Christmas Eve collects three of Alistair Cooke’s Christmas-time stories from his legendary BBC “Letters from America” broadcast. I listened to the audiobook version of the collection, Letters from America, 1946-1004, recently, and saddened at the thought that his sublimely calm, balanced voice is no longer with us. But this last year would surely have been tough even for him.
Though Christmas Eve is packaged like a children’s book, neither Cooke’s stories nor the wonderful illustrations by Marc Simont are children’s fare. The first story is about an ex-banker, wiped out by the Great Depression and living in a flophouse in the Bowery, who takes a department store Santa job and then celebrates by commandeering a yellow cab and careening around Manhattan. The second is about a Hollywood screenwriter’s “epic” journey to get to his sister’s home in Connecticut by midnight Christmas Eve. What might have seemed epic to Cooke and his listeners in the early fifties seems pretty much like what one out of three people trying to fly home at Christmas experience every year now.
The third is a little fable about an olde New Amsterdammer named Van Dam and his three daughters and his present-day (1952) counterpart, and hinges on whether you think there’s something inherently funny about a name like Van Dam. Well, those were more innocent days in some ways.
The real pleasure in Christmas Eve is not the stories but the voice of the author and the spirit of the illustrations. Treat yourself this weekend: go to the BBC’s archive of “Letters from America” broadcasts and experience this mad world viewed through sane and tolerant eyes.