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December 8, 2015

Paula McLain: Christmas Held Still

Posted by emily

Paula McLain, the bestselling author of THE PARIS WIFE and CIRCLING THE SUN, knows a thing or two about riveting historical fiction. So at first glance, it’s a bit surprising that her favorite holiday tale is an old-fashioned poem by Clement Clarke Moore. Upon closer examination, though, the outdated ode lends itself beautifully to a unique family tradition --- and sometimes nothing is lovelier during the holidays than the rituals of memory-making.

My favorite book to give during the holidays is A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS, more commonly known as THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, by Clement Clarke Moore. If that sounds old-fashioned, it should! The poem was first published anonymously in 1823, and dowdily refers to “mamma in her kerchief.” There are decidedly NO kerchiefs for this mamma at Christmas or any other time, but for me there is real pleasure in the outmoded language, and the sweet, three-legged rhyme.

In our family, the youngest reader in the house reads the poem aloud on Christmas Eve in front of the trimmed tree, and stumbles along --- as he or she must--- over phrases like “…as leaves that do before a wild hurricane fly,” and “soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.” Every grownup in the room mouths the lines, cringing for the halting or tongue-tied, smirking along with the occasional ham, but always remembering the year before and the year before that, the succession of far-flung nephews and cousins stacked like Russian dolls, gathered near.

The poem is frumpy and un-modern, a throwback to a bygone other era, but I love that it tethers my family to a tradition that won’t --- can’t --- ever change much, no matter how time races forward, or the world lurches precariously toward things that terrify us. And that’s the thing I’m sharing when I wrap the book in stiff paper and give it to someone else: tradition in a fixed prism, nostalgia. Christmas held still.