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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.