Small books covering big themes related to holidays

Every year they arrive fresh and tempting on bookstore shelves -- new, small books devoted to holiday stories. They have a few traits in common: They don't take long to read, they make good gifts, and the main theme is, of course, the spirit of Christmas.

We rounded up an assortment of this year's offerings -- including essays by atheists, an intentionally abrasive offering from a comedian, a slice of America's past from a noted historian and more traditional offerings -- to let you know which ones made us laugh, cry or cringe.

A Piggly Wiggly Christmas

by Robert Dalby

G.P. Putnam's Sons, $24.95

What it's about: This is the fourth installment of this author's very Southern series about a group of elderly women who run the fictional town of Second Creek, Miss. Never mind that not a one of them holds an elected office there. It's a story filled with names like Gaylie Girl, Mr. Choppy, Renza and Novie. Theirs is a silver-haired mafia with an agenda of caroling, holiday parties, good food and gossiping -- not necessarily in that order. When the town's perfectly picturesque square burns, it's the Nitwitts to the rescue.

Why read it: Fans of Dalby's series are going to eat up this charming novel with a spoon and ask for seconds. The rest of the reading public, not so much. But there's someone on your Christmas list who would just love this quaint setting and the good-hearted people who populate it, and they are probably AARP members. If so, you might go back to the series' first book, A Piggy Wiggly Wedding, for the perfect gift.

-- S.G.C.

The Christmas Chronicles: The Legend of Santa Claus

by Tim Slover

Bantam Books, $16

What it's about: The author recounts a story: One day he goes way out into the wilderness to find pine boughs for his home holiday decor and there he stumbles upon perhaps one of the world's biggest secrets: A man in a sleigh dashes by, and from the sleigh falls a book. The Green Book is penned by one Dunstan Wyatt, who says it is the "true and authorized chronicle of Klaus." The author reads the enchanted book, and its contents are forever etched upon his mind. The bulk of The Christmas Chronicles then comprises the author's retelling of the contents of The Green Book. We learn how Santa came to be and the details of how all the various Santa traditions (Rudolph, or Ranulf, as he is known here; hanging stockings by the fire; kids writing letters to Santa; etc.) developed.

Why read it: Tim Slover -- a playwright and professor of theater at the University of Utah -- brings humor, sophistication and whimsy to this well-told story about the magic of Christmas. There are plot twists to keep readers wanting to flip the pages, and even a villain to stir things up. It's a gift to be able to write about the Christmas spirit and to come across as sincere but not overly sentimental or sweet. At 162 small pages, I think this would be a really fun chapter book to read aloud to kids during the Christmas season. In fact, an annual read would be a great family tradition.

-- C.M.

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas

edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers

Harper Perennial, $14.99 paperback

What it's about: It's a shame that you really shouldn't give "educational" gifts because this collection of more than 40 short essays by comedians, writers and scientists -- nonbelievers all -- would go a long way toward illuminating and understanding the people who wear the labels of atheists and agnostics, humanists and pagans, and many more.

Why read it: You will be tempted by the essays written by "names," such as Duran Duran's Simon le Bon and British comic Ed Byrne, but it is the lesser names who often write with genuine poignancy, who tell their stories of the season with a sense of purpose and humor. It would probably surprise any believer who picks up this book to find that many of the authors share a Christian's sense of losing the holiday to crass commercialism, of misplaced priorities, of senseless guilt and lack of gratitude. There is a lot of common ground here; it's just not at the shopping mall or under the Christmas tree.

-- S.G.C.

I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas

by Lewis Black

Riverhead Books, $19.95

What it's about: Most people don't sit on the fence when it comes to the intentionally abrasive Black. You either get his profanity-filled rant style of comedy or you are annoyed by it. I'm not a huge fan, but I did give Black points for admitting in the first chapter that this book is the seasonal money grab that it is and then entertainingly pulling me through the remaining pages with his rants against commercialism, privileged infants and small children who vacation on exotic islands, overeating, and the impossibility of buying gifts for kids and teens. The final chapter, about Lewis on a Christmas USO tour with, among others, Lance Armstrong and Kid Rock, made up for every f-bomb and whiny indulgence that came before.

Why read it: Black didn't get to be a master comedian without displaying a wicked proficiency for touching a collective nerve. "Enough is never enough in this culture," he says, of America. "That's why we're spiritually thin and physically fat."

-- S.G.C.

In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story

by David McCullough

Shadow Mountain, $19.99

What it's about: It was Christmas Eve, and the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor a few weeks before, drawing the United States into what would later be known as World War II. It was probably difficult to find the Christmas spirit with all that was happening in the world. Yet, Winston Churchill came to Washington, D.C., and from the White House, he and President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a message to the crowd that had gathered, calling for each American home to be "a brightly lighted island of happiness and peace." In this brief book, historian David McCullough recalls the highlights of Churchill's visit and links it to two beloved Christmas carols that played a role in those events, O Little Town of Bethlehem and I'll Be Home for Christmas.

Why read it: History-lovers will enjoy this brief but interesting glimpse at a moment in American culture when popular songs and world events intersected. The book includes photos of the two world leaders and of American soldiers and families at the time, and in the back are reprints of Churchill's and Roosevelt's Christmas Eve messages. A DVD comes with the book, too, showing McCullough's 2009 live performance with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in which he tells this same story and the choir sings the two tunes. As the choir sings, many more photos from the time period are shown. It's a stirring reminder that history is about people who are just like we are -- they just happened to live in different and sometimes more difficult circumstances.

-- C.M.

Promise Me

by Richard Paul Evans

Simon & Schuster, $19.99

What it's about: Every holiday season, it seems, Evans decants a romantic tale of love and redemption, sorrow and wish fulfillment. This is the story of Beth Cardall, who lives in Salt Lake City with her young daughter, Charlotte, who suffers from a mysterious ailment. Beth's husband is cheating on her, her job at the dry cleaner is a meager one, and she is slowly losing her grip on life. In fact, she's on the brink of losing her house. Then she meets a handsome stranger.

Why read it: This novel didn't move me to tears like last year's The Christmas List, also written by Evans, did. But Beth's story, however improbable, is hard to resist. It's the Christmas season, and if you are a fan of Evans' work or of romantic fiction in general, you will be tempted to believe in an angel named Matthew.

-- S.G.C.