By the Book: A dose of merriment and Christmas cheer

Christmas is next week, a holy and joyful day filled with memories of the past and dreams for the future. An early memory for me is midnight Mass in the convent on the corner of University Avenue and the Washington Bridge — long gone, replaced by public housing. It was a magical service, highlighted by the cloistered nuns, hidden from sight, chanting and singing in their high-pitched voices. I’m not going to dwell on religion, though, mine or yours. Joy is the theme, and the laughter that joy can bring.

There aren’t a whole lot of Christmas jokes, but I like the one about the minister who orders the church’s Christmas lawn sign by Internet. The person receiving the order actually faints upon reading “Unto us a child is born, 3 feet wide and 9 feet long.” Then there’s the youngster reporting on the school Christmas pageant: “I liked the ‘Silent Night’ song, but who’s Round John Virgin?” And we all know why there’s an angel on top of every Christmas tree so there’s no need to go into that one. (If you’re not sure, Google it.)

If I say, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” you all know where I’m coming from. “A Christmas Story” is surely the funniest Christmas movie ever. The kid with his tongue stuck to the fl agpole, the brother so bundled up he can’t stand, the furnace, the lamp, the visit to Santa — priceless. And, of course, the end, with the Chinese restaurant waiters singing, “Fa ra ra ra ra, fa ra ra ra.” A nice, goofy family, a wonderfully goofy movie.

The most amusing song is “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” (“She’d been drinkin’ too much eggnog, and we begged her not to go … ”), although I feel disloyal relegating The Chipmunks to second place. I always groan when I hear that one begin, yet I’m smiling within seconds and waiting for the “Alvin!!!” as though I’d never heard it before. But Grandma, blue hair and all, prevails.

My father had a business in New York City and every year he would get a “Merry Christmas” card from the sanitation guys. Touching, but it was quite clear that some folding cash was expected. One year he was a bit slow responding and actually received another card, which said “Merry Christmas — Second Notice .” True story.

I found a clever parody that begins:

’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house,

I searched for the tools to hand to my spouse.

Instructions were studied and we were inspired,

In hopes we could manage “Some assembly required.”

Three Wise Men? Suppose it had been Three Wise Women. The consensus is that they would have asked for directions and not arrived a week late, would have brought a casserole, cleaned up the stable and assisted in the actual birth. Alas, we’ll never know.

And how quickly can you name Santa’s eight reindeer?

Humor aside, the best written story of all is O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” which pinpoints the challenging message of Christmas — total, 100 percent giving, with nothing expected in return. Don’t just hark the herald, be the herald.

TR050808_book_Case_R.jpgMr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].