'A Kentucky Christmas': not your typical syrupy collection of holiday stories and poems

Harried holidays: There's 'grit' in 'Kentucky Christmas'

ctruman@herald-leader.comNovember 2, 2012 

  • 'A Kentucky Christmas' signings

    Kentucky Book Fair. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Nov. 10. Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St., Frankfort. Free. (502) 229-2542. Kybookfair.blogspot.com. George Ella Lyon will attend, as will authors featured in the book: Jan Cook, Jeff Worley, Crystal Wilkinson, Marcia Hurlow, Graham Shelby and Marianne Worthington. For details, see story below.

    At Joseph-Beth Booksellers. 6 p.m. Dec. 17. The Mall at Lexington Green, 161 Lexington Green Cir. (859) 273-2911. Josephbeth.com.


    From A Christmas Lesson by Belinda Mason: A neglected wife and mother makes plans with a friend to spend Christmas in Twitty City, a onetime theme park outside Nashville that was built and owned by country singer Conway Twitty.

    I was dreading Christmas, too. I hate to own up to it, but it's the truth. My brothers and sisters, even the ones from Cincinnati and Detroit, always met at Mother's on Christmas Day. You could count on one of the children to break the other one's new toy. Or some of the men to slip out to the smokehouse and drink or the women in-laws to hurt each others' feelings. Before dinner was even cooked, somebody would be grabbing up their children and going home mad.

    "The idea of walking around Conway's big fine home, all lit up with those little white lights like in Estelle's pictures, sounded a lot better than what I usually did.

    From The Visit by Crystal Wilkinson:


    It was like Christmas on Sundays

    when you came to the creek,

    your arms always heavy

    with dolls, tea sets

    chocolate covered cherries

    or candy corn,

    your eyes searching my face

    for a daughter's smile,

    scanning me with a mother's familiarity

    to find the inches

    I'd grown.

    From Bad Winter, 1975 by Maurice Manning:

    they hung blankets at the windows they

    set buckets on the floor the mother

    said that old roof was something else

    besides a roof but that water made a pretty sound the boy put on

    a corduroy coat and cupped his hands inside the pockets that night the boy

    laid his banjo in the fireplace

    the cigar box body went to ashes

    in a New York minute which is faster

    than any old Kentucky time

    so it is today a few years later

    everything is slow as Christmas

    everyone is waiting as if

    a big man's shoe is going to drop

Nine years after its release in hardcover, A Kentucky Christmas, a collection edited by Lexington author George Ella Lyon of more than 70 stories, poems and even recipes from Bluegrass State writers, is being released in paperback.

The hardcover version has sold 12,000 copies in its nine-year run, according to its publisher, University Press of Kentucky.

It is a book of striking and often surprising offerings, primarily because it does not descend into the syrupy morass of commercial Christmas. It's a Christmas book that pops you in the gut and zings you in the brain more than it warms the cockles of your overspent heart.

"There's grit in there," said Lyon, who will be at the Kentucky Book Fair on Saturday along with other authors whose work appears in A Kentucky Christmas (University Press of Kentucky, $21.95). "Christmas is a very emotional time and can be a very difficult time, because we have so many layers of memories with it, and we have this Hallmark idea where nobody's life is like that. ... Many people's lives are extremely difficult, and the Christmas season can be even more so."

But grit isn't just a quality that keeps people pursuing a holiday that is emotionally enriching. It's a characteristic that sustains them during difficult times.

"We also use grit as something that helps you get through," Lyon said.

She cited Jane Gentry's poem, Hunting for a Christmas Tree After Dark, that ends with this observation: "Though the interstate throbs and the town lights bleed into the blot of circling trees, from here the stars redeem the dark that makes them shine."

That's a gorgeous image, but hardly the stuff of sugarplum fairies.

"We wanted this book to be one that was full of the range of emotions and experience of the season," Lyon said.

She said people can't live by the magazine-perfect view of Christmas, "because those are not our lives. ... Who wants art that's not true?"

Some of the pieces stretch the limits of truth into the realm of art and folklore retold, among them Anne Shelby's Jack Hunts Christmas, in which an impoverished child finds riches simply by being kind.

Lyon also is fond of Marie Bradby's poem Shooting Star, in which the author writes that "a meteor is an Immaculate Conception./ Elusive, and as ethereal as the spirit./ Hard to catch, and even so, can only be pocketed in your heart."

The book includes a few recipes that might change your mind about the necessity of a Christmas steamed pudding and starting your own holiday food traditions. Iva's Christmas cake, from a piece by food writer and historian Ronni Lundy, contains 16 unbeaten egg whites along with butter, sugar, vanilla and flour. This yields a cake that is, as Lundy describes it, "at once unbearably rich and unbelievably light."

Lyon said the Christmas anthology is "a snapshot of that time, of that moment." And then she adds, with just a touch of grit: "And what we could get the rights to."

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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