Mark Steyn

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The Perfect "Perfect Christmas" Book

It wouldn't be Christmas without the annual appearance at SteynOnline of our old friend Persimmon Coxcomb.

~and don't forget Martha Stewart is one of Mark's guests on The Mark Steyn Christmas Show (available on CD from the SteynOnline store), in which Martha critiques, brutally, Mark's seasonal baking efforts. It all seems so much easier in the books:

I'm one of those guys who tend to leave the old Yuletide preparations until around 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve only to discover that half the stores closed early at 1 p.m. and those still open have got nothing left except for massive storewide clearances on Hanukkah wrapping paper. Yet for a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-Santa-suit-pants kind of guy I seem to have acquired over the years an enormous number of books on how to have the perfect Christmas. There's Checklist for a Perfect Christmas by Judith Blahink, and How to Have a Perfect Christmas by Helen Isolde, and The Absolutely Without a Doubt Most Fantastically Perfect Christmas Ever by Evelyn Minshull, and Creating Your Perfect Christmas: Stylish Ideas and Step-By-Step Projects for the Festive Season by Antonia Swingson and Sania Pell, because there's nothing you need around this time of year more than a multi-step project. The more steps the merrier, I always say. One stands agape before those folks who not only have their own seasonal celebrations under scheduled-to-the-second control but also find time to write a bestseller with a faintly hectoring title like It's Beginning To Look A Lot Less Like Christmas Than It Should Considering It's Already The Second Week Of September.

For the most part, these authors seem to have no existence beyond the holiday season. The two-female co-author combo is a particular favourite, both of them on the back in cozy sweaters looking like extras from The Andy Williams Christmas Show. Is there really an "Antonia Swingson" or "Sania Pell"? Their names sound alarmingly like their homemaking tips: "For fun on Christmas morning, why not cut up the gift tags and randomly assemble them into holiday-advice-book author-pseudonyms?" "Judith Blahink"? Isn't the blahinks what Scrooge has when they find him face down in the mulled cider? Christmas? Blah - hink - humbug.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. A lot of the stuff in these tomes is very intriguing. Each year, for example, I dig out my old pal Martha Stewart's entry in the field - Martha Stewart's Christmas - and find myself strangely drawn to the phrase "coxcomb topiary." It's huge. It starts out as a misshapen lump like a hobbit that's fallen into a trash compactor, but that's before Martha's got to work "studding" it with - to pluck at random - "tiny pomegranates dusted with clear glitter." Who would have thought the English language would ever have need for those words assembled in that order? Every third week of December, I read them and marvel. And then I drive to Wal-Mart.

"Coxcomb" is the perfect Perfect Christmas Book word. Not all perfect Christmas authors are hip to that. Some think you can eschew "coxcomb" and get away with "potpourri," which your run-of-the-mill generic mediocre Most Fantastically Perfect Christmas Ever book throws around the joint like, well, potpourri. But what is it the Fool tells King Lear? "If thou follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb." Or am I thinking of his codpiece? I always did get them mixed up at school. Codpiece topiary would also add a distinctive touch to one's holiday, though perhaps a livelier talking point than one might want in a Christmas centrepiece. But the point is, if thou followest Martha, thou must needs wear her coxcomb. Also her persimmon, another great Perfect Christmas Book word. If I were ever to write my own seasonal advice book, I would do so under the nom de plume (or, indeed, nom de plume pudding) of Persimmon Coxcomb.

In Old-Fashioned Country Christmas by Vickie and JoAnn of the Gooseberry Patch, Joan Schaeffer is more offhand: "Snip herbs and tie in small bundles to dry. During the winter when the fireplace is in use, toss a bundle of herbs into the crackling fire for a wonderful scent." I like the insouciance of that "toss." But it's a very useful tip. A blazing hearth of oregano helps tone down the overpowering stench of cinnamon that can otherwise so easily predominate at this time of year. Still, the truly perfect preparing-for-Christmas book eschews Schaefferesque nonchalance, preferring an artful balance of massive effort and minimal reward. Nothing sums up the genre more succinctly than two words: "Non-alcoholic wassail," for which cup of cheerlessness one can find a recipe in Christmas 101 by Rick Rodgers.

As the title suggests, Mr. Rodgers, the author of Thanksgiving 101, sticks with the basics. "Organization is a skill I developed as a caterer," he begins. Without organization, you're screwed. You're Baghdad beyond the Green Zone. But, with organization, you'll be your very own Red-and-Green Zone, and Mr. Rodgers is the go-to guy. Before you can organize your Christmas it's important to organize the organization of your Christmas, and a useful aid to organization is something called a "list." That's why, like many seasonal advice-givers, he has a section called - wait for it! - "Making A List And Checking It Twice." This isn't his line. He got it from Haven Gillespie's lyric for a song called Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Did you know that seasonal music can often add an appealingly seasonal touch to the seasonal atmosphere at this seasonal time of the seasonal season? Why not teach yourself vocal arranging and work up your own a cappella multi-part medley of In the Bleak Midwinter and I Wonder as I Wander for cousin Mabel's kids to distract Gran'pa with on Christmas morning as you're putting the final touches of clear glitter on the tiny pomegranates?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before you can organize anything, you have to organize your list. As Rick Rodgers says, "A series of lists will help you breeze through the process." And don't worry, it's not boring! As Rick Rodgers also says, "Every time you mark a chore off the list, you will get a rewarding sense of accomplishment."

But what if your list is simply too extensive? As Rick Rodgers further counsels, "If you look at a list and feel overwhelmed, pick up the phone and get a friend to give you a hand!"

But, by this stage, Rodgers knows he may be pushing the joys of list-making a tad too far and that it's time to get on to the actual lists. "Here," he writes, "are the lists that I use again and again." And the first one is . . .

"Guest List"! "If you are having a large holiday season party, send out invitations as early as possible." But when should one have a holiday season party? A good tip is to hold it during the holiday season. "We usually give our holiday party the week between Christmas and New Year's," reveals Mr. Rodgers.

Ha! What a piker! The true secret of successful Christmas planning is not to schedule it in December. As Vickie and JoAnn recommend in Old-Fashioned Country Christmas: "Rather than having your annual party in December when you're too overwhelmed to enjoy it, host a cookout in July with a Christmas theme, everything red and green!" Bright red watermelon, green salad, but with Christmas decorations! "White twinkling lights, Christmas napkins and a small artificial tree decorated with take-home ornaments make for a very festive atmosphere." And in Canada in July we may even have real snow!

Christmas in summer, huh? That doesn't sound much like an "old-fashioned country Christmas," unless the country in question is Australia. Yet it makes perfect sense, and not just because nothing says "dreary convention-bound loser" like holding your Christmas party at Christmas. After all, if you schedule your holiday season for July, it'll free up a lot of time in late December to work on your coxcomb topiary.

December 17, 2013


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