Looking for something to read other than "The Christmas Box" or "Skipping Christmas?" Here are two alternatives that are fabulous but as different from each other as JFK and Johnny Rotten—"A Secret Gift" and "Unholy Night."
A Secret Gift (Ted Gup): Six or seven years ago I came across Ted Gup's brilliant "Book of Honor," detailing the stories behind nameless CIA operatives who gave their lives in the line of duty and remain anonymous, acknowledged only by a star on the wall at CIA headquarters. So when trolling Costco's book pile a couple of years ago (Gotta love Costco—where else can you buy a bestseller and a 2-pack of ginormous Frank's Red Hot Sauce at the same time?), I saw "A Secret Gift"—a biographical account of his grandfather's secret generosity to neighbors during a Depression Christmas in Canton, Ohio—and had to have it. Gup's grandfather took out an ad and told people if they sent him a request he deemed worthy, he would give them $5. Gup’s grandfather saved the letters, and the author painstakingly fleshes out the story behind them, in most cases tracing families to modern times.
This is not the book you pull out and read easily from while sitting around the fire with your little ones on your lap—it's definitely on the dry side. But if you like sociology, it paints a heartfelt portrait of what the Depression was truly like—not something we hear about often, given that generation is fading away. And when we’re all stressed about creating the perfect family holiday, a little perspective couldn’t hurt.
Unholy Night (Seth Grahame-Smith)—Published earlier this year and recently released in paperback, this novel from the maniac behind "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is less about Christmas than it takes place at Christmas. The first Christmas. Ever.
Fair warning—this was flat out one of the goriest novels I have ever read—and I'm a Stephen King fan. But the premise was way too interesting for me to pass up. I mean, really—what do we know about the three wise men? It’s fun to think of them as a rather nefarious bunch, led by the criminally contempt “Antioch Ghost,” Balthazar. Befriending two thieves as he awaits execution, Galspar and Melchyor, we’re introduced to the three men who play a small but important role on the holiest of nights.
Balthazar's behavior has its roots in personal pain, making his character arc the hook—can he overcome his aversion to attachment to deliver Mary, Joseph and the wee baby Jesus (TM Ricky Bobby) to safety? And is Herod one of the sickest (and by that I mean, In.The.Head) villians to grace the printed page? Read, but leave the snacks in the pantry. Stomach-turning, indeed.