RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The national Christmas tree comes alive tonight in Washington, D.C., all lit up for the holidays in a ceremony presided over by the president and the first lady. The very first lighting of a public Christmas tree in America was presided over by the mayor of Boston — John Fitzgerald.

He is the grandfather of another president, John F. Kennedy, and the great-grandfather of Caroline Kennedy. She's compiled a new Christmas anthology, "A Family Christmas." It's a collection of poetry, prose, lyrics and scripture about the season.

Caroline Kennedy joined us from our studio in New York.

Good morning.

Ms. CAROLINE KENNEDY (Author, "A Family Christmas"): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And that public Christmas tree in Boston, I just spoke about, you had a moment as you were researching this book, when your great-grandfather's role in that tradition was called into question, for you anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, I had always heard the story growing up that it was the first public Christmas tree in Boston. And I, of course, assumed then that it was the first public Christmas tree in America because Boston's always first in our family. And now, when I was researching lots of articles - all talk about how the first public Christmas tree was in New York, and it made me very, very nervous because it was something that was - something my whole family has been so proud of. So I couldn't handle the fact that I would be responsible for blowing open the cover on Honey Fitz.

But he came through with flying colors, and he lit the first Christmas tree in Boston Common, half an hour before the first Christmas tree in New York City, so wonderful and a very happy family and to this celebration and this tale.

MONTAGNE: Now, the very first thing in the book is a letter that you wrote to Santa Claus back in 1962 - you were five years old. It is such a tradition for little kids to write letters to Santa Claus. Read your little letter.

Ms. KENNEDY: (Reading) Dear Santa, I would like a pair of silver skates, and Susie Smart and Candy Fashion Dolls, and a real pet reindeer, and a clock to tell time, and a covered wagon, and a farm. And you decide anything else. And interesting planes or bumpy things he can ride in or some noisy thing, or something he can push or pull for John. Love from Caroline. P.S.: I would like a basket for my bicycle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: These little negotiations.

Ms. KENNEDY: By the way, well, I think I should add something at the end that I probably have a chance of getting.

MONTAGNE: But it was quite sweet that you were asking on behalf of your little brother.

Ms. KENNEDY: I was pretty impressed with that, too, you know, so I definitely want to put it in the book. But I think…

MONTAGNE: You'd forgotten how (unintelligible) as a five-year-old.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, of course, the list wasn't as long and wasn't as crass as, I guess, some or surely people think lists today with videogames and what-not get way, way from the spirit of the holiday. Still toys - that's what you're asking for. But you write that your mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, that your mother believes an orange and some walnuts were great gifts for kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And this is back in the '60s so, you know, that was pretty out, even then.

Ms. KENNEDY: I know. Well, we had - she had a rather old-fashioned approach to this kind of thing. And actually, one of the things that we still make of those, when you stick the cloves into the oranges and make those scented pomander balls - I think they're called - things like that were a big part of our Christmas, and John and I, at least, thought this was just, you know, an atrocious way to celebrate the holiday.

MONTAGNE: When it came to your own kids, did you, in fact, carry on those traditions that your mother…

Ms. KENNEDY: Of course, of course. And I got the same response from them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENNEDY: Walnuts? What is this doing in my stocking? But I think the continuity really of the tradition is really what makes Christmas so special. And for me seeing my children do the same kinds of things that I did when I was young and even that my mother did for her mother, all of that is just so powerful when you have kids and when you see that continuing forward.

MONTAGNE: You have one section of the book that's devoted to Christmas in wartime.

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, I thought it was important to include Christmas in wartime because going back to Isaiah and in the New Testament, St. Luke, you know, the coming of the messiah really represents the hope for peace. And so the idea of that - of war happening at this time of year when people are just yearning for peace is obviously such a painful contrast certainly for the families of people who are separated.

And the history also is intertwined with our country's Civil War, and it was really the time when Santa and Christmas kind of took hold and became more widespread. But even going back earlier, George Washington crossed Delaware on Christmas day. And then you get to World War I where the soldiers in the trenches in World War I just spontaneously stopped fighting and came out of the trenches and saying to each other across the dividing line. And they came out, they exchanged handshakes. They exchanged tobacco. They collected the wounded. And it's really an amazing, I think, episode in war that really speaks to the spirit of Christmas.

MONTAGNE: At the very end of the book, there's a reflection on Christmas by the essayist E.B. White. And in that, he offers a moment that could sum up the spirit of the holiday. Tell us about that.

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, he wrote an annual, I think, message from many of the years that he was at the New Yorker. And this one is about struggling with trying to say something new and different about Christmas. And then he remembers having lunch with an aunt of his who was 92 and who had grown up in a world that was a slower paced and more formal. And he was having lunch with her in the autumn, and he apologized for not taking her out on a drive to look at the changing leaves.

And she said, without hesitating, why, my dear? Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen. He applies that to Christmas, and I think it really speaks to the power of memory and tradition as we grow up over the years. And then we are able to look back on the Christmases that we've experienced with people we love, who may or may not still be with us, and the power of those memories.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: And you have a merry Christmas.

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, thank you. Same to you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Caroline Kennedy's new book is "A Family Christmas." And you could go to npr.org to hear her talk about the more cynical writings from the season.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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