10 of the Most Valuable Christmas Books (And Why They're Worth So Much)

Courtesy of Bauman Rare Books
Courtesy of Bauman Rare Books

What’s it like to be a rare book dealer during the holiday season? It’s the busiest time of the year for us, just as it is for regular booksellers. The seasonal crush creates a festive phenomenon, a category of rare books that collectors seek like mad for one part of the year, then ignore for the next eleven months: Christmas books. Here are the stories behind some of the most sought volumes.

1. RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER // ROBERT MAY, 1939

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer illustration
Courtesy of David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University

We owe Rudolph to a marketing scheme. Robert May was a copyrighter for Montgomery Ward, the department store. This Christmas classic started out as a little booklet given away free to children visiting the store. It was published as a cheap holiday promotion, never meant to last—the kind of paper advertising that parents throw out as soon as they get home. In the rare book world, we call something created without the intent to survive long “ephemera.” This is one of the reasons that the first edition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer can reach prices as high as $1000: They weren’t meant to last.

2. “‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS” // CLEMENT MOORE, 1823

'Twas The Night Before Christmas page
Courtesy of Bauman Rare Books

The famous American poem that captures the anticipation of Christmas Eve was never meant to be shared outside of the author’s close friends and family. However, a friend was so impressed by the poem that she clandestinely submitted it to the editor of a popular magazine.

Moore didn’t publicly claim the poem until 15 years later, a gap which has allowed questions of authorship to appear in the 20th century. The controversy has even sparked a popular holiday event called “The Trial Before Christmas.” The poem has appeared in countless adaptations, including a terrific e-book performance, but the earliest versions can top over $10,000.

3. A CHRISTMAS CAROL // CHARLES DICKENS, 1843

A Christmas Carol book
Courtesy of Honey and Wax Booksellers

Dickens famously financed the printing of A Christmas Carol himself after his publishers refused, believing that the extravagant gift book wouldn't make any money. Few realize, however, that his publishers were right: Dickens spent so much on the hand-colored illustrations and other fancy touches that his expenses ate up 85 percent of the revenue.

Ironically, this deluxe production has proved quite fragile in the long term. Today, it’s so hard to find in beautiful condition that small differences in the wear on the binding can change the price by $5000 or even $10,000. Our own Christmas Carol is priced at $28,000.

4. HOLIDAYS ON ICE // DAVID SEDARIS, 1997

Holidays on Ice book
Courtesy of Brian Cassidy Bookseller

Collectors of hyper-moderns—that is, books from approximately the past few decades—aren’t searching for just any copy of David Sedaris’s holiday book. They know to look for the copies that got Sedaris in trouble. The first state of Holidays on Ice depicts Santa on the cover. The problem is that Santa … is standing over a urinal. The cover was considered too “objectional” in the U.S., and was quickly replaced. Now a signed first edition of a copy with Santa urinating on the cover will cost you around $100.

5. “THE GIFT OF THE MAGI” // O. HENRY, 1905

The Gift of the Magi book
Courtesy of Honey and Wax Booksellers

Henry’s poignant tale of gifts and sacrifice was written in a tavern in New York City. It was first published in The New York Sunday World, but if you want to find the version that commands the highest price on the collectible market, you need to look for the first edition in book form. However, you might overlook that $600 volume on the shelf of an antiquarian book shop: The short-story collection bears a less familiar title. Keep an eye out for O. Henry’s book called The Four Million, with “Published April, 1906” on the copyright page.

6. THE TAILOR OF GLOUCESTER // BEATRIX POTTER, 1902

The Tailor of Gloucester
Courtesy of Peter Harrington Rare Books

Scientist-cum-artist Beatrix Potter’s delightful tales of the critters in English farms and gardens began as many children’s books do: as stories recounted to the young children Potter knew. In 1901 Potter made The Tailor of Gloucester as a Christmas gift for the daughter of her former governess. A true Christmas story set on Christmas Eve, it was also Potter’s own favorite of her tales.

For years, Potter had been privately printing small runs of cards and tales to give as Christmas presents among her circle. Even though she had already secured a contract with Frederick Warne & Co. for The Tale of Peter Rabbit by 1902, she decided to self-publish The Tailor of Gloucester anyway, fearing that Warne would otherwise cut some of her favorite rhymes. Today the privately printed version, which came out a year before the better known Frederick Warne & Co. edition, can fetch prices of $7500 to $9000 in great condition.

7. A SNOWY DAY // EZRA JACK KEATS, 1962

A Snowy Day book
Courtesy of E.M. Maurice Books

While A Snowy Day isn’t specifically about Christmas, it evokes the Christmas season as surely as one’s first snowman. A Snowy Day is notable not only as a Caldecott winner, but as the first full-color picture book to feature an African American as the protagonist. Indeed, Keats was inspired to create the work after years working as an illustrator for other authors who rarely depicted African-American children, or other children from minority communities, in their stories. In his autobiography, Keats explains that this wasn’t a political move, but simply a reflection of reality that others were ignoring: “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.” The book is now highly sought by collectors, so expect to see a price of around $12,000 for a nice one.

8. “THE TWELVE TERRORS OF CHRISTMAS” // JOHN UPDIKE AND EDWARD GOREY, 1993

The Twelve Terrors of Christmas old book
Courtesy of Honey and Wax Booksellers

While Updike’s essay first appeared in The New Yorker in 1982, it reached peak creepiness with the addition of Edward Gorey’s unsettling illustrations. Imagine the man who inspired Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro, and Neil Gaiman drawing Santa. Shudder. Copies of the limited edition, signed by both Updike and Gorey, can cost you between $300 and $400 today.

9. “THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM” // EDGAR ALLAN POE, 1842

The Pit and the Pendulum book
Courtesy of Adrian Harrington Rare Books

Philadelphia publishers Carey and Hart got into the Christmas book business before even Charles Dickens, issuing a volume of stories toward the end of each year with elaborate gift bindings stamped in gilt. Entitled The Gift, the 1842 issue of this annual contains the first appearance in print of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” surely one of the least Christmas-appropriate stories of all time. Today, look for copies at $1000 or even $2000.

After its appearance in “The Gift,” the tale went mostly unnoticed. Poe printed it again in a journal he edited in 1845, but the tale didn’t appear in any of Poe’s short story collections during his lifetime. It wasn’t until 1850 that the story took its proper place next to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” in a posthumous volume.

10. “AUGGIE WREN’S CHRISTMAS STORY” // PAUL AUSTER, 1990

Auggie Wren's Christmas Story
Courtesy of William Reese Company

Thanks to a special commission from The New York Times, Auster published a modern Christmas story that manages to be poignant without being sentimental. It’s a tale within a tale, a meta-tale: Auster stressed over how to write a modern Christmas story, “warring with the ghosts of Dickens, [and] O. Henry.”

The next year, Auster’s stress-inducing New York Times commission was turned into a limited edition fine press book. Of the 450 copies printed, 100 were signed by Auster, and now fetch prices of $200 to $250.

The 13 Scariest Haunted Houses in America

iStock
iStock

Horror lovers will feel right at home in New York or Ohio. Attractions in those states claim four out of 13 spots on Halloween expert Larry Kirchner’s new list of America’s scariest haunted houses. Drawing upon his 25 years of experience designing and installing Halloween attractions, Kirchner releases the list on his website, Hauntworld.com, each year.

This year, Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York, tops the list. A historic 18th-century manor provides a spooky backdrop to the haunt, which includes a theatrical hayride, corn maze, eight haunted attractions, and escape rooms. “Dr. Dark’s Circus Side Show” (with everyone’s favorite: creepy clowns) will be one of the new themes offered this year, and another new section called “Two Raven’s Manor” will feature stunt actors and a magician.

The runner-up on Kirchner’s list is Field of Screams in Mountville, Pennsylvania. The attraction promises its hayride will be “the most disturbing ride of your life through thick rows of corn.” Expect to see demented doctors, evil nurses, chainsaw and ax murderers, and miscellaneous monsters.

Check out the full list of attractions below, and head to Haunt World’s website for additional details.

1. Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses: Ulster Park, New York
2. Field of Screams: Mountville, Pennsylvania
3. The Dent Schoolhouse: Cincinnati, Ohio
4. 13th Gate: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
5. Netherworld: Atlanta, Georgia
6. Nightmare on 13th: Salt Lake City, Utah
7. Haunted Schoolhouse & Laboratory: Akron, Ohio
8. Bennett’s Curse: Baltimore, Maryland
9. Haunted Overload: Lee, New Hampshire
10. Erebus: Pontiac, Michigan
11. Hell’s Gate: Lockport, Illinois
12. The Darkness: St. Louis, Missouri
13. Bayville Screampark: Bayville, New York

Autumn Equinox: The Science Behind the First Day of Fall

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iStock

On September 22, the Sun will shine directly over the equator—the midpoint of the Earth. (For 2018, this moment will happen at 9:54 p.m. ET.) The whole world will thus experience a day and night of equal length. In the Northern Hemisphere, we call this the autumn equinox. It marks the first day of fall. Around the world, people are marking the day with ceremonies, some of them ancient (and some less so).

You might be wondering two things: 1. Why on almost every other day of the year (the vernal equinox being the other exception) do different parts of the world have days and nights of differing length? 2. What do they call the day in the Southern Hemisphere?

A DAY AT THE BEACH

The answer to each of these questions resides in the Earth's axial tilt. The easiest way to imagine that tilt is to think about tanning on the beach. (Stay with me here.) If you lay on your stomach, your back gets blasted by the Sun. You don't wait 30 minutes then flop over and call it a day. Rather, as you tan, every once in a while, you shift positions a little. Maybe you lay a bit more on one side. Maybe you lift a shoulder, move a leg a little. Why? Because you want the Sun to shine directly on a different part of you. You want an even tan.

It might seem a little silly when you think about it. The Sun is a giant fusion reactor 93 million miles away. Solar radiation is hitting your entire back and arms and legs and so on whether or not you adjust your shoulder just so. But you adjust, and it really does improve your tan, and you know this instinctively.

People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
PETRAS MALUKAS, AFP/Getty Images

The Earth works a lot like that, except it's operating by physics, not instinct. If there were no tilt, only one line of latitude would ever receive the most direct blast of sunlight: the equator. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the planet would be bathed in sunlight, but it would only be the equator that would always get the most direct hit (and the darkest tan). But the Earth does have a tilt. Shove a pole through the planet with one end sticking out the North Pole and one end sticking out the South, and angle the whole thing by 23.5 degrees. That's the grade of Earth's tilt.

Now spin our little skewered Earth and place it in orbit around the Sun. At various points in the orbit, the Sun will shine directly on different latitudes. It will shine directly on the equator twice in a complete orbit—the fall and spring equinoxes—and at various points in the year, the most direct blast of sunlight will slide up or down. The highest latitude receiving direct sunlight is called the Tropic of Cancer. The lowest point is the Tropic of Capricorn. The poles, you will note, are snow white. They have, if you will, a terrible tan—and that's because they never receive solar radiation from a directly overhead Sun (even during the long polar summer, when the Sun never sinks below the horizon).

WHEN DO THE SEASONS CHANGE?

A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
Jose CABEZAS, AFP/Getty Images

The seasons have nothing to do with the Earth's distance from the Sun. Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons. The Sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer (66.5 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere) on June 21 or 22. When that occurs, the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer solstice. The days grow long and hot. As the year elapses, the days slowly get shorter and cooler as summer gives way to autumn. On September 21 or 22, the Sun's direct light has reached the equator. Days and night reach parity, and because the Sun is hitting the whole world head-on, every latitude experiences this simultaneously.

On December 21 or 22, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning the Northern Hemisphere is receiving the least sunlight it will get all year. The Northern Hemisphere is therefore in winter solstice. Our days are short and nights are long. Parity will again be reached on March 21 or 22, the vernal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole process will repeat itself.

Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England.
Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England. The Druid Order of London, which was founded in Oxford in 1245, has been conducting the Autumn Equinox ceremony on Primrose Hill since 1717.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

Now reverse all of this for the Southern Hemisphere. When we're at autumnal equinox, they're at vernal equinox. Happy first day of spring, Southern Hemisphere!

And welcome to fall, Northern Hemisphere! Enjoy this long day of sunlight, because dark days are ahead. You'll get less and less light until the winter solstice, and the days will grow colder. Take solace, though, in knowing that the whole world is experiencing the very same thing. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to get ready to spend some time at the beach.

This story first ran in 2016.

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