Kentucky authors share their literary holiday favorites

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Christmastime and the holiday season are rich in emotions and traditions — and that is keenly reflected in literature. With the help of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, we asked writers in Central Kentucky and beyond to share their favorite holiday book, poem, story or other published work.

Some selections are well-known (many writers adore Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol) but others are little-heralded gems.Bobbie Ann Mason

I always like to read Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. It is the classic, cozy, snowy Christmas tale, but hilariously ironic, being told from an adult perspective. Some favorite lines: "There are always Uncles at Christmas, the same Uncles," "cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires," and the lists of "Useful Presents" and "Useless Presents."

This poem is fun to read aloud at Christmas. The language is nostalgic, but vigorous, thrilling and funny.

The snow "settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards." The postman "wagged his bag like a frozen camel's hump."

Western Kentucky native Mason is author of The Girl in the Blue Beret and In Country. A former writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky, she lives in Lawrenceburg.Jeremy Dae Paden

Robert Frost's To a Young Wretch was used as the 1937 Frost Christmas card from The Spiral Press and was later included in his 1942 collection A Witness Tree.

I grew up in an iconoclastic tradition, and it took us a long time to convince our father of the merits of a tree. When he finally acquiesced, our first trees were repurposed house plants. Soon enough, we graduated to whatever cedar or cypress we could uproot from the side of the highway. Or as Frost would have called it, whatever tree we could get "by enterprise and expedition."

I like this poem because it reminds me of my own youthful expeditions. I also like it because of the links established between loss and gain, and youth and experience, and also because Frost, with wry humor, presents the conflict of "opposing goods" that characterizes the holidays.

Paden's first published collection of poems, Broken Tulips, was published this year. He is an associate professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Transylvania University.Leatha Kendrick

Read the original Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. What Dickens' characters really said and the way he renders the marketplace and the inner workings of families and society with equal texture are what make this an inexhaustible classic. I've been rereading it for 30 years, and it feels chillingly contemporary, decade after decade.

I reread Hunting a Christmas Tree After Dark, a poem by Jane Gentry Vance, with pleasure at any season, but especially during the holidays. No Christmas poem connects me to Kentucky as this one does, with its surprising and exact turns of phrase: "the shapes of old cedars ... familiar as loved bodies," "the creek in a hurry, as full of itself/ as a zipper."

Lexington writer Kendrick's fourth book of poetry, Almanac of the Invisible, will be published by Larkspur Press next year.Melissa Newman

As a little girl I found the little green meanie terrifying when I heard Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for the first time. But then, and even now, my heart feels warm right along with that lanky, hairy guy's when the Grinch learns that Christmas doesn't come from a store.

Dickens' A Christmas Carol, no matter how many times it is retold, fills me with hope. The story heightens my awareness of the ripples I create when I act and react to those around me, good or bad. If Ebenezer Scrooge can change, anyone can.

Barbourville writer Newman is author of the novels Sister Blackberry, House of Cleaving and Growing Up Wilder. She teaches at Eastern Kentucky University.

Amy Durham

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens probably makes a lot of people's lists of favorite Christmas tales, but it really is a classic, timeless message. I love the idea that even the most selfish, vile individual can be changed for the better, despite his transgressions. At its heart, this is a story of hope for everyone, because if Ebenezer Scrooge can be redeemed, surely any of us can as well.

My youngest son and I enjoy reading poetry together, and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost is one of my favorites. Although not specifically a Christmas poem, it is beautiful, both in syntax and in the picture the words create. The poem is simple, and yet profound, as it describes a perfect, picturesque winter evening that one man is experiencing alone.

Durham, of Campbellsville, is a writer of young-adult fiction, including the novels Once Again and Once and for All. She also is a music educator in Green County Public Schools.

Fiona Young-Brown

Being British, Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a given, but I never used to have any others. Then I was given a copy of George Ella Lyon's A Kentucky Christmas, and it became an instant favorite. There are so many wonderfully heart-warming pieces of Christmas nostalgia within its pages, I defy anyone to read it and not find at least one piece that speaks directly to them.

Young-Brown, of Lexington, is author of Lexington: Then and Now and Wicked Lexington. Her A History of Kentucky Food is due to be released in the spring.

Sherry Chandler

Every year between 1920 and 1942, J.R.R. Tolkien, in the guise of Father Christmas, wrote a letter to his children, complete with illustrations and whimsical North Pole stamps. These letters, collected and published as Letters From Father Christmas, recount the adventures of Father Christmas, the Polar Bear and Ilbereth the Elf. My own children were as charmed by them each Christmas in the 1980s as Tolkien's must have been.

Hunting for a Christmas Tree After Dark by Jane Gentry Vance evokes Christmas in Kentucky for me: patchy snow, rock fences and the elusive perfect cedar tree. A humble sort of Christmas tree, the cedar, that leaves the decorator's hands covered in red prickles, a junk tree that grows invasively on the hills of Owen County where I grew up. A bit of nostalgia perhaps but also a prayer: "Though the Interstate throbs/ and the town lights bleed ... from here the stars redeem/ the dark that makes them shine."

Paris writer Chandler is the author of the poetry collections Weaving a New Eden and, coming in January, The Hearth and the Woodcarver.

Robyn Peterman-Zahn

Naming my favorite holiday books is a no-brainer for me. I have two. Holidays on Ice is filled with hilarious stories of Christmas (and other holidays) from the warped and brilliant mind of David Sedaris. This one is not for the kiddies, but if you want to laugh hard, read this. I'd read the phone book if Sedaris wrote it.

Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is a classic. I have read it to my children, and it's my favorite Christmas TV special, too. I would like to have Max the dog for myself. I always get choked up when the Grinch's heart grows bigger. Always.

Peterman-Zahn, who writes under the name Robyn Peterman, is a theater artist and writer of what she calls "snarky, sexy, humorous romance," the latest of which is Size Matters. She lives in Georgetown.Marcia Thornton Jones

I have so many traditional literary favorites, but for me, the holidays wouldn't be the same without the music. I often find myself belting out White Christmas and I'll Be Home for Christmas. For me, the poetry of the lyrics and melodies of those two songs evoke the sights, sounds, memories and emotion of the holiday season.

Jones, of Lexington, is author or co-author of 131 books for children including Ratfink, Champ and The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids series.

Neil Chethik

As a nonfiction writer, I enjoy brutal truth. In Chapter 18 of The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow paints an achingly true portrait of a poor, homesick Kentucky family celebrating Christmas in Detroit during World War II. Arnow's verbs alone tell the narrative: weeping, threatening, screaming, crying, quarreling, upbraiding, complaining and blaming. Arnow concludes in this chapter that someone who hopes to be satisfied by material things is "like a man a hunten matches in a strange dark house."

Chethick, of Lexington, is author of FatherLoss and VoiceMale and is executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Silas House

My favorite Christmas book is The Homecoming by Earl Hamner Jr., a novel that eventually became the basis for the TV show The Waltons. It's a simple story of family loyalty and a young man claiming his own identity, but it's full of emotion and complexity. The book had a tremendous influence on my writing, and I read it every Christmas.

George Ella Lyon edited a wonderful collection of Christmas writing called A Kentucky Christmas that is a holiday favorite, too. The day we put up the tree, we also put that book out on the coffee table. It's full of remarkable poems, stories and other writing by Kentucky writers to get you in the spirit.

House, who lives in Berea, is author of books including Same Sun Here, Eli the Good and Clay's Quilt. Lynnell Major Edwards

There are several classics I enjoyed with our boys when they were young, but for ritual reading each year, nothing beats David Sedaris' The SantaLand Diaries as antidote for the sugarplummed, eggnogged, hangover of true holiday madness. In this laugh-out-loud account of his roles as Magic Window Elf, Photo Elf, Pointer and Usher Elf in SantaLand at the Macy's in New York's Herald Square.

Edwards, who lives in Louisville, is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Covet, and is associate professor of English at Spalding University.

Joe Survant

I had not thought much about A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote until I heard Capote read it at Western Kentucky University. It was a moving performance. Capote manages to tell a deeply felt personal story with the power of true sentiment that, by a less skilled writer, would have been merely a sentimental indulgence.

Survant, Kentucky's poet laureate in 2002-04, is retired from WKU. His poetry collection The Land We Dreamed is due to be released in April.


The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning will begin a new season of writing and publishing classes Jan. 6, many of them taught by writers featured in this story. Classes include weekly writing practice (free) as well as beginning, intermediate and advanced classes in fiction, nonfiction and poetry (fees vary).

Authors teaching during winter/spring at the Carnegie Center, include Leatha Kendrick, George Ella Lyon, Bianca Spriggs, Sarah Combs, Neil Chethik, Sherry Chandler, Cynthia Ellingsen and Lynnell Edwards.

Register for classes at Starting Jan. 2, you also may register by phone at (859) 254-4175, Ext. 21.