Mrs. C: It was Roman philosopher Cicero who said: “A room without books is like a body without soul.” Books certainly feed my soul and Christmas offers me the opportunity to turn again to my favourites. Throughout the year, there is the urge to search out and read new literary works. The same can be said for films and restaurants: the desire to keep things fresh and not be a predictable old stick in the mud.
Ed Elf: Predictable stick in the mud you are not, Mrs. C. As for old…
Mrs. C: But there is something about Christmas that brings us back to tradition…eating our favourite foods at our homeliest restaurants, watching films and television programmes that make us awash with nostalgia and reading books that remind us of the spirit of the season.
Ed Elf: Sometimes in more ways than one ‘cos spirits play a big part in Christmas tales.
Mrs C: Especially in the most famous Christmas book of all. The team at How to Christmas has put together a collection of fictional books that your body and your soul might enjoy. We start with…well, there really is only one place to begin.
Chapman & Hall first published this novella on December 19th 1843 to popular acclaim. The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from bitter miser to generous patriarch, as engineered by ghosts from his past, present and future, is a work of genius. Charles Dickens’s story is considered one of the greatest influences in resurrecting old Christmas traditions, while also serving as a morality tale for the age. Dickens completed writing the book – “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas” – in just six weeks from September 1843. It sold for five shillings (that’s about £22 pounds today) and the first run of six thousand copies was bought up by Christmas Eve. Scrooge’s famous gripe in “A Christmas Carol” was originally meant to be “Bah! Christmas!” and not “Bah! Humbug!” The clever change from a genius mind created two of the most famous words in literature. The book has never been out of print and has been adapted numerous times for stage and screen.
“In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd (1921-1999)
American radio personality and humorist Jean Shepherd is best known for narrating and co-scripting the classic festive film “A Christmas Story” – which is an annual must in the USA. The movie is based on his collection of semi-autobiographical anecdotes from his years growing up in Indiana, which are wittily brought together in the 1966 best-selling novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”. Ralph is the main character, who reminisces about his childhood, about more innocent times and about the amusing elements of an old-fashioned way of life.
“At Christmas Time” by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
This short story is just a few pages long and yet carries such a weight of loss and longing. A young woman, suffering emotional abuse, feels isolated and imprisoned in her husband’s care. But there is the letter – and Christmas cheer can be hers after all, however fleetingly. Published in 1900, this was one of the last stories written by a Russian author considered to be one of the all-time great short story writers – Anton Chekhov.
“Miracle On 34th Street” by Valentine Davies (1905-1961)
First came the screenplay for the famous festive film and then came the novella – both from American writer Valentine Davies. The screenplay he wrote for big screen in 1947 earned him an Academy Award for Best Story. Davies was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay for 1954’s “The Glenn Miller Story”. The 120-page book of “Miracle on 34th Street” was released in conjunction with the movie. The inspiration for the tale of a disillusioned working mother, her quizzical and somewhat sceptical young daughter and a curious elderly man who claims he’s the real Santa Claus, came when Davies was standing in line at a department store during the Christmas season. The opening line reads: “If you searched every old folks’ home in the country, you couldn’t find anyone who looked more like Santa Claus.” But looking like him and making doubters believe you really are him are two entirely different matters.
“The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In” by Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
This short novel was written and published in 1844, a year after “A Christmas Carol”. The book is divided into four parts that Charles Dickens calls ‘Quarters’ in the way he named the five sections in “A Christmas Carol” ‘Staves’. The chimes are the old bells in the church on whose steps the story’s pivotal character, Trotty Veck, operates as a messenger. On New Year’s Eve, the bells call to Trotty and he climbs the church tower to find the spirits of the bells and their goblin escorts. He is scolded about his attitude to others, most notably for condemning those who have fallen on hard times and for offering them no help. When Trotty later sees his desperate daughter Meg ready to take her own life, he cries for the chimes to save her. Trotty wakes at home and Dickens asks the reader to decide if the awakening is a dream within a dream. This was the second in a series of five Christmas books by the Victorian author in the 1840’s, most containing strong social and moral messages.
“Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” by Agatha Christie (1890-1976)
This book was published just before Christmas 1938 and it could be owned for the sum of seven shillings and sixpence. Multi-millionaire Simeon Lee gathers his family at Christmas – a gesture met by surprise and suspicion. He is brutally murdered, but his door has been locked from the inside and there appears no other means of escape for the killer. A mystery ripe for Poirot’s Christmas picking.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by Simon Armitage (b. 1963)
Sir Gawain’s Christmas quest is to seek out the mysterious and magical Green Knight he beheaded the year before when, riding in on his green horse, he had rudely interrupted the Round Table’s Yuletide celebrations. Yorkshire poet and author Simon Armitage’s 2006 translation of the medieval poem is splendid and compelling, bringing renewed life to the Arthurian tale of chivalry and the supernatural. Preserved on a single surviving manuscript (circa 1400) and composed by an anonymous master, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was rediscovered around two centuries ago. It was published for the first time in 1839. This poem is also a story. Not all poems are, of course. Moreover, it has a mix of genres: it is a ghost story, an adventure, a romance and a morality tale.
“The Christmas Box” by Richard Paul Evans (b. 1962)
Richard Paul Evans wrote this novella for his daughters and went on to self-publish it. At the core of the story is one man’s struggle to discover the first gift of Christmas – a task set him by an elderly widow Mary, with whom his family reside and form close bonds. But what is Mary hiding and what is the significance of the Christmas box? Evans turned abundant local sales of his book into phenomenal national success. In 1995 it became the first book to simultaneously reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list for both hardback and paperback editions. Later that year it was turned into a TV movie starring Richard Thomas and Maureen O’Hara.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas initially created this piece for radio and recorded it the year before his death. The book was first published under its own title three years later and in it the author remembers Christmas as a young boy in a fictionalised autobiographical style. It offers a romanticised version of Christmases past, with humour, larger-than-life characters and bags of nostalgia. It remains one of Thomas’ most popular works.
“Christmas at Thompson Hall: And Other Christmas Stories” by Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
The best Christmas tales written by Anthony Trollope are collated here in one of the excellent hardback Penguin Christmas Classics collection. Mostly set in Trollope’s imaginary county of Barsetshire, the stories capture the season with Trollope’s humour, verve and good cheer – offering an insight into the middle class and gentry of Victorian England at Yuletide. Trollope, famous for the Chronicles of Barsetshire and the Palliser novels, published more than forty novels and many short stories that are widely regarded as among the finest of nineteenth century fiction.
“Winter” by Ali Smith (b. 1962)
Ali Smith was among the nominees for the 2017 Man Booker Prize for the novel “Autumn”, her splendid meditation on a season of change. In November 2017 came “Winter”. The second volume in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet cycle, “Winter” is timeless and yet very much for our times. The story emerges from the tumult of 2017 and the pattern of winters past. Waterstones described it thus: “Set on Christmas Eve as several lives converge, it’s a shape-shifter of a book that dances with re-workings of ritual, myth and stories, from Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ to ‘A Christmas Carol’.” Sebastian Barry has described Smith as “Scotland’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting”.
“The Night Before Christmas” by Nikolay Gogol (1809-1852)
Not to be confused with the poem by Clement C. Moore, this night before Christmas is an altogether darker tale. Written in 1831 by Ukrainian author Nikolay Gogol, the story revolves around the adventures of the blacksmith Vakula and his fight against the devil. The evil one has stolen the moon above the village and caused chaos. By overcoming the devil, Vakula hopes to win the love of the most beautiful girl there. It’s a story still traditionally read aloud to children on Christmas Eve in Ukraine and Russia. This is one of the beautifully presented hardback Penguin Christmas Classics – a collection that also includes E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker” and Anthony Trollope’s “Christmas at Thompson Hall: And Other Christmas Stories”.
“The Wren Boys” by Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1955)
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has created many enchanting festive books of stocking filler size: perfect as gifts for others, pleasing Christmas treats for oneself. “The Wren Boys”, with brilliant illustrations by Dermot Flynn, was released in 2016. This new seasonal poem is set on a cold December 26th in Ireland and draws on the legend of St. Stephen and the tradition of hunting the wren. The boys are off to the woods with the mission of bringing back the bird betrayer by nightfall so that merry-making can commence.
“The Christmas Candle” by Max Lucado (b. 1955)
Christmas is a time for miracles in the small Cotswolds village of Gladstone. It’s 1864 and an angel visits a candle-maker Edward Harrington, delivering a special gift that he must pass on to a villager most in need of miraculous help. Soon the whole place is full of Christmas joy. This short story is meant to serve as a reminder of God’s love. It inspired the 2013 film of the same name. American Max Lucado is a best-selling Christian author and preacher.
“Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham (b. 1955)
This John Grisham comedy novel was number one on the New York Times bestseller list when it was released in late 2001 and is an amusing departure from his legal thrillers such as “The Client”, “The Pelican Brief” and “A Time to Kill”. In “Skipping Christmas”, Luther and Nora Krank are left to face Christmas together after seeing their daughter Blair leave for a stint with the Peace Corps in Peru. Luther suggests spending the thousands of dollars they normally invest in Christmas on a holiday cruise. The neighbours are far from happy the Kranks are skipping Christmas – and they aren’t the only ones. The Kranks are not to be broken, however, until a certain telephone call from a certain loved one changes everything. The story was made into a film “Christmas with the Kranks” in 2004 starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis.
“A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote (1924-1984)
This short story by American author and screenwriter Truman Capote was first published in “Mademoiselle” magazine in December 1956 and is a largely autobiographical tale set in the Deep South in the 1930’s. A boy named Buddy and his older-but-childlike cousin are the central characters. Life is simple. Money is in short supply. Their relatives are stern. But they look forward to Christmas with relish nonetheless. Love, friendship, loss, loneliness and the joy of giving are at the heart of this classic Christmas work, which has been adapted for stage and screen. Indeed, more than 20 of Capote’s books and plays have been made into film and television dramas, including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.
“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (1862-1910)
A young married couple want to buy each other a secret Christmas gift, but have very little money. Achieving their aims will necessitate sacrifice. This alone, regardless of any present buying, will show how far they are willing to go to display love for one another. The American author Henry compares the couple’s gift giving to that of the Magi when they visit the infant Jesus. The story has been adapted for stage and screen in the USA, Poland, Mexico, India, France and even the former Soviet Union. It was first published in the New York Sunday World under the title “Gifts of the Magi” in December 1905, before appearing in book form the following year.
“The Cricket on the Hearth” by Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Charles Dickens and Christmas are as comfortable in each other’s company as warm bread and butter. The third of his Christmas books, published in December 1845, is a “Fairytale of the Home”. It is divided into ‘Chirps’ in the way “The Chimes” was split into ‘Quarters’ and “A Christmas Carol” into ‘Staves’. A cricket chirps on the hearth and serves as a kind of guardian angel to the Peerybingle family in this tale of fantasy and redemption. Dickens described this novella as “quiet and domestic…innocent and pretty” and, indeed, there are fewer references to topical themes of the Victorian age and his social criticism of the era, which were evident in his previous two Christmas books. This novella would be followed by two other festive offerings in Dickens’s series of five: “The Battle of Life” (1846) and “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain” (1848).
“Star Over Bethlehem and Other Stories” by Agatha Christie Mallowan (1890-1976)
This collection was published in 1965 under Agatha Christie’s married name and includes a re-telling of the Nativity in “Star Over Bethlehem”, as well as an angelic change of mood for the curmudgeonly Mrs. Hargreaves in “The Water Bus”. Christie’s book of Christmas stories and poems reveals another facet of the legendary detective and crime novelist’s writing skills, with spirituality and religion very much at the heart. The Fiftieth Anniversary volume also includes for the first time a poem entitled “In A Dispensary”, written during her time working in a Red Cross hospital in World War I. That’s when she first learned about drugs and poisons, later to form a prominent feature in many of her murder mysteries.
“Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
“Little Women” is a book for all seasons, following the lives of one of the most cherished families in American literature. However, it has a wonderful festive section in it that sees the March girls sacrifice their own Christmas breakfast to feed a struggling neighbouring family who are in far greater need of food. Therefore, Louisa May Alcott’s novel – first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869 – makes ideal Christmas reading. Such was the public demand for the first volume, Alcott delivered the manuscript for the second volume just three months after publication of the first on New Year’s Day 1869. “Little Women” has been adapted many times for the big and small screen, including two silent versions in 1917 and 1918, a 1933 movie starring Katharine Hepburn, a 1949 film starring June Allyson and a 1994 re-make starring Susan Sarandon.
“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrees” by Agatha Christie (1890-1976)
This book comprises six cases and is the only Agatha Christie first edition published in this country that involves both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. The six plots are: “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” (otherwise known as “The Theft of the Royal Ruby”); “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest”; “The Under Dog”; “Four and Twenty Blackbirds”; “The Dream” and “Greenshaw’s Folly”. It was published in late October 1960 and retailed for twelve shillings and sixpence.
“The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern (1900-1984)
This 1943 short story was the basis for the legendary Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The movie’s central figure George Bailey is drawn from the book’s main character George Pratt, who stands on a bridge ready to end his life. A man approaches him and hands him a bag, telling him he should go door-to-door as a salesman. In doing so, George sees his loved ones leading different lives and reaches the realisation he does not want to leave them behind.
“Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)
“Hogfather” is a 1997 festive offering from fantasy novelist Sir Terry Pratchett in which the title character is a Discworld Santa Claus of sorts. He features in other Discworld novels, but in this is the main man – delivering presents to children and granting their wishes on what’s called Hogswatchnight. A plan is hatched to remove Hogfather, leaving Death to cover for him dressed in red cloak and white beard. Death takes children’s wishes too literally, however. Sounds like trouble. The book was turned into a two-part Sky series that aired in December 2006 and starred Sir David Jason.
“Holidays on Ice” by David Sedaris (b. 1956)
The Economist once named David Sedaris as one of the funniest writers alive and this 1997 publication is a collection of his essays about Christmas. It was re-released in 2008. Among the essays, Sedaris’s “SantaLand Diaries” tells of his experiences as an elf in Macy’s department store. He was born the day after Christmas 1956.
“When Santa Fell to Earth” by Cornelia Funke (b. 1958)
This 2004 novel by German author Cornelia Funke, which was translated into English in 2006, introduces us to the mean-spirited Gerold Geronimus Goblynch. He is the new leader of the Great Christmas Council and wants to make the festive season a personal moneymaking scheme. Santas who refuse to obey the new rules are turned into chocolate. Angels, elves and an invincible reindeer join forces with young Santa Niklas Goodfellow to try to save the season.
“Family Christmas Treasures: A Celebration of Art and Stories”, Edited by Kacey Barron.
Every festive family should own and treasure this sumptuous book, which is large, glossy, gilt-edged and stuffed full of delightful Christmas tales and stunning artwork. The contents are divided into four categories: Christmas Preparations and Anticipation; Christmas Customs, Stories and Lore; Christmas Memories and The Spirit of Christmas. There are extracts from stories and poems by Washington Irving, Samuel Coleridge, Truman Capote, Clement C. Moore, Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Maeve Binchy and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name but a handful of the gifted authors in the book. Some of the extracts are from books recommended in this very section. The bite-size pieces, accompanied by marvellous artwork from the likes of Thomas Nast, Andy Warhol, Eugene Laloue, Paul Seignac, Newton Shepherd, Arthur Rackham and Camille Pissarro, make this a perfect festive fireside read for all the family. To quote from the inside cover: “Opening this elegant book is like unwrapping a cherished Christmas gift again and again.”
“The Gift” by Cecelia Ahern (b. 1981)
Set in modern day Dublin, this 2008 book by Irish novelist Cecilia Ahern highlights the life and time management problems of an ambitious executive Lou Suffern, who always seems to be needed in two places at the same time and who invariably puts work before his long-suffering family. One day, he offers a homeless man named Gabe – someone Lou sees every day going to work – a cup of coffee and later helps him secure a job at his office. Gabe repays him by giving him magic pills to clone himself. For a man so torn most of the time, that’s all good and well in theory. But ah, the reality.
“The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” by Susan Wojciechowski
This 32-page children’s book, beautifully illustrated by PJ Lynch, was published in 1995. It is the story of a woodcarver who creates Nativity figures for a widow and her son, helping him deal with the grief of losing his wife and child. The book was adapted into a 2007 British film starring Tom Berenger and Joely Richardson. American author Susan Wojciechowski worked as a children’s librarian and said every December she would read aloud the same two or three Christmas stories. “I tried to find another one I wanted to read and couldn’t, so I wrote The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. It just came through me in a flood of inspiration and was finished in less than an hour.” The book sold out its first printing long before Christmas Day. Winner of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, this book was reviewed thus by the New York Times: “The tale is unfolded with such mastery, humour and emotional force that we are entirely in its power.”
“How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar” by Bret Harte (1836-1902)
Harte was an American short story writer and poet, best known for featuring miners, gamblers and other figures from the California Gold Rush era. Originally published in his 1875 short story collection “The Tales of the Argonauts”, the fable of “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar” is set in California in the early 1860s and, like the rest of the tales in the collection, features the gold-seeking Argonauts. Human existence and all its struggles are a counter-point to any good cheer or seasonal hope, leaving us with with a bleaker ending than is usual in most Christmas stories. When he moved from California to the eastern states and then Europe, Harte developed new subjects and characters. However, his Gold Rush tales have been the ones most often reprinted.
New for 2019
Christmas is full of wonderful festive viewing on the big and small screen. But it also has its share of must-read books, perfect for those cosy winter nights in front of the sparkling tree and flickering fire.
Adam Kay’s follow-up to last year’s “This is Going to Hurt” is entitled “Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas”, which bookstore Waterstones describes as “a love letter to all those who spend their festive season on the front line, removing babies and baubles from the various places they get stuck, at the most wonderful time of the year.” Kay delves back into his diaries to bring us more NHS-based stories, both heart-breaking and heart-warming.
Another best-selling author Sophie Kinsella delivers “Christmas Shopaholic”, a comedic novel revolving around Becky Brandon, her love of the season and how her Christmas spirit might just be tested by a change of tradition, as outlined by Waterstones: “With sister Jess demanding a vegan turkey, husband Luke determined that he just wants aftershave again, and little Minnie insisting on a very specific picnic hamper – surely Becky can manage all this, as well as the surprise appearance of an old boyfriend and his pushy new girlfriend, whose motives are far from clear…Will chaos ensue, or will Becky manage to bring comfort and joy to Christmas?”
Did You Know…Snow was a key component in Dickens’s Christmas stories and this was influenced by his childhood? His fictional Christmases were always white Christmases. This taps into his earliest memories because from the year he was born in 1812 there were eight White Christmases in succession in England. It was the time of Britain’s ‘Little Ice Age’ – a period from about 1550 to 1850 that often saw bitterly cold winters. Frost Fairs, attended by thousands of people, were regularly held on the frozen River Thames – the last of them in 1814.