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

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."

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