Soon it will be Advent and we will be preparing for Christmas. I know that other people start long before I do, but for me 1 December really starts the build up (and even that is a bit early!). The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder, A Feast for Advent by Delia Smith and Skipping Christmas by John Gresham are three very different pre-Christmas books, offering different perspectives on the season.
The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder is a good book to read during Advent. Gaarder is a Norwegian writer, formerly a philosophy teacher. I first came across him a few years ago with Sophie’s World, a marvellous book about the history of philosophy.
The Christmas Mystery is a story within a story, intertwining the present and the past. The book is divided into 24 chapters, one for each day up to Christmas Eve. It’s the story of Joachim, a young boy who has been given an old faded Advent calendar. But this is no ordinary calendar. It has a beautiful picture on the cover, showing Joseph and Mary bending over the baby Jesus lying in the manger. The Three Wise Men kneel in the background, whilst the shepherds and their sheep are outside the stable with angels floating down from the sky. Each day Joachim opens a door revealing a picture and a sheet of paper falls out on which there is a chapter of the story of Elisabet who disappeared in 1948. Joachim is anticipating Christmas with great excitement and his wonder and amazement at the Christmas story grow throughout the book. As the days follow on towards Christmas Day the story travels back in time and place to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. A magical book.
Delia Smith is better known for her cookery books and TV programmes and also for her interest in Norwich City Football Club. She has also written spiritual books. In A Journey Into God she writes about prayer and her own experience and in A Feast for Advent she writes reflections on Christmas for every day in Advent, together with Bible passages and prayers. As she writes in the introduction she has come to understand that ‘prayer and contemplation, while utterly necessary, do absolutely nothing to ease the pressure and that on Christmas Day I will always end up horizontal!‘ In A Feast for Advent Delia offers help in escaping for a few minutes each day to contemplate the meaning of Christmas, providing a journey through Advent, illustrated with photographs and reproductions of Quidenham Cards from the Carmelite Monastery in Norfolk.
Thinking about the pressures of Christmas reminded me of a very different book I read a few years ago – Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. This is not the usual Grisham legal thriller, but a very funny little book about the horrors, commercialisation and expense of Christmas. A middle-aged American couple Luther and Nora Krank estimated that the previous Christmas they had spent $6,100 and that was not all it had cost – there was their time, the stress, worrying, bickering, ill-will and sleep-loss as well. So, as their daughter will not be home for Christmas they decide that this year they will skip Christmas and fly off to the Caribbean. They will not have any lights, tree, gifts, parties, hassles, or expenses. I must admit that I was very tempted by the whole idea.
However, when their neighbours, friends and family find out there will be no celebrations and no annual Christmas Eve party that the Kranks normally hold, they are horrified and pile on the pressure. The Kranks find that it’s not going to be as easy as they thought. Then they receive a surprise phone call and realise that Christmas is not just about material things after all. I really enjoyed this book.