Fact can be stranger than fiction – or so it’s said. And certainly Christmas has its curiosities and quirks. Where better to learn about them than…well, the How to Christmas website for starters. But beyond our offerings, there are many books with pages full of Christmas interest. Here are some of our favourites.
“Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914” by Stanley Weintraub (b. 1929)
German troops began singing Christmas carols and placed trees atop the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914. Rival forces from Britain, Belgium and France sang their versions of the festive songs – and an impromptu, unsanctioned Christmas Truce was born. Stanley Weintraub’s book gives a marvellous account of this World War I Western Front ceasefire, honouring the men who experienced the break out of Christmas civility amid the horrors of war. Weintraub is a renowned and respected military historian from the United States.
“The Angel Tree: A Christmas Celebration” by Linn Howard and Mary Jane Pool, photographs by Elliott Erwitt
This beautiful, glossy book shows the precious angel tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in all its glory – accompanied by biblical text of the Christmas story. The tree takes pride of place in the museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. It has 18th century Neapolitan figures re-enacting the events of Jesus Christ’s Nativity at its base, while skilfully crafted angels hang from the branches above. To see the tree in person is a humbling experience. We, at How to Christmas, believe no visit to New York at Christmastime is complete without witnessing the majesty of the Angel Tree. This book is the next best thing. Loretta Hines Ward gave her collection of crèche figures, including the Adoration of Angels, to the museum in 1965. Her daughter is the book’s co-author Linn Howard.
“Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols” by Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones
With a foreword by Bishop of Monmouth Dominic Walker, this excellent paperback starts with a history of wassailing, the Welsh Mari Lwyd and singing in the pub and takes you through puritanical rule to the golden age of carols, before explaining the history behind 10 favourite carols. The religious connection to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is especially fascinating. Reverend Lawson-Jones writes in his introduction: “I had always thought that many Christmas carols had their roots in the Middle Ages, but this turned out to be far from true.” Learn the truth for yourselves. It also makes a good stocking filler.
“Delia’s Happy Christmas” by Delia Smith (b. 1941)
Delia Smith’s first Christmas book in 1990 was an instant classic and almost two decades later she produced this gloriously glossy book for a whole new generation. Delia has included lots of new recipes to sit alongside the tried and trusted old ones. But even if you have no intention of cooking or creating even a single festive dish from scratch, this book is still incredibly seductive. The pictures alone delight and lend themselves to an overwhelming feeling that Christmas is coming. It has practical advice, suggested suppliers and shopping lists, as well as menus to make you drool. There’s plenty of dipping in and out to be done, making it perfect coffee table material or ideal for a cosy reading corner.
“Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings” – illustrations by Thomas Nast (1840-1902), with a foreword from Thomas Nast St. Hill (1895-1985)
Nineteenth century political cartoonist Thomas Nast is chief creator of the image of Santa Claus we recognise today and some of his best work can be seen in this marvellous collection. Born in Germany in 1840, young Thomas moved to the United States with his family six years later. He was first employed as an artist on Leslie’s Illustrated aged just 15 but financial cutbacks forced him out and he went freelance. In 1859, his full-page drawing exposing a police scandal was accepted by Harper’s Weekly – and so began an association that lasted until 1886. Nast joined Harper’s as a war correspondent in 1862 and received acclaim for his coverage of the Civil War. Nast became a significant and influential political power. However, as Harper’s Weekly introduced management less willing to tolerate his often-radical views and brought in new techniques in production, making out-dated the hand-engraved woodblock Nast has used to such effect, Nast’s drawings appeared less frequently. The last was a Christmas drawing in 1886.
Aged just 39, he was at his peak – a wealthy, happily married family man with nationwide recognition. However, unwise investments robbed him of his financial independence and he found himself falling on harder times. It came as some considerable relief, then, when his old friends at Harper’s suggested in 1889 that he collate his Christmas drawings in a book to be published by Harper & Brothers. “Christmas Drawings for the Human Race” was issued the following year and included Nast’s work from Harper’s Weekly festive issues from the previous 30 years, plus new work created specially for the book. Nast portrayed Santa Claus as the white-bearded, round-bellied, jolly old soul described by Clement C. Moore in his famous nineteenth century poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Before that, Santa was more likely to be depicted as a slimmer figure in robes like St. Nicholas or small and elf-like, as seen in the first illustrated editions of Moore’s poem. Nast was also responsible for introducing Santa’s North Pole home to the world with illustrations for American George P. Webster’s 1869 poem “Santa Claus and His Works”. Nast put children and toys at the heart of so many of his drawings, using his own children as models. Nast, like the genius author Charles Dickens, is responsible for so many of the accepted Christmas traditions of today.
In 1901, wanting to rid himself of debt, he accepted an offer from President Theodore Roosevelt to become Consul General in Ecuador. He sailed alone from New York in July 1902 and did, indeed, earn enough money to send home to settle his financial problems. Sadly, he contracted yellow fever and died on December 7 that year. He was 60. Fifty years after his death, Nast’s home in Morristown, USA was designated a National Historic Landmark and the Thomas Nast Christmas Village on the Morristown Green remains a hugely popular seasonal attraction. In December 1977, a two-day festival was held in Nast’s honour in Landa-Pfalz, Germany – the place of his birth.
Nast’s festive work is widely available in book form today, including this splendid “Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings”. The foreword from his grandson and biographer Thomas Nast St. Hill, from which this mini-biography has been created, ends with the words: “Thomas Nast loved Christmas and entered into its spirit with childlike delight. And may his Christmas drawings serve to remind us that it is still true, as it was in 1843 when Charles Dickens wrote his immortal Christmas Carol, that ‘it is good to be children sometimes and never better than at Christmas when its mighty founder was a child himself.’”
“Jane Austen’s Christmas: The Festive Season in Georgian England” by Maria Hubert
This book includes letters from Jane Austen, members of her family and friends and other documents describing in some considerable detail how Middle Class Georgians spent the Christmas season. It is interesting to compare and contrast with the Victorian era, which saw the arrival of crackers and greetings cards. There are also excerpts from Austen’s novels and Christmas poems, trivia and recipes. The back cover reads: “Capturing the sheer delight of the Christmas period, it is a fascinating and captivating collection of everything from descriptions of Christmas celebrations in Georgian England, to memoirs, recipes, songs and stories. Essential reading for anyone interested in this period, or simply curious as to how Christmas was celebrated in the past, this is a wonderful piece of indulgent nostalgia.” The late Maria Hubert also compiled “A Bronte Christmas” and “The Great British Christmas”, among other festive offerings.
“Can Reindeer Fly?: The Science of Christmas” by Roger Highfield (b. 1958)
Very clever this, very clever indeed. Roger Highfield takes many aspects of Christmas and applies science to them – basically putting festive theories, myths and legends to the test. One interesting point he proves: all Santa’s reindeer have to be female. The males lose their antlers before Christmas – the females don’t. We told you he was clever. Maybe don’t let the little ones in your life be made aware of some of the contents. Don’t want their bubbles bursting – and after all, Christmas is all about unexplainable magic isn’t it? You might also search out Highfield’s 1999 publication “The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey”.
“Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year” by Linda Raedisch
Take a wintery and darkly Christmassy sleigh ride into Yuletides of yore, when Winter Solstice time came with its own chilling air of spirits, witches and hobgoblins. This book comes with recipes to fit the old magic and explores the frightful characters from folklore. Discover the more impish side of elves and Black Piet’s back-story. American author Raedisch also wrote “Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night”.
“Christmas Carols: From Village Green to Church Choir” by Andrew Gant
Discover the stories behind some of the world’s best-loved carols, each accompanied by lyrics and music. Find out how “Hark! How All the Welkin Ring” became “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and how a celebrated British composer, an English folk tune and a poem from an American pilgrim combined to make “O Little Town of Bethlemem”. Andrew Gant’s accounts of how some 20 carols came to be is a fine addition to any Christmas book collection – and a rather splendid gift to boot. Gant is a contemporary composer and singer. He was organist, choirmaster and composer at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal from 2000 to 2012.
“Bad Santas And Other Creepy Christmas Characters: Disquieting Winter Folk Tales for Grown-ups” by Paul Hawkins
St. Nicholas, Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Whatever the guise, the great Christmas gift-giver has always been jolly, generous and kind…or has he? The back cover of this informative and entertaining book reads: “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why…because a gigantic child-eating goat is coming to town.” This is most definitely not a children’s book – unless you want to scare the living daylights out of the little ones. It tells of demonic creatures dishing out terrible punishment to naughty children in the name of St. Nick; it explains why Spanish Nativity scenes might include figures of defecating peasants and it delivers tales of evil goblins and child-eating cats. As we discover the weird and wonderful folktales and curious and creepy traditions, we also learn how the Santa Claus we know today came to be. Fascinating.