036: We Need Holiday Help

During Hanukkah —

“May we always nurture these holy feelings,
So we do not grow weary or falter
When misfortune or trouble enter our lives.”
(From “Hours of Devotion,” edited by Dinah Berland)

    We need holiday help!
    Hanukkah is less than a month away (it starts the night of December 4) and Christmas is just around the corner, too — and we’ve been digging through stacks of new books trying to find some gems that we can recommend to readers.
    So far, we’ve had remarkably slim pickings!
    I even walked through the holiday sections of several big bookstores this week — searching for fresh offerings — but my efforts, so far, have  produced precious little holiday cheer.
    Oh, there are dozens of books and videos for sale — but the vast majority are stories we know by heart and, if we are lucky enough to have kids at home, we may already own copies.

    Have you ever stopped to consider how difficult it is to find a new holiday book with a narrative — much less a triumphant ending — that you can’t predict before you open the cover?
    Recently, the new holiday books that have crossed my desk here at the Home Office of ReadTheSpirit — well, they’re not exactly bursting forth with holiday creativity.

    Two huge exceptions to this frustrating pattern are books we’ve already recommended to you:
    (And, as always, you can click on book covers or titles in our stories and jump to reviews — and our Amazon bookstore.)
    FIRST — Whatever your faith, you’ll love Dinah Berland’s marvelous “Hours of Devotion,” a 19th-Century prayer book that Berland rescued from obscurity and lovingly recast for us today. Yes, this appears to be a Jewish book — and, yes, it appears to be focused on women — but collections like this one, which demonstrate the enduring power of prayer, are universal spiritual gifts to all of us.
    No, Berland’s book isn’t focused solely on Hanukkah. That’s only one of the seasons included in the book. But this little book, nevertheless, is a great holiday gift for someone you love.
    SECOND — I’m aware of a number of major churches and many smaller discussion groups that will be integrating John Dominic Crossan’s and Marcus Borg’s latest book, “The First Christmas,” into their Advent-season reflections.
    The Bible scholars, who are good friends as well as top experts in this field, have collaborated on this fresh exploration of the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth. In easy-to-digest chapters, they explain the  timeless significance of these narratives, both in our personal lives but also in the way that the Nativity stories pose a dramatic challenge to violence and injustice in the world.   

    But, wait!
    As in any proper holiday story, there is HOPE!
    This week, I have spotted two bright lights — and they share a common theme, even though one is a Hanukkah tale and the other one is a Christmas story!
    Imagine that! Both storybooks point out a central theme in these holidays. That may sound surprising, because Hanukkah usually is described as a celebration of religious freedom and Christmas is described as a holiday of incarnation — the Christian belief that God took human form and came to live among us. Those are quite different lessons.
    But authors Kate DiCamillo and Sarah Marwil Lamstein both have illuminated another core lesson in these observances.
    They both celebrate the importance of community and justice in Hanukkah and Christmas. If this still doesn’t make sense to you, revisit the holiday stories yourself and, in Hanukkah, you’ll find community in the cleansing of the temple and the re-establishment of a distinctive people that had been threatened with extinction. And, if you doubt that this theme is central to Christmas, simply re-read the full text of Mary’s song in the gospel stories — and you’ll find it ringing like a bell.

    Neither of these books focus on the ancient holiday narratives themselves. Both books take place “long ago,” but not THAT long ago.
    DiCamillo’s storybook is pictured above at right. It’s called “Great Joy” and involves a little girl who notices an organ grinder and his monkey, standing on the street during a chilly winter season in which this girl firmly believes that everyone — whatever their status in life — deserves to be warm and safe.
    (And, actually, that’s pretty much the same song Mary sang in the gospel account.)
    Lamstein’s storybook is called “Letter on the Wind” — and, while children of any faith will enjoy the tale, there’s also a sophisticated message here about the nature of community that adults will pick up.
    Her story starts with a poor man, named Hayim, who simply wants to provide a proper Hanukkah holiday, despite dire poverty — and dares to write a letter to the Almighty seeking help. When this letter is picked up by the wind and carried to an unexpected destination, Hayim actually winds up in trouble.
    This is a storybook, so the suspense isn’t too terrible, but essentially Hayim winds up as a sort of Alfred Hitchcock-style “wrong man,” trying to do something good for his community — and unfairly accused of a crime along the way.
    Both books have joyous final scenes — and we won’t so much as whisper about those endings to save the surprises for you — and someone you love this holiday season.

      We REALLY want to hear from you on this subject of great holiday reading!
    We know you’ve got a lot to share.
Please, find the “Comment” link at the bottom of the online version of this story (if you’re reading the email edition of this story — click on the headline at the top, jump to the site, and find the Comment link).
    Once you’ve found the Comment link, use it to tell us about holiday books that you love and treasure in your household.

    As always, you also can Click Here to email me, David Crumm, but we’d like to turn this into a broader discussion about great holiday reading. After all — we’re striking out in finding great new stuff this year — and we need your help.
    There’s less than a month until the first candle of Hanukkah is lit!

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