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A Kennedy Christmas

During her childhood, Caroline Kennedy would always

find such Victorian-era gifts as walnuts and oranges in her Christmas stocking.

But by the time her own three children were old enough to write to Santa, her

mother had succumbed to the "era of plastic," giving her grandchildren such

items as a plastic shopping cart, miniature kitchen and talking phone.

"She had a great sense of fun," says Kennedy of her mother, Jacqueline.

And, "she would give books as well."

Jackie O likely would have presented to all on her list her daughter's

newest offering, "A Family Christmas." In an introduction to the handsome

volume, Kennedy writes about her own family traditions - and the nation's - and

includes a trove of surprising historical notes about the importance of

Macy's, Coca-Cola and Thomas Alva Edison in the evolution of the holiday's

modern celebration. The rest of the book is full of essays, poems, lyrics and

other passages as personal as the old-fashioned gifts she and her late brother

John received from their parents.

When her editor first suggested compiling a Christmas book, "At first I

thought it was a bad idea," Kennedy says in a phone conversation on the morning

of her 50th birthday, Nov. 27 (lunch with friends and dinner with her

children, 14, 17 and 19, was on the day's agenda).

A different Christmas book

"I thought it would be the same old stuff you see all the time. Then I

looked on it as a challenge, to see if there was anything out there that was

not the same." This is the seventh book for Kennedy, who graduated from Harvard

College and Columbia Law School and is vice chairwoman of the New York City

Fund for Public Schools. Her first two books were law-related, the last five

anthologies were like this one.

With this project, she discovered that Christmas is "a gigantic historic,

cultural, economic phenomenon," she says, closely intertwined with the growth

of department stores, soft-drink advertising and the invention of the electric

lightbulb. The holiday was also tied to major social changes - several

selections describe the accommodations immigrant groups, including Jews, must

make to America's tinsel landscape - and wars.

"I really learned a lot," she says, way beyond what she got at the Catholic

schools she attended as a girl. Among the more unusual entries are a letter

from Groucho Marx about his bad luck with holiday tipping, recipes from the

kitchen of Martha Washington and the lyrics to "Christmas in Hollis" by rappers

Run-DMC.

Remembering the soldiers

"Because we're currently at war, and there are soldiers away from home, I

thought it important" to include writings on war, she says, starting with

George Washington's description of crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day,

1776.

There's also a 1961 letter from her father, President John F. Kennedy, to a

Michigan girl afraid that the Russians would bomb the North Pole and harm

Santa.

After writing that he shared her concerns about atmospheric testing, he

concluded: "However, you must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him

yesterday and he is fine. He will be making his rounds this Christmas." She

hadn't known about the letter until the Kennedy Library came upon it for her

book, Kennedy says.

Her own childhood letter

Among her own papers was a letter she had written to Santa in 1962, when

she was 5, in which she asked for - among other things - silver skates, a real

pet reindeer, a basket for her bicycle and a farm. The letter is in her

mother's handwriting, but she can't recall dictating it, let alone what some of

the items - "one of those horse wagons with lucky dips - and Susie Smart and

Candy Fashion dolls" - are. "I'm waiting for some other 50-year-old to tell

me," she says.

She probably got at least some of the items, she says, but what she

remembers more is that she and her brother were encouraged to make their own

decorations and cards, something she continued with her own family. Even though

her eldest child is in college and her other two in high school, she hopes

they'll create cards for their parents, she says. She plans to give away jars

of blueberry jam she made this summer. "And I made this book," she adds.

Until recently, she owned a house in Sagaponack and often spent

Thanksgivings there. "We celebrate Christmas more in the city," she says.

Because her husband, museum designer Edwin Schlossberg, is Jewish, she says,

"We incorporate Hanukkah.... We light the menorah and play dreidel and sing

songs at our holiday party." Along with all the fun, they also do some "reading

and thinking, which helps the kids to really connect."

She learned from her research - much of which didn't make it into her book

- that, starting in the 1830s, special books were often printed for people to

give at Christmas. "The idea that I'm continuing in that tradition - I like

that," she says. "People should give books for Christmas - though kids don't

like to get them." Including her own children. "But they do get them."

Unbottling lesser-known history

Here are some tidbits Caroline Kennedy uncovered as she researched "A Family

Christmas."

In 1659, the Puritans of Massachusetts banned the celebration of Christmas,

"which had become known for public drunkenness, licentious sex, and gambling."

The American vision of Santa Claus was created by Clement Clarke Moore in

his 1822 poem that starts "'Twas the night before Christmas" and was later

exported to the world largely via Coca-Cola ads.

Department stores - invented in America - "contributed greatly to the

economic growth of Christmas." Macy's began decorating its windows in the 1870s

and launched its Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. Rudolph the Red-Nosed

Reindeer was created for Chicago's Montgomery Ward stores in 1939.

"The first electric Christmas-tree lights, eighty hand-blown red, white,

and blue glass bulbs, festooned the 1882 tree of Edward Johnson, an executive

in the Edison

Illuminating Company."

America's first public Christmas tree was lit in 1912 by Caroline Kennedy's

great grandfather, Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, at 5 p.m., beating New

York's Madison Square tree by half an hour.

WHEN&WHERECaroline Kennedy signs "A Family Christmas" at 6 p.m. Saturday at

Book Revue,

313 New York Ave., Huntington, 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com. At 12:30 p.m.

on Friday, she'll sign at Barnes & Noble, 555 Fifth Ave., Manhattan,

212-697-3048.

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