Even the language of Christmas glitters, says Hot Springs writer Joseph Bottum.
Bottum should know. Christmas, and the language that surrounds it, has been good to him.
A former East Coast magazine editor who grew up in South Dakota, Bottum has a new Christmas book out and he has written best-selling Christmas ebooks for Amazon's Kindle Singles for two years in a row.
Just in time for this Christmas, Random House published "The Christmas Plains," in hardcover and ebook. His ebook short story, "Wise Guy: A Christmas Tale," is one of the Kindle Singles bestsellers this month. Last year, his collection of essays about childhood Christmases in South Dakota, "Dakota Christmas," was a Kindle Singles bestseller.
"I'm not sure if this is a breakthrough in my writing, or the final proof that all I can write is Christmas stuff ..." joked Bottum.
Hardly. The 51-year-old writer has plenty to say about politics and religion, too. He's the former literary editor for the Washington, D.C., political journal The Weekly Standard and the former editor of First Things, a national Catholic periodical. In 2010, he moved his wife and daughter to Hot Springs year-round and launched a full-time freelance writing career made profitable, in part, by Amazon's ebook trade. But he's been penning annual essays and stories about Christmas for various national publications his entire career.
One of the many things he's noticed about the holiday he loves is a theme that runs throughout his newest book. "The language of Christmas ... is words that glitter with a certain extra meaning," he said.
The holiday preserves certain words for the English language, words that most of us only use at this time of year, he said — words such as creche and nativity and noel and even ha'penny. Words that glisten and glow with special meanings and memories for many of us.
"All these words that we all know but only because Christmas preserves them for us," he said. "One of the arguments that I make in the book ... is the way that Christmas words work, the way they glow with a little extra meaning and speak of the past — that's the way all language ought to work."
There's a linguistic lesson for all of us in the glittering language of Christmas, he says.
"All language wants to be poetry when it grows up," he writes in an essay about hearing words the way small children experience them. "That's the way we ought to hear language all the time."
This year's main Christmas offering, "The Christmas Plains," is selling well in hardcover at Mitzi's Books in downtown Rapid City. Malcom Chapman of Rapid City bought two copies as Christmas gifts recently, and chatted with its author as Bottum signed them.
Instead of condemning the modern American take on Christmas, Bottum embraces it while exploring the secularization and the sadness of the holiday, along with its joys and its humor. He even pokes gentle fun at one particular tradition: Christmas-themed books as holiday gifts.
Known to family and friends as Jody, Bottum makes a kind of poetry out of everything with his Christmas prose. Family memories, childhood fears, Charles Dickens, frustrations with tinsel and the hallucinations of a sleep-deprived college student. He writes about a long drive home late on one cold winter night when he "saw" the Wise Men and the shepherds and uses it as a way to explore the spiritual geography of our lives.
"Think of it this way: As we wander our modern wilderness, our unmapped territory, Christmas is a compass," he writes. At its true center, that compass points toward God.
"Wise Guy," his novella-length ebook about a good-hearted thief named Bart Sagan, takes a less intellectual approach to the holiday. Amazon publicists call it a "comic crime caper for the holiday" and a "fictional tale of robberies and reindeer, felonies and frankincense, burglaries and Bethlehem — the twelve crimes of Christmas."
"Wise Guy" is a retelling of the story of Balthasar, one of the three Wise Men who followed a Star from the East for the first Christmas, or as much of Balthasar, anyway, as a confused and slightly hangdog minor thief can manage, according to Amazon.
But whether Bottum is writing fiction or philosophy for Christmas, his readers can be sure of one thing. It will glitter.