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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A Golden little Christmas story

The front cover is long gone, as is the Santa who popped up when you opened the book, lost with most memories of our long-ago Christmas Eves. That golden spine is still there, chipped and worn to cardboard in places, but there. So is the story that was special to me, about the boy who didn’t deserve a Christmas.

Published in 1950, two years before I was born, The Animals’ Merry Christmas is a large-format Golden Book — part of the series that from 1942 to 1992 sold over a billion and a half copies, according to Golden Press. This title’s author was Kathryn Jackson, about whom I can only find that she “wrote dozens of Golden Books and story collections in the 1940s and 1950s,” says her author’s bio on Amazon. Its illustrator was the one and only Richard Scarry.

Somehow, through all the years, I have kept this book. It’s the same book. We read it every Christmas Eve when we were little, my younger brother and sister and I with our parents, just before we’d read A Night Before Christmas, just before we were sent off to bed, if not to sleep. The book has seven stories. I especially remember “The Goat Who Played Santa Claus,” about a barn’s animals who improvise Christmas gifts, and “Mr. Lion’s Plum Pudding,” because I didn’t know what plum pudding was. But mainly I remember “Terrible Teddy Bear.”

See, Santa has one bear who's nothing but trouble. He can’t give him away — the bear hides out in his sleigh, and is still there when Santa gets back home on Christmas morning. On the fifth such morning of this, Santa goes to the basket in his workshop marked “NO!” “That basket,” Jackson writes, “was chockful of letters from people who didn’t deserve presents and did not get presents.”

This was a dark turn, for a Golden Book. But Santa faces it. The letters always make him sad, but he reads them all. He reads all day — that’s how many kids, apparently, have had empty Christmas mornings. Then he jumps up and announces to Mrs. Claus that he’s found a child “more terrible than Terrible Teddy.

“Here’s a letter from Terrible Tommy, who says ‘I won’t‘ all day long, and eats nothing but candy and bubble gum, and besides — he never will go to bed at night.” Mrs. Claus responds, “You can’t EVER take him a present!” But Santa laughs. “I’m going to his house right now — a special trip. And I’m going to give him Terrible Teddy!”

He makes the trip holding Teddy so tight the bear can’t even squeak. And now the scene shifts to me ... or, that is, to Tommy.

I got perfectly fine presents, and we had a nice Christmas tradition; but I was often told, through the year, what a terrible problem I was. I was that kid, in the family. I tried hard not to be; I tried to put away those parts of me that were difficult, but that just made things more complicated. So when the story introduces Tommy as the only one who’s awake, because Santa Claus hadn’t come to him, I always silently ... connected.

“Not even a horn that wouldn’t blow,” Tommy says as he sits by a cold fireplace. “Not even anything.” What he wanted most was a teddy bear, “even an old one, a brown and plushy and nice-to-hold one ... the kind that’s the size for taking to bed.”

On the roof now, Santa hears. He blows ashes down, “to make Tommy close his eyes.” And a moment later, Tommy has his bear. He hugs him tightly. The bear hugs back. “And right then all the Terrible went straight out of Tommy. It went out of Teddy, too. Up the stairs they went, both together. Both together they climbed into Tommy’s bed. Both together they went sound asleep.”

I love that repetition, “both together.” It’s a strong little story — a child’s experience of darkness and redemption for this darkest time of year. I think it gave me hope that there was redemption, though at the time I wouldn’t let myself have it. And in a different age, when the TV channels are full of holiday commercials for the newest Assassin’s Creed and World of Warcraft storytelling games, The Animals‘ Merry Christmas is a quaint little relic. It’s silly to be remembering this, right?

But no. However vivid and violent they are on screen, video games only externalize the darkness, the tension, the redemption. A story, in contrast, that comes in through clues on the page comes to life within the reader — so that a grown person, many decades later, may still remember the warm light this small narrative kindled inside. And, after all, that’s what this season is about — not, in essence, about one story or the other, but about the hope of redemption, the promise of light in the darkest time.

This has been a dark year in so many ways, for so many of us. I wish the best gift of the season to everyone — a new knowing that life has its seasons, that the light and warmth and spirit we celebrate will find its way in again. Year after year after year, if we can be open, it will find us. And we can go to sleep knowing we’re not so alone after all.

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