Marks in Books 11: Hanukkah Gift Inscriptions

The gift exchanges, which are central to American winter holiday rituals, are not so easy to document.   Opening presents within the family circle may be a familiar subject for advertisements, book and magazine illustrations, and family photographs, but how often is it possible to reconstruct who got what from whom any given year?   Gift tags, with hand-written notes identifying the giver and the recipent go the way of wrapping paper and ribbon, as do lists of presents made for the purpose of writing thank-you notes.

So it was pure luck to discover a handful of books from the Cotsen family’s collection that Mrs. Cotsen gave to her children during the eight days of Hanukkah in 1966.  Mother carefully wrote the child’s name and the occasion on the blue family bookplate illustrated with a faun by Robert Anning Bell.  And her picture book selections were so imaginative…

There were, of course, books appropriate for the season.  The older of her two sons received a copy of A First Chanukkah Word Book.He also received from his mother a rather sophisticated picture  book with see-through pages by Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson, featuring her characters from the Moomintroll series.  It was designed in such a way that there was no good place to put the book plate!For her younger daughter, there was a book about nature issued by Ladybird Books, the English equivalent of Golden Books, that was so successful that the publisher never needed to expand the market overseas.  Perhaps Mrs. Cotsen found it in a London bookshop and brought it home. The littlest member of the Cotsen clan got the book in a most unusual format about a little bear cub who did everything his mother told him to grow up big and strong.  The story is imposed on a giant uncut signature, which is folded up like a map and  placed in a folder with a ribbon tie.  The reader has to unfold the sheet to see how the cub changed during the course of his regimen…The last book given as a present to the entire family in 1966, was a traditional fairy tale retold as a Hanukkah story, complete with snow, dragons, and a good reb overcoming an evil one:  It still finds its way into lists of books for the Jewish holiday.   And when it was read aloud, everyone liked it.   Mrs. Cotsen gets credit for identifying a story that would bring the family together.In memory of Florence Sacks, a wise and steadfast friend.

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