When I was growing up, we really didn’t celebrate Christmas in the way most American people did. I come from a “mixed” family: My father was from the Illinois Mennonites, or as my grandmother liked to call them, the “fast ones,” and my mother’s side was from the conservative Lancaster County Mennonites—no Christmas trees, no presents but definitely lots of food. My grandmother Glick was famous for her cookies and pies and her kitchen was filled with scents of baking for the weeks leading up to Christmas. As I grew older, I was allowed to help, but since I wasn’t too great with the pie crusts, helping meant lots and lots of washing up. Can I emphasize the LOTS? I first learned about remedies for chapped hands during Christmas baking bouts.

My Amish relatives and friends were mostly consumed with making food and small gifts such as quilts and pillows that were snatched up by the visiting tourists to fill up the spaces under their trees. I certainly knew about Christmas trees, but we didn’t have one in our home. One of my aunts did, though. She was an “outsider” from Colorado. Their family had a tree covered in lights and surrounded with wrapped presents. I remember the first time I saw it, all light up and sparkling with tinsel. It was lovely.

My Lancaster County childhood Christmas was a time of work and music. As I grew into my teens, we spent nights and weekends in singing groups, caroling at nursing homes, children’s hospitals and out in our community. We sang all the old carols and were treated with hot chocolate and cookies. It was fun and I still know the words and music to most of the carols. As a treat, my grandmother would take me to all the free concerts put on by the “English,” and I was introduced to the ornate, worldly churches of the Catholics, Presbyterians and Anglicans to hear Handel and Bach. I loved it and one of my joys to this day is to attend at least one Handel recital during the Christmas season every year.

On Christmas Eve we’d go to a church service usually in a home, where the oldest men would take turns reading the birth of Christ story from New Testament and we’d all sing the songs to accompany it. Then we’d eat a roasted turkey or goose with all the trimmings, followed by the special pies grandmother made, the mince and apple raisin. Then we’d go off to our homes and beds. Christmas day was spent attending a service in our small church then the big family dinner at grandmother’s house. The children’s tables  were always in the basement, which leaked, or in the garage, which was unheated. And let me tell you, when you have over 40 kids under the age of 12 together in one spot for a holiday meal, it’s not something that fuels pleasant memories.

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Remembering and detailing a bit about my Christmas memories probably explains so much why I’m not too fond of Christmas Amish tales. They seem to be such lovely fantasies in comparison to reality, but I was lucky this year to find two books that I enjoyed. One of my favorite authors of romantic suspense is Karen Harper. Her Upon A Winter’s Night (MIRA, November 2013) is the stoUpon Winter Nightry of an adopted woman who wants to find out who her biological parents are, but is confronted by deaths as her inquiries seem to trigger murders and more questions in her small Amish community in Ohio. Harper’s books are always thrill rides that keep me guessing until the very end—be sure to set some time aside as you’ll be of no use to anyone until you finish Upon a Winter’s Night.

Barbara Cameron is a new-to-me author with Annie’s Christmas Wish (Abingdon, October 2013) I was intrigued by the premise: A young Amish woman is entranced by a snow globe of the Manhattan skyline she received as a young child, and when she has an opportunity to go to New York City during the Christmas season, she grabs it. I found the story intriguing and a surprisingly compelling read with a few unexpected twists. It brought back memories of my first visits to New York at Thanksgiving time—a delightful surprise.

Do you have a favorite Christmas memory or book you like to read during December? If so, what is it?

Sara Reyes is the founder and partner at FreshFiction.com, a popular fiction web site for today's reader with new titles, contests, over 50,000 genre fiction author profiles with backlists, and permanently archived reviews, plus all the industry buzz. Fresh Fiction has a biweekly segment (Buy the Book) on WFAA Channel 8 Good Morning Texas to talk about new books not to miss. Believing face-to-face interaction is as important as virtual communities, Fresh Fiction sponsors an annual author reader tea in June, a readers conference in November, monthly literary events, and book clubs. Follow Sara at @FreshFiction on Twitter or Facebook.com/FreshFiction.