A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a talk by Richard Paul Evans, author of The Christmas Box and many other popular books, including his latest, A Winter Dream. He was speaking at the St. Louis County, only a few miles from our home. (Authors attracting large audiences usually end up at this library for their St. Louis visits).
Evans was charming. He told stories sprinkled with self-deprecating humor. He talked about the previous times he’d been in St. Louis. He talked about the responses to the book he had received over the years.
The Christmas Box, he said, was originally written for his two (then) young daughters. He had printed 20 copies for family and a few friends. Someone loaned it to someone else, it began making the rounds, and eventually a publisher picked it up. The book was a best-seller in the United States and several other countries.
This year marks the book’s 20th anniversary, and the publisher has printed a special edition. My wife had previously read it but I had not, so I bought a copy of it and A Winter Dream.
It’s a simple, sweet story, largely autobiographical. To save money, a young couple and their 4-year-old daughter respond to an ad and eventually move into a large Victorian house owned by an elderly lady. They get free rent, and she gets cooking, light housekeeping and some yard work. And company. The young man is trying to get a new business established, and spends long hours away from home. But things will happen, and discoveries will be made, and he will learn about the first gift of Christmas.
The book reads easily and quickly; it’s on the short side, even for a novella. It’s like reading a Hallmark Hall of Fame television special, for which I am a total sap, especially the commercials. The book has been a successful seller for two decades, likely the most popular of all recent Christmas books, a genre first widely popularized by Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol in the 1840s.
Christmas books are big sellers at this time of year; just check the tables at the local Barnes & Noble or search online at Amazon. Lots of Christmas books are written and published every year, each author to achieve what Evans has done with The Christmas Box.
One reason is obvious: we all like a good story, and a book like The Christmas Box is a good story. Yes, it has an element of sentimentality (“serious” writers and poets hate sentimentality) but that’s okay; we can stand a bit of sentimentality, especially at this time of the year.
A second reason for these books’ popularity is that they’re easy and quick to read. They don’t require an extended engagement or serious commitment. They’re not written to be serious literature. But they’re stories, simple stories, stories that are accessible and moving and easy to understand.
A third reason, and the one I think most important, is that we like recognizable stories about Christmas. The nativity story of Jesus in the Bible is familiar, but it’s not necessarily recognizable, especially in the wealthy society and culture that is the United States, Western Europe, and the countries we generally call “the Western world.” I suspect it’s not as familiar but more recognizable in developing countries in Africa than it is in the U.S.
What I mean by “recognizable” is this: Jesus was born to a lower working-class family in the Middle East. He did not know luxury; he didn’t know what it meant to have indoor plumbing, running water, and a cornucopia of food to eat. For his economic class, transportation was mostly by foot. He didn’t live in a society that knew and practiced basic human freedoms, freedoms we take for granted today. He didn’t go to an expensive private school; to grow up in Nazareth even then was considered a questionable upbringing.
We are familiar with the story of Jesus, but it’s difficult at best for us to recognize it, and identify with it. Stories like The Christmas Box essentially translate the original Christmas story into something we can recognize and connect with.
One thing I try to do each year at this time is reread the account of the nativity in the Gospel of St. Luke and find one new thing I hadn’t noticed before. It might be a word, a reference, a statement, an observation – just one thing that surprises, because everything about the nativity is a surprise. Or I might select one word or idea or statement (like the role myrrh played in Middle Eastern society) and research it, following where it might lead.
Try it. You might end up writing your own Christmas story.