For some reason, I’ve never taken much to the Christmas Story movie with the BB gun, tongue stuck to a pole, and the outrageous leg-lamp. Instead, I watched the stop-action Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with the elf whose wish was to become a dentist, and A Charlie Brown Christmas with the poor sad tree and the fabulous jazzy dancing. But just as fundamental to the season as these shows was The Tall Book of Christmas, a collection of stories that appeared to be set in Germany or Switzerland or Russia where all of the characters were blond with pink cheeks.
I pored over this book every year, loving the unusual tales and the colorful illustrations. There was the mean giant who was placated when given limburger cheese; the granny who used candies in a pinch to dye all her white yarn, rendering the mittens she knitted deliciously edible; the tale of the mysterious babushka who wandered from house to house in the snow looking for a family to let her in; and the kind man who spent Christmas in jail and carved wooden figures small enough to push out of a knothole in his cell wall for the kind children who brought him food. There were also Christmas stories like Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, but these unusual stories stuck with me, probably because I’d never heard them anywhere else.
Eventually the book fell apart from use and disappeared. When I would remember it, I’d ask friends if they knew about the book, but was usually met with blank stares. Sometime after college, I was touring Victorian homes in Old Louisville that were decorated for the holidays. In the living room of one home, along with the Christmas tree, wreaths, and candles, I saw The Tall Book of Christmas displayed on a table. And they had copies for sale.
When our kids were small, I started bringing this book out for the holidays. As the name implies, it has a distinctive shape – only 5 inches wide, but 14 inches tall. It’s slim enough to read all in one sitting, but each story could be dwelt over as we examined the illustrations and talked about the characters. They’d giggle at the same things I had, and ask for multiple readings. Now, even as adults, they’ll surreptitiously pluck the book off the coffee table to look through the pages.
Of course the holidays have many stories, and books have a lot of competition. Kids’ programs (Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol), feature films (Love Actually), made-for-TV movies (Hallmark and, seemingly every cable channel). We will partake of all of them, dabbing our weepy eyes, happy to be home and warm. Then I’ll be on the watch for lemon-flavored mittens, and small packets of limburger.