Remembrance of Christmases past

Once upon a simpler time -- before "life- like" Christmas trees with five-years warranties or plum pudding in heat-and-serve cans -- Christmas was a homemade celebration. Traditions grew out of ingenuity and indigenous materials. No artificial preservatives added. Not a piece of plastic in sight.

The charm of those earlier Christmases fills the pages of two handsome new books: An Olde Concord Christmas (New York: St. Martin's Press. $11.95) and A Williamsburg Christmas (Williamsburg, Va: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. $9. 95). Both present "an idelized and romanticized version of the past," but no apologies are needed for that. As the "Concord" preface explains, "In a world increasingly dominated by computer technology and numbered plastic cards, it is refreshing to remove oneself to an earlier time, a time when bigger and brighter did not necessarily mean better."

"An Olde Concord Christmas," in particular, is a purist's dream, a history lover's delight. Its brief text and 65 stunning photos trace the evolution of holiday celebrations in New England, as re-created in biennial displays at the concord Antiquarian Society Museum.

In the museum's 17th-century rooms, a bowl of apples or a sprig of partridgeberry adds the only touch of holiday color, since the Puritans banned all christmas gift-giving and revelry until 1681. During the next two centuries decorations gradually become more elaborate -- a pineapple-topped cone of greens and lemons in an early 18th-century room, a dried-flower garland in the Queen Anne Room, a topiary tree in the Chippendale Room. Not until the Empire Room (c. 1825) can the museum properly show a lavishly decorated Christmas tree.

The book is as much a look at life in one of America's most historic towns as it is a source of holiday ideas. But don't categorize this as a Christmas volume to be packed away with the artificial tree; it deserves permanent space on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in Americana. Many of the recipes transcend seasons, and the book will be a useful guide next summer in preserving wildflowers for holiday wreaths.

In contrast to the restraint of New England celebrations, "A Williamsburg Christmas" expresses a more exuberant approach to the holidays. Each year crowds flock to this restored capital for an 18th-century Christmas. No anti-Christmas bans restricted activities in His Majesty's royal colony. "Groaning boards" are laden with holiday food, and music and dance fill streets and halls.

Here, as in concord, plant materials -- greens, seed pods, nuts, cones, fruits -- become elegant decorations though interpretations are bolder and more colorful. Unlike "Concord," "Williamsburg" offers no how-to instructions, although close-up photographs make it possible to duplicate some of the simpler wreaths and centerpieces. Text is minimal; the bookhs chief value lies in its pictorial record of one particularly festive version of christmas past.

In the same way that made-in-Taiwan ornaments and pre-tied bows can promote longings for an "old-fashioned" Christmas, Muzak may be partly responsible for a recent surge of interest in lesser-known holiday music. How many times, after all, can the ear endure omnipresent shopping-center renditions before even the most loved carols begin to pall?

The International Book of Christmas Carols, by Walter Ehret and George K. Evans, (Brattleboro, Vt: Stephen Greene Press. $12.95) offers one of the richest collections of christmas music available. Its 164 selections include sacred, secular, and folk music, both familiar and unknown. Piano arrangements are easy to play, and notes about the historical origins of many carols give added appeal.

Two small complaints: What begins as an asset -- the book's comprehensiveness -- becomes a liability at the piano: at an inch thick, it doesn't lie flat. A spiral binding, even if it meant a higher price, would have been a welcome addition. Also to save space, a few songs have been scored with multiple repeats and coda signs. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" requires no fewer than seven quick flips to the previous page to get through all 12 verses.

But these are minor problems. Since Christmas music is best shared, it should't be hard to find a book holder and a page turner among the extra voices that gather to sing along.

If, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the world of Christmas is too much with you -- if, getting and spending, you annually lay waste your financial powers for the sake of holiday celebretions, take heart. Solutions abound in Simply Christmas: How to Have a Non- commercial Christmas (New York: Walker & Co. $5.95; $3.95 paper).

This unpretentious little book is the collective effort of three New Yorkers, writing under the pen name Noel Pax ("Christmas peace," with plenty of emphasis on peace). Simplifying Christmas, they maintain, "does not mean we must pare down our celebration until it is no longer enjoyable.It does mean having time and money and energy and peace of mind to make it a genuinely happy holiday."

Noel Pax offers advice on everything from trees ("Of course you'll have a tree") and baking ("This has got to be up to you") to entertaining ("Consider postponing until January or February") and gifts ("Substitute thought and imagination for expense"). Emphasis is on creativity and care rather than elegance. Comments by Art Bushwald (funny, as usual) and Dr. Benjamin Spock (sensible, of course) also echo the book's premise.

If your talents include the ability to plan your Christmas list while "lying on your back in the sun," you'll understand the thesis of Christmas: New Ideas for an Old-Fashioned Celebration (New York: Clarkson N. Potter. $12.95).

For authors Barbara and Nadia Rosenthal, Christmas begins in July on a Maine beach. Preparations continue with unflagging energy for the next six months, culminating in what they freely admit is a "full-blown production." Giffmaking starts in the "summer workshop." A walk-in closet becomes the "Christmas factory." The Kitchen yields "cooked presents" and elaborate meals. Everything gets orchestrated with the help of a red leather notebook, in which Barbara Rosenthal finds it necessary to remind herself: "Don't get too tired." No wonder. Just readingm about the effort expended on one family's elegant performance" is enough to induce fatigue.

YEt this highly personal book is not without selling points, starting with its handsome format and charming pen-and-wash drawings. In addition to the usual food-gift-decorating ideas, it includes holiday lore, a Dylan Thomas christmas selection, a dozen baroque carols, and Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas."

If you share the Rosenthals" enthusiasm for six-month preparations and grand-scale celebrations, this may be your book. If not -- if your Christmas countdown doesn't begin until the day after Thanksgiving (or the day after tomorrow, for sure) -- their approach will probably seem overwhelming. It may send you rushing out for a copy of Noel Pax's "Simply Christmas." In extreme cases it may even make you think (momentarily) that perhaps the Puritans had the right idea after all.

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