Storybook Christmases on display

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For 116 years, the Grolier Club of New York has dedicated itself to the art and design of the book. Visitors leave behind the noise of Madison Avenue and step through French doors to an elegant exhibition hall. Here you can view some of the most beautiful examples of printing in the world.

The Grolier presents four free public exhibitions each year on book-related topics. It is a refreshing affirmation of the importance of print in a digital age.

Currently on view is "A Ha! Christmas!" an exhibition of Christmas books and manuscripts from the collection of Jock Elliott, Grolier Club member and exhibition curator.

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Beginning with a beautiful illumination of the adoration of the Magi from a 15th-century French book of hours, the books reflect religious and festive Christmas observance in Britain and the United States. Of note are some of the earliest printed accounts of Jesus' birth. These include leaves from "The Golden Legend," the first account printed in English, by William Caxton.

As the 17th century progressed, Puritan tradition discouraged the decadent activities surrounding the season to the point that England's Parliament forbade the holiday's celebration. The exhibit's title is from a 1647 pamphlet that called for "men to keepe a good Christmas, and to be liberall to the poore ... taken and proved out of Scripture."

By the mid-19th century, thought, Christmas had reemerged. The beginnings of what we think of as the holiday's most enduring traditions, such as the Christmas tree, arrived from Germany. A 19th-century frontispiece of a Christmas tree (see illustration), widely circulated in The Illustrated London News and Godey's Lady's Book in the United States, helped popularize the custom.

Books about Christmas also became popular. Charles Dickens actually wrote three more Christmas books, in addition to "A Christmas Carol." (Some early 1843 editions of the latter are on view here.) William Thackeray wrote six books about Christmas. Many other writers followed suit.

The exhibit closes with modern classics. What collection would be complete without a first edition of Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales" (1955) - Mr. Elliott's favorite prose piece in the collection - or Dr. Seuss's 1957 "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"?

*'A Ha! Christmas!' is on exhibit at the Grolier Club, 47 E. 60th Street, New York, through Jan. 29, 2000.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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