This Christmas I’m taking a leap of the imagination into the home of a family of imaginary conservatives. It is Christmas morning and I arrive, as if by magic, down the chimney, just as the family is gathering round the tree. Dusting myself off, I announce myself as the family’s long lost relative, Uncle Digory Chestnut. As if by more magic, the Dickens-Bagginses seem to remember me well, gathering around with all the festive rambunctiousness of the season to welcome me to their hearth and home.
Once settled comfortably with a mince pie and a glass of sherry, I begin to remove packages of newly-published books from an over-sized stocking, handing them out to each family member in order of seniority.
First comes Grandpa, a man in his sixties who came of age in the sixties. He has long since grown-up, putting away the childish things of his youthful hippy years to embrace the sanity and sanctity of a healthy maturity. Knowing him to be a great admirer of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, I hand him a package in which he finds a new book by the great Russian writer, posthumously published. Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978, a memoir of Solzhenitsyn’s first years in exile in the West, offers insights into the turbulent years of the Cold War, which Grandpa remembers all too well.
Next comes Grandma, to whom I hand a package containing Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, a novel by Chilton Williamson, Jr., which contrary to first impressions is not set in the Middle East but in the far west; in Wyoming to be precise. Set in the 1990s, in those far-off days before the internet gatecrashed our lives, it will remind Grandma of a time when people were connected with reality because they had not yet discovered its virtual equivalent. Although she occasionally dabbles in Facebook, mostly to keep up with the children and grandchildren, she’ll enjoy the escape into a world of real time and space as she turns the pages of Williamson’s slice of a healthier life.
Pa comes next. Having drifted away from Christianity during his years at Vacuous State University, he now sees with rekindled eyes the goodness he had spurned in those days at college. Back then, he knew everything except anything worth knowing. Now he knows that there’s so much that he doesn’t know and knows that this knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. As he unwraps the gift I pass to him, he discovers the Noll Library edition of Augustine’s Confessions, newly-published by Our Sunday Visitor.
Ma, a lover of Shakespeare, receives Shakespeare and the Resistance by Clare Asquith. Her eyes light up when she sees the title and positively explode with delight as she reads the explanatory subtitle: The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion, and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny. Having already read several books on Shakespeare’s Catholicism, including Clare Asquith’s earlier book, Shadowplay, she can’t wait to find a quiet corner in which to settle down with this new treasure of revisionist history.
Now it’s the turn of the children, the eldest of which are certainly no longer children.
Gilbert, the eldest, a recent graduate from Pro Ecclesia Contra Mundum College (PECMC), has recently discovered the delights of craft ale. I hand to him a package from which he plucks a copy of The Beer Option by Jared Staudt. As with his mother, he reads the subtitle for further details: Brewing and Catholic Culture Yesterday and Today. His eyes are also illuminated with delight. This is precisely his cup of tea, or his glass of ale, and he is looking forward to breaking open its pages with a glass of his favourite locally-brewed IPA.
Jane, a literature major at PECMC, opens a package in which she finds The Eighth Arrow, subtitled Odysseus in the Underworld, a novel, of sorts, by J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B., which interweaves the underworld of Dante’s inferno with the heroic Odysseus of Homeric myth. Having lapped up Homer in her Freshman year at Pro Ecclesia and Dante in her Sophomore year, she had been irked by the way that Dante favoured Virgil’s view of Odysseus and not Homer’s. Now, as she reads her Christmas gift, she’ll be able to enjoy the Homeric hero’s attempts to escape from Dante’s hell, a place in which she had never really felt that he belonged.
It’s now the turn of Cordelia, a senior at St. Germanus, Hammer of the Heretics High School, who shares her mother’s love for Shakespeare and is still basking in the afterglow of her debut as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She hopes to be able to evangelize the culture through the power of drama when she gets older. She receives from me the perfect gift: An Actor Bows: Show Biz, God and the Meaning of Life by Kevin O’Brien, a courageous and indomitable thespian who has spent his life, through his founding of Theater of the Word Incorporated, spreading the Gospel through the power of the stage.
Next come the twins, Meriadoc and Peregrin, sophomores at Hammer of the Heretics, who have loved Tolkien and have lived imaginatively in Middle-earth ever since their older brother Gilbert read The Hobbit to them when they were six-years-old. Precociously adept at devouring all works on the Catholic dimension of Tolkien’s work, they each receive newly published books in this burgeoning genre. Meriadoc, the more philosophical of the twins, is gifted with a copy of The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie by Jonathan S. McIntosh; Peregrine, who has an unhealthy interest in politics, receives Middle-Earth and the Return of the Common Good: J. R. R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy by Joshua Hren.
Flannery, the sixth of the Dickens-Baggins children, who, like her two younger siblings, is homeschooled, has just taken an online class on Dracula with Homeschool Connections, taught by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson. She is thrilled beyond words to discover, upon opening her package, that it contains A Bloody Habit, a vampire novel by Mrs. Nicholson herself! Having enjoyed the online class, and especially Mrs. Nicholson’s highlighting of the theological anomalies in Bram Stoker’s novel, she is in for a real treat as she reads this theologically orthodox spin on Stoker’s story.
Now we come to the two youngest children.
Sigrid, the ten-year-old, is the artist of the family. She is never happier than when she’s painting landscapes or sketching other members of the family. She also enjoys Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tales and Edward Lear’s nonsense verse, prizing old editions of these works with their wonderful illustrations. For Sigrid there can be only one gift this Christmas: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals, written by Matthew Mehan and illustrated by John Folley and subtitled enigmatically A Hypothetical Alphabetical. Flipping through the full colour pages, resplendent with outlandish beasts, Flannery is tempted to slip away to devour the work with relish and self-abandonment, until she is stopped in her tracks by Pa’s kind but firm look of admonishment.
Last comes the seven-year-old, Gerard Manley Dickens-Baggins, who is certainly not least, even if he is the youngest. He knows all too well that the last can be first in the topsy-turvydom of the healthy Christian family and he awaits his turn with stoic expectation. As he opens the last of my packages, he discovers three books for first readers about the adventures of Nick and Sam, residents of the fictional town of Hope Springs in the mountains of Colorado, as told by Paul McCusker, each adventure offering a slice of life in a good and healthy Christian family, not unlike the Dickens-Bagginses themselves (book 1, book 2, book 3).
As the family continues its festivities, I slip from the room and the merriment. Finding a wardrobe, its door left slightly ajar as if in invitation, I pass once more into the shadowlands.
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