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'Animals' Merry Christmas' remains a classic

Once again I have been swept up in the spirit of the season instead of the spirits of the season.

I I started to write about the once-obligatory Office Christmas Parties to which we used to look forward for half the year, and regret for the next half. Have they changed? But before my first paragraph was noodled, I was distracted by a children's book — actually, one never far from my heart during the holidays. And this book is far more in the spirit of Christmas than any party.

The Animals' Merry Christmas was first published in 1950. It's a collection of English Christmas stories by Kathryn Jackson; the animal characters will go to London, for example, and here and there a British preference such as plum pudding will pop up. The American publishers may have replaced the Father Christmases with Santa Clauses, but the English flavor remains. Richard Scarry's timeless illustrations are simple, colorful and universally mesmerizing to children of all ages.

The animal characters are droll, and very "human," right down to their faults, dreams and wishes. And as they are not long, these are perfect bedtime stories; most holiday-excited children I know beg to hear two or three each night. And some children I have known would read them over and over again using a handy flashlight after the bed lamps were officially doused.

I am blessed with a mother who read to her children and grandchildren every day she could; time for reading was always a priority. She could make any story come to life, and though she'd read most of what she read to us repeatedly, her love for any and every story came through. Mom's talent really shown brightly at Christmas, and though many wonderful stories were in her repertoire, the stories in The Animals' Merry Christmas were, and are, a centerpiece holiday tradition in her house. The copy I grew up with is there, badly mauled and frayed by several generations of eager, enchanted listeners; we'll have to draw straws for that treasure one day.

And speaking of copies, they are not always so easy to find. As I said, the book was first published over 60 years ago, and has been in reprinted many times since. It has appeared in several versions, some without all of the stories (there are 23). When our Princesses were small, I don't remember where we found copies. But these days, Amazon and eBay have been good sources; look for an older, complete copy. Recently, we have found several copies and given them to friends with young children and I hear the stories enthrall just as they always have.

Last weekend, at the request of my Princess I, and with our little Mason sitting (briefly!) next to me, I began to read "The Naughty Little Reindeer," probably my favorite story in the book. And, as happens every year when I read any of these stories to whoever may be listening, I can hear my mother's lovely, gentle voice. I always will.