered nurse. And Shirley Jackson contributes "A Visit to the Bank," a wickedly charming story, in which the narrator must take a bank loan after her two little girls extract extravagant promises from a department store Santa.

If "Christmas Stories" is a plum pudding, the "Merry Christmas Book" seems more like a pinata. Open it anywhere and unexpected ideas for gifts, activities and special foods rain down. Scouring the world for traditions and customs, Rita Winstanley, whose artwork enhances every page, does this pre-eminent holiday proud. She describes things to do for Advent, the week preceding Christmas, offers a host of recipes, poems, games, carols and cartoons for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and comes up with lively explanations of the New Year, as celebrated in both Western cultures and in China.

As for the history of Christmas, the author is generous. She tells us that Boxing Day, a major national holiday in England, probably originated during ancient Roman times when the poor received boxes of food; she also explains why Britishers prefer goose at their festive board; how Santa Claus, a descendant of Father Christmas, became a naturalized American. And now it's clear why the "spider" sat beside the cornered Little Jack Horner, while he ate his Christmas pie.

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