In his newly published memoir, “A Child’s Christmas in New England” (Bunker Hill Publishing), Robert Sullivan writes about growing up in the Chelmsford-Lowell area during the 1950s and ’60s. Back then, as he describes it, the holiday season was a magical time of colored lights and train sets under the Christmas tree; trips into Boston to see the Enchanted Village at Jordan Marsh; bountiful amounts of sledding-perfect snow; and family gatherings that created lasting, evergreen memories.
Sullivan’s book is illustrated by Glenn Wolff. The pair previously collaborated on “Flight of the Reindeer: The True Story of Santa Claus and His Christmas Mission,” made into the 2000 TV movie “The Christmas Secret,” and “Atlantis Rising: The True Story of a Submerged Land — Yesterday and Today.” Sullivan’s other books include “Our Red Sox: A Story of Family, Friends and Fenway.”
Sullivan, 60, is managing editor of LIFE Books and lives in New York’s Westchester County with his wife and three teenage children. Thematically, his memoir pays homage to Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” although, as Sullivan explained during a recent visit to Massachusetts, Thomas’s prose-poem was equally inspiring and intimidating.
Q. You thought up this project two years ago, correct?
‘Presents were never a big part of it. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, it was really all about the family.’
A. Right. Although I was into Dylan Thomas that year, it also had something to do with my kids coming out of their Santa phase. I was feeling sentimental and thought, I’ll put this together for their footlocker. After a couple of nights of writing, I scanned what I’d done, and it was awful. It read like a college humor magazine parody. I threw it out. The second draft worked like a song, though. If I learned nothing else, I learned that I can’t write like Dylan Thomas. Still, he was writing about a specific place and finding a lot of universals there. His piece was sentimental, too, which I liked.
Q. Was Christmas always that special to you?
A. It’s always been a big theme for me, maybe — no, certainly — because our Christmases were so nice. I’ve got a whole library of Christmas books. I love to read Christmas literature in season, although never before Thanksgiving Day.
Q. How did you go about shaping your narrative?
A. It’s all tone, all feel. Definitely stream of consciousness, including memories I hadn’t thought about in 40 years. Some stories I’ve told before. If you’ve got a finding-hand-grenades-in-the-attic story in your background, you trot it out on occasion. Others, like the story of my moving from one neighborhood to another, I hadn’t thought about for decades. It’s a sentimental book, and I don’t run away from that word. But I’m not Pollyannish, either. These days if you find hand grenades in the attic, the fire trucks arrive first. Next come the cop cars, and Grandma goes away in handcuffs. Then it’s not such a sweet story.
Q. Was yours a middle-class, suburban family?
A. Yes, and very much a postwar family. My mom and dad both grew up in Lowell. Neither got a college degree. Both went to work for banks. At the time, making it in Lowell was being able to move out to Chelmsford.
Q. Describe the typical Sullivan family Christmas.
A. It was pretty simple. Doing just a few things that were Christmas-centric. Decorating the tree. The Enchanted Village at Jordan Marsh, followed by an ice cream sundae at Bailey’s. Presents were never a big part of it. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, it was really all about the family.
Q. The Christmas season starts earlier than ever now and seems more commercial with each passing year. Did it feel much different 50 years ago?
A. Well, the “Charlie Brown Christmas” special was on TV back then, and it was about the commercialization of Christmas. There’s always been that question, What is it all about? You choose your own Christmas, I think. Our parents chose one for us. I happen to think they chose wisely, and we’ve tried to replicate that for our kids.
Q. Any special rituals you follow today?
A. Lugging holiday stuff up from the basement. Putting up the outside lights. I break a few ornaments every year, reducing the stash by 2 percent or so. We’ve already bought our Red Sox 2013 World Championship ornaments. For some reason, we also have eight Red Sox Santa hats.
Q. Every family member is a Sox fan?
A. Absolutely. Or they’d have to move out.
Q. Anything on your Christmas list this year?
A. I haven’t asked for anything. But I wouldn’t be surprised to get a 2013 Red Sox World Series Waterford crystal baseball paperweight. It’s crassly commercial, I know. Then again, so are Christmas books.
Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.