At this time of year, after the presents are wrapped and the festive food is laid to cool on the proverbial ledge, it’s nice to unwind with a festive book. This is a list of twelve books that were inspired by, or otherwise depict, Christmas- including a few that you can share with children.
Today I’m uploading 1-6, so look out for part two, with numbers 7-12, tomorrow.
“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;”
The first entry in this list is a genuine classic. Clarke Clement Moore claims to have been the author, apparently writing it in 1822, after reciting it to his own children on Christmas Eve. It was published anonymously the next year, and reprinted regularly after that, and only bore Moore’s name in 1884. However the author is often documented as Major Henry Livingston jr., who had tried for years to have his great-grandfather recognised as the true poetry genius.
Either way, it’s an obviously legendary Christmas poem, bringing royalty-free life to all kinds of recitals, carol concerts and cheesy adverts. Read it to your family and revel in the rich imagery of nineteenth-century holiday spirit.
TWO- Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen
There’s always something wintery about Hans Christian Andersen, and I don’t just mean Frozen. This fairy tale was first published in 1844, and is renowned as both one of his longest works, and also as an original work. It’s very difficult for fairy tales to be original, in much the same way that civilisations recycle other’s mythology, and religions share similar dogmas.
The story is a broad allegory for the struggle between good and evil, portrayed through the characters of Gerda and Kay. There are angels, a devil-troll, a magic mirror, biblical powers of prayer, frozen hearts and (of course) a Snow Queen from all of your childhood nightmares. It’s about the naïve and childlike faith in love as a conquering force, without being maudlin or oppressive. There are some beautifully illustrated copies out there, or available online, and they nicely bridge the gap for kids who might be too cynical for Disney, but still young and smart enough for a slightly macabre fairy story.
THREE- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Father Christmas Letters
Also found under the title ‘Letters from Father Christmas,’ this was Tolkien’s foray into holiday jolliness. Except for the letter about the Second World War or Santa’s ongoing battle with the Goblins…
Tolkien wrote these letters over a period of twenty years, one each Christmas, as entertainment for his children. Adorably, he had each letter ‘delivered’ with stamps from the North Pole and special postage marks. As you might imagine, it has become something of a game for critics and reviewers to look for hints of the ideas and characters that became famous in his later works; some have suggested point to the 1933 goblins, while others suggest that the white-bearded, almost-omniscient, magical man himself might have been the initial literary roots of Gandalf, from The Lord of the Rings.
If you like the idea of these letters, but aren’t a big fan of Tolkien’s style (or goblins), then you could try Lyman Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a much more American and jolly tale, as written by the author of The Wizard of Oz.
FOUR- Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory
How about a change of pace? Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for holiday schmaltz, and you want something a bit gritty- a little more Pogues, a little less Mariah Carey perhaps?
Capote’s seasonal short story is a largely autobiographical telling of an eccentric but poor extended family who save their last pennies for Christmastime and make fruitcakes for friends and strangers alike. It’s all kinds of guilt and longing and wistful poignancy; it makes me squirm in my seat because it’s happy and sad at the same time.
The narrator, Buddy, is close to an elderly cousin- each year they make each other gifts, and this year they fly handmade kites in the winter wind. It is their last Christmas together, as the elderly cousin succumbs to dementia and Buddy attends military school. It’s bleak, but full of beautiful images and soothing language. Read at your own peril, because it’s a real tear-jerker.
FIVE- Prof. Mark Connelly, Christmas: A History
Another 180̊ turn, but just as rewarding; why not try this engrossing historical look at Christmas? Prof. Connelly (UoKent) has written a complexly woven microhistory of this Western holiday which takes in its Anglo-German origins, musical tradition and national identity, the links to bourgeois family values and the way that Christmas is always about looking backwards.
It’s important to include Connelly’s disclaimer- this is not an overarching history of all winter traditions since the dawn of Christian celebration. As he explains, his book examines the holiday more as a phenomenon, and picks at the ideas which “grew up about the nature of the modern Christmas. This idea was that, like many other aspects of our modern life, it had been largely invented out of nothing. It became almost a dogma that the Victorians had invented Christmas using a few scraps of historical evidence… This book will seek to question those attitudes.” It’s a tight history of the culture and heritage that surrounds Christmas from about 1780 to the 1950s.
If you’re interested in more non-fiction Christmas (perhaps as a gift?) then you could also try Prof. Connelly’s Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema, or perhaps etymologist Mark Forsyth’s A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions.
SIX- Dr Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Surely there is no better book to share with children at Christmas? Or grumpy adults? If nothing else, it’s the time of year to remind people that the book is always better than the film, so pick up a copy of this infamous tale of the fuzzy green creature with a heart made whole again (or bigger, at least) by the power of childlike joy.
Look out for the next six books tomorrow, but in the meantime let me know your thoughts on the books I’ve picked (and the books I’ve missed!) in the comments below.