The Berenstain Bears are the epitome of a snug and cosy, loved and valued life.
Created by Stan and Jan Berenstain (their son Mike later assumed full authorship following Jan’s death in 2012), with the first book The Big Honey Hunt hitting bookshelves in 1962, reading one of the more than 300 books in the series reminds you of what it feels like to be part of a rich, caring family. They’re not perfect but then they’re not meant to be – things go wrong, lessons get learned and the family, wiser usually thanks to the intervening efforts of Mama Bear (who fixes the mistakes of lumbering Papa Bear who means well but lacks sound execution much of the time), gets back to being appealingly normal.
In many ways their very normality makes them perfect for telling stories about celebrating Christmas since it is after all a time for drawing close to those you love. In Old-Fashioned Christmas, published in 2012, there’s none of the Berenstain Bears usual need for saccharine-sweet moral storytelling; this is more of an evocation of an idealised, perfect Christmas where Mama and Papa, Brother, Sister and Honey Bear all to spend the big day with Grizzly Gran and Gramps who have a penchant for homemade Christmas ornaments and a slew of Christmas cards along the mantelpiece.
It is the very picture of what a Christmas with extended family should be with carol singing (“The Twelve Days of Christmas” gets a good run), no TV (yeah, Gramps is a little curmudgeonly when it comes to modern conveniences), the cutting of a fresh tree out in the woods, unwrapping of the bearloom ornaments (bought fifty years earlier for six cents apiece) and decorating by the entire family, following, naturally enough, by a feast of salmon, pies and gingerbread cookies.
As books about the most wonderful time of the year go, it’s like a great, big, warm hug but one which in little ways here and there underlines that real families always have a few issues here or there – Granpa has form issues on where the tree should sit and is a tad challenged when it comes to starting the fire – but nothing that some caroling, sleigh riding, storytelling and present exchanging can’t fix.
Granted, it doesn’t have the gritty, grim reality of The Wire but then this is the Berenstain Bears and it is Christmas and as cosy tales of the festive season go this is pretty much as perfect as you could expect Santa to deliver.
Night Before Christmas is much more limited in both its setting and it storytelling scope but that’s because it is simply a vehicle to re-tell the classic poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore (first published in 1823 and better known by its immortal first line) which forms the centrepiece of The Berenstain Bears Christmas Eve celebrations one cold and cosy year.
Interestingly, while most of the Christmas tales of The Berenstain Bears refer to Santa Bear, this one (published in 2013) sticks to good old Santa Claus with our beary favourite family ready for his arrival.
The tree is decorated, the stockings are carefully hung the fireplace and Santa’s snacks are happily in place thanks to the conscientious efforts of Brother, Sister and Honey (the latter of whom is seen helping herself to a cookie; no word on how that affects her present count).
The trigger for reading the venerable poem, which is responsible in many ways for how we view Santa Claus, gift giving and many of the much-loved traditions of the season, is the kids’ lack of lamentable awareness that the chimney-slider himself is also known as Saint Nicholas, or simply good old Saint Nick, and again, the idea that TV is an evil best banished by a good book-based story (as someone who reads prodigiously but also loves TV, this demonification of television is amusing).
Brother, Sister and Honey all fall asleep during the poem’s animated telling which is accompanied by bears filling all the major parts, and forms a lovely prelude to the whole family drifting off to await a much-anticipated visit from St Nick.
Two stories in one? How can you resist?
Not when it’s Christmas, not when the book is called Merry Christmas (published in this form in 2019) and not when both of them tackle the perennial thorny issue of just how materialistic Christmas has become.
In keeping with the obviousness of much of the storytelling in The Berenstain Bears – fair enough; they’re kids books and oblique narratives are not the order of the day – it’s fairly clear that losing sight of the real meaning of Christmas, which in this case is not religious but giving and being close to family and friends, is something you should avoid.
In the first story, “The Berenstain Bears’ Mad, Mad Toy Craze”, Beary Bubbies are all the rage, and like Beanie Babies,, they sweep all before them, including Papa’s sense of perspective.
Caught in the idea that he can strike it big by selling off bears he buys cheaply – it is Brother and Sister who are the craze’s ardent first acolytes but Papa soon signs up – he loses sight of the fact that the Beary Bubbies are everywhere and that apart from a distinct lack of playability (not really so; my niece played with her Beanie Babies endlessly, much as she would dolls), or Stan and Jan Berenstain posit (they are a little old-fashioned), they will soon diminish in value.
There’s no great lesson here other than, I guess, not losing your mind to a heavily-marketed gimmick; it’s in “The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear” (he’s back!) that the endless long lists of “gimme! gimme! gimme!” are in the end reduced down to the simple message of the gift of giving.
Interestingly there’s no great anti-materialism push since Brother and Sister still deliver their lists to Santa Bear, getting a colouring book in return, with the main message being that it’s the giving that counts.
Also refreshingly, the story is at pains to point out that present worthiness is not about being perfect, it’s about being good, a welcome loosening of the noose that seems to tighten around kids everywhere at Christmas, a development that I find objectionable simply because I grew up in the Church with the idea that anything less than perfection was unacceptable, a toxic “ideal” that took the fun out of everything.
So kudos to the Berenstains for letting the kids have their presents, for some nicely-delivered bon mots of morality and for being allowed to be real and normal and enjoy the season free from the idea that the only good life is a perfect one.