This season — as I ensconce myself in a wing chair by my tree with Robin Jones Gunn’s Finding Father Christmas (I think this makes the third reading!) — I reflect on how it is I can return to certain books annually, like watching favorite Christmas movies again and again, and never tire of them. Of course, I know the plots… inside and out. But… it isn’t the plots that keep me coming back. It is the colors and the characters, the music and the ambience in the writer’s words…
I open the novella and sink comfortably back to let Ms. Gunn’s words draw me immediately in to Christmas in England, just as I have always imagined it:
A string of merry silver bells jumped and jingled as the north wind shook the evergreen wreath on the heavy wooden door. Overhead a painted shingle swung from two metal arms, declaring this place of business to be the Tea Cosy.
As I peered inside through the thick-paned window, I could see a cheerful amber fire in the hearth. Tables were set for two with china cups neatly positioned on crimson tablecloths. Swags of green foliage trimmed the mantel. Dotted across the room, on the tables and on shelves, were a dozen red votive candles. Each tiny light flickered, sending out promises of warmth and cheer, inviting me to step inside.
Another more determined gust made a swoop down the lane, this time taking my breath with it into the darkness of the December night.
This trip was a mistake. A huge mistake. What was I thinking?
– Excerpt from Page 1, Finding Father Christmas
Once again I have the feeling of coming home to the characters in this book… the sights and sounds of England at Christmas…the music in this author’s word pictures…and her theme that reflects the heart of the season like sparkle-white tree lights glimmering in a window.
For more than a story simply set at Christmas, Ms. Gunn has woven a reminder of the heart of the true Father of Christmas, inviting us along with main character Miranda Carson to “Come in! Come in and know me better!”*
I read once more about how twenty-something Miranda has come to England on impulse after her mother’s death, hoping to discover the father she’s never known. She has only one clue… an old black and white photo found in her mother’s belongings. The photographic studio mark leads her to Bexley Lane in England – where almost at once she is swept into the arms and lives of the very people who hold the answer to her search.
And again, I think how some may find this first part unbelievable…that a young foreigner is welcomed so closely by these English strangers…beginning in a quintessentially charming tea shop. Yet, I am reminded of a real British woman who was my mom’s pen pal for over thirty years. And of how each time she wrote, she made sure to invite us, as well as any of our friends or relatives to “stop in for a cup” if we were ever there. Literally, if someone knew us even slightly, they were welcome to be guest of honor in her home!
For this reason, I easily slip into the swift momentum of Gunn’s endearing story. But more than that, I take unquestioning joy in each new gift unfolding before Miranda.
Reading by the fire, I anticipate scenes I know are just around the next chapter, look forward to savoring the wonder in the words… Like these that describe Miranda’s first glimpse of a family Christmas, hand in hand with five year old Julia who has come to greet this stranger-guest early Christmas morn and invite her to sneak a peek downstairs:
We made it to the landing…when Julia stopped and let go of my hand. She let out a little gasp and flew to the window seat. Outside, in the pale rose shade of the rising dawn, the world appeared as soft and airy as a pure white dove. The blush from the winter sun enlivened the snowy horizon with a glistening glow of otherworldly first light.
One glance was not enough to take it all in. I stood beside mesmerized Julia, and together we watched the day come forth on white-feathered wings. With a touch of splendor, the undressed trees seemed transformed into regal maids-in-waiting, shimmering with icicle-shaped diamonds dripping from their elegant ears and slender arms.
“Is that snow?” Julia asked, whispering for the first time.
“Yes, that’s snow. It’s beautiful, isn’t it” I whispered back.
Julia nodded, her gaze still fixed on the unparalleled show outside the large window, where the day before a sleeping garden had stretched out brown and unnoticed.
I sat beside her on the padded window seat. With complete trust, she curled up in my lap, leaning her head against the soft inner curve of my shoulder. Never before did I remember feeling as if another human was so completely at ease, sinking into me for companionship and comfort…
Standing alongside Julia, hand in hand in this room of gifts, warmth and light, it seemed almost possible to believe in God the way a child believes in Father Christmas…
– Excerpt from Pages 81, 82 and 88, Finding Father Christmas
Since this is a novella, I finish it within about three hours. I close the book and let it all linger in my thoughts awhile longer as I enjoy the lights on my own tree, fluffy white snow swirling outside my window. It isn’t an intricate character study… it isn’t meant to be. But it has warmth and beauty that have brought Christmas close…leaving space to imagine the continuing story…like a lovely familiar carol dancing lightly around the room. And I know I will pull it out next year…to let the words roll around inside me again. Satisfying as a cup of hot cocoa. Delicious as a fresh baked fairy cake.
* Quote from Spirit of Christmas Present, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens