This is a guest post by author Alex Palmer.
I love reading classics like A Christmas Carol or The Gift of the Magi around the holidays (not to mention watching movies like A Christmas Story or Scrooged, considered a classic among my family members). But while fictional tales of Christmas spirit go great with spiced cider and the scent of evergreen, I find that nothing beats true holiday stories. That’s what initially drew me to tell the true story in my new book The Santa Claus Man, about a clever New York publicist who created a group that answered thousands of children’s Santa letters. In researching the book, I encountered a number of other fun and fascinating true holiday stories. From tales of real-life Santas and Christmas charity, to the histories behind familiar holiday traditions, here are some nonfiction titles that will add to your holiday cheer.
1. A Royal Christmas by Jeremy Archer
For those curious about how the holidays were spent in lavish surroundings, this book offers a first-hand peek into Christmas gatherings of the royal family. Drawing on diaries and journals, Archer offers snippets of life in the palaces of Great Britain, covering Christmas games, feasts fit for kings, and how world events including war and politics shaped royal holidays. It spans from medieval times to the 21st century, with a particular emphasis on the prolific journaling of Queen Victoria.
2. General Washington’s Christmas Farewell by Stanley Weintraub
If you think you’re happy to get some time off with your family around the holidays, imagine how General George Washington felt in 1783, when he learned a peace treaty had been signed with England and that he could return home at the end of the Revolutionary War. Weintraub takes the reader back to this moment, as the war hero travels through New York City, Philadelphia, and Annapolis, bidding farewell to his soldiers and choosing not to assume a position as virtual king of the US, but instead to head to Mount Vernon for the holidays.
3. Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub
Yes, another true holiday tale from the master of true holiday tales (there’s also General Sherman’s Christmas and 11 Days in December if you can’t get enough of Weintraub’s Christmas histories). But this is the ultimate true Christmas story: A moment in the midst of world war when the soldiers ignored the dictates of their commanding officers and the skepticism of world leaders, embracing the Christmas spirit and their fellow man — regardless of which side he was fighting for. Weintraub puts you right in the trenches and the middle of no-man’s land as fighters from both sides put down their guns and share beers, plum pudding, and holiday songs.
4. A Secret Gift by Ted Gup
In 1933, during the worst of the Great Depression, a Romanian immigrant living in Canton, Ohio, set out to bring some Christmas cheer to dozens of families, placing an ad in the local newspaper, offering cash to those in need. While the story would make for a touching holiday tale on its own, almost as fascinating is the family investigation the author undertakes, as the lead character is his own grandfather. Delving into aspects he never knew about his relative, and interviewing many of the descendants of those helped by the generosity, Gup offers an uplifting story ideal for when family is gathered during Christmas.
5. White Christmas by Jody Rosen
No Christmas is complete without hearing Irving Berlin’s classic tune at least one (or 100) times. But as familiar as “White Christmas” has become, the story behind it offers a cast of compelling characters and celebrity appearances — from Bing Crosby to *NYSNC — plenty of historical nuggets, and insight into the song’s enduring appeal. It delves into the changing music industry (where stars like Elvis Presley became more important than songwriters), the role of patriotism, and how Christmas celebration evolved over the decades since the song’s release.
6. Santa Claus by Gerry Bowler
Sure, Santa Claus is not technically a real person, but this biography of the mythical figure offers an entertaining and thorough timeline of how the character came to be. It traces the saint’s “birth” in the 4th century, his development into a cheery gift giver, and his expansion into films, books, and advertisements. Readers will come away with an appreciation for the long life lived by this figure, and how much he’s been through to become the jolly fellow as we know him today.
7. The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum
When it comes to telling the history of Christmas in all its gritty detail, this volume is hard to beat. It covers how the holiday developed in the US, from the hostility it faced from Puritans in Massachusetts, to its transformation into a family holiday by New York elites concerned about the drunken wassailers partying in the streets, to its arrival as a marketing powerhouse. It’s hard to read this book and think of even the most mundane elements of Christmas in the same way.
Author Alex Palmer has written for Slate, Vulture, Smithsonian magazine, New York Daily News, and many other outlets. Palmer is the author of previous nonfiction books, Weird-o-Pedia and Literary Miscellany. He is also the great-grandnephew of John Duval Gluck, Jr.
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