Review of the Day: On Christmas Eve
Are you impressed with me? I typed this one out on my lunch break. How's THAT for dedication, eh? Eh? No picture until tomorrow, though. You'll just have to be patient with me.
A person cannot really choose how every given book comes to their attention. Take, “On Christmas Eve” as an example. I hadn’t even heard of Ann Martin’s attempt to give a little something to the tradition of Christmas fiction until a co-worker of mine handed it to me with an expression of deep distaste. Sugary sweet, was how she described it. Sacchrine. Cutesy and nostalgic too. It was an interesting criticism. As long time Ann Martin fan (can I tell you how thrilled I am about the recent Babysitter’s Club graphic novels?) I’ve found her writing to be many things, but not usually ootsy-cutesy. Now this co-worker of mine was unfamiliar with some classic Christmas stories and staples, so maybe that contributed to her confusion. And certainly the nostalgic feel is going to hit some harder than others. But on the whole the book is a weird mix of magic and religion with a sweet undercurrent to it. Oddly enough, I liked it more than some of the people I know who’ve read it, but like “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane”, it is NOT for everybody. Or, for that matter, every child.
Tess begins with this, “It was Christmas Eve of 1958 when I saw Santa Claus, the real Santa Claus”. Growing up in the 1950s with her mother, father, older sister, and best friend/pet Sadie the dog, life is good. Of course, there are some problems. Tess’s best friend Sarah is having a rough time. Her father has cancer and he may not be home in time for Christmas this year. Fortunately, Tess has a plan. This year she’s going to meet Santa for real. She has it all planned out. She’ll just stay awake until he arrives and then ask him to make Sarah’s dad better. In the meantime there’s a whole host of fabulous Christmas celebrating to be done. Unfortunately, Tess has to learn that while Santa may embody all the magic of the season, a person may not always get what they want in the form that they want it.
I think a lot of the charm of this book comes with its familiarity. When Tess is getting dressed to go to church to watch the Christmas pageant and it’s already getting dark, that was a familiar feeling to me. For a lot of kids, it’ll strike them as realistic. Not so much the non-churchgoing ones, of course. But for a select group, this book will speak to them. The baking of gingerbread men, making snowmen, trimming the tree, smelling the good spices and holiday food... it’s all here. You just want to sink into it and enjoy yourself. Early chapter Christmas books like this one tend to talk about things that happen because of Christmas, but they rarely take time to snuggle into the season itself. Martin takes the time, and she’s at her strongest when she conveys the cozy feel of the season.
I should mention that the tone of the book is interesting. It contains phrases like, “She is beside herself with excitement”, that any other author might flub or make especially precious. In the case of “On Christmas Eve”, however, such sentences are just fine. They fit. Less so lines like, “Christmas and Santa are all about hope”, which even Martin can’t pull off without sounding a tad trite. Much of the story, though certainly not all of it, is concerned with conveying the importance of believing in Santa and his magic. Yet when it did so I couldn’t help but think that this book said in 128 pages what “The Polar Express” was able to say in 30.
There’s also an odd kind of Santa worship going on here. Martin makes it very clear that Santa is not God. He can’t cure cancer (though the answer to why he doesn’t give poor kids toys is a little oblique). Just the same, for a while here he’s all that Tess can think about. Then the book tries to work in the miracle of Baby Jesus (it is HIS holiday too, after all) and gets a tiny bit muddled when it tries to shove together the Santa myth with the religious tone. Once the book starts distinguishing between magic and miracles it just gets way too confusing. Adults reading this book to their children should be prepared for some upfront questions along the lines of, “Did Jesus make Santa Claus?”. Lord know I don’t have an answer to that. I hope you do.
Aw, but how can I not want to just hug this book to my chest when I think of how well it conveyed the season? This book is comfort food, pure and simple. It will not offer sustenance or provide for all your Christmas literary needs, but for some people it will be a welcome addition to their home. For others it will strike them as syrupy goo. I fall somewhere in the middle, enjoying much of it, scratching my head in confusion at other parts. Depending on what you wish to get out of it, “On Christmas Eve” may or may not serve your needs. Hand it to the child that you can guarantee will love it.
On shelves October 1st.