Top Ten Christmas Moments in Books

 Christmas is imminent, the goose has a severe obesity problem and it’s Tuesday once again.  Last week, I wrote my extremely optimistic letter to Father Christmas so this week I’m looking at Christmas again from a slightly different angle.  Just about every long-running television series or soap opera has its annual Christmas Episode where it always snows or someone gets married (and seriously, who gets married on Christmas Day in real life?) but in books things tend to go slightly differently, namely because while chucking a bit of fake snow around on-screen makes for instant drama, the reader needs slightly more.  With my birthday coming so close to the Day itself, my childhood anticipation used to be extremely intense – it was when all the new books arrived.  Anyway, these are the books that I came up with – the ones that conjure up Christmas or which have been significant to me in the build-up.

The Snowman and Father Christmas, Raymond Briggs

 

Raymond Briggs is one of the All Time Supremos at generating the Christmas Awesome Factor.  The Snowman is such an exquisite book and it has an incredibly poignant message – the final frames are heartbreaking!  I confess that I was not entirely convinced by the addition of the Snowdog last year but I freely admit that for me the ultimate Christmas advert will always, always be the Irn-Bru one even if Raymond Briggs did apparently find it offensive.  Mr Briggs, I salute you for your fine skills, many talents and general brilliance but I’m sorry, that advert makes me giggle every year.  To be honest, I have been a big fan of pretty much all of Brigg’s books (although reading When the Wind Blows as a nine year-old was a confusing experience), but my secret favourite is probably Father Christmas.  I got it out of the library when I was five, which unfortunately meant that I was then doomed never to own it as the rule was that I was not to be bought books that I had already read (it was a fairly reasonable decree designed to add some kind of acceptable ceiling to my burgeoning book addiction), but I still manage to re-read it virtually every year.  Raymond Briggs’ vision of a grumpy old man stumping about getting ready and then setting off is just superb.  I loved the way that he casually greeted the milkman, then his relief at noting from the Buckingham Palace flag that ‘they’ were ‘in’.  Father Christmas is brought down to earth from the deified St Nicholas figure to just an ordinary guy doing his job, stopping off for sandwiches on somebody’s rooftop and wondering how on earth he is supposed to deliver presents to an igloo.

Christmas book-ends Little Women, contrasting the sparse Christmas of the opening chapter with that immortal opening line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”, to the second one where fortune has smiled upon the March family, showered them with presents and best of all, returned their father to them.  The second Christmas comes as a glorious reward at the end of a year of trials and tribulations and of course Personal Growth.  Everything the girls wished for at the beginning is given to them at the end and more besides.  Still, given that this is a book that is heavy on the Life Lessons, Alcott is also pretty clear that Giving is better than Receiving – in the beginning, the girls give their breakfast away to the impoverished Hummel family and then are rewarded by Mr Lawrence sending them over a dinner later on that day.  Like anything in life, their Christmas bounty comes as a result of labour.

Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables, JK Rowling and Lucy May Montgomery
Christmas may well appear to be drastically different in these two novels.  The Hogwarts view of the festive period is opulent, magnificent in its excess.  There are banquets, feasts, grand presents and in Goblet of Fire there is even the Yule Ball.  Christmas on Prince Edward Island is a rather more frugal affair.  Still, what links them in my mind is that they mark the moment when the Orphan gains a family.  Harry Potter is astounded to discover that he has received presents for the first time in his life and as Mrs Weasley sends him his first Weasley Christmas Jumper, this is truly when she marks him as her own.  From there on, Harry is just one of the family, an extra child to be shopped for, scolded, fretted over and protected as far as is humanly possible.  Similarly, Anne Shirley is loving her new life in Green Gables but Matthew dimly realises that More Should Be Done.  Vaguely realising that Anne is dressed differently to other young girls, he determines to buy her a dress with puffed sleeves.  His mortifications and tribulations in purchasing it are hilarious and incredibly sweet.  Again, Christmas is the gateway moment when it becomes truly clear that Anne is Loved.

Each of the Christmas chapters throughout The Little House series has a different meaning, and indeed Christmas does mean different things at the different stages in one’s life.  I remember and treasure each Ingalls Christmas.  There is the early Christmas where Laura receives her beloved rag doll Charlotte and gazes on it in rapturous wonder.  Then there is the year when Mr Edwards walks eighty miles to find sticks of candy for Laura and Mary.  Then the Christmas in Plum Creek when Pa gets caught out in a blizzard and is stuck for three days and has to eat the Christmas candy to survive – the simple gift of his safe return is more than enough.  There is the year when Laura gets the muff at the town Christmas tree and is meanly delighted that hers is nicer than Nellie Oleson’s.  Moving on to De Smet, there is the Long Winter where the family comes close to starving and the train is unable to get through, meaning that the Christmas barrel that has been sent from Back East does not reach them until after the thaw.  Luckily (?) the barrel had been frozen too so the turkey is fine to eat and they are finally able to have their Christmas dinner – in April.  But by now Laura is growing up and Almanzo has spotted her – there is the Christmas where she receives a pretty box with combs in it at the town Christmas tree and her Pa whispers that he had seen Almanzo buying it.  But the best of all is the Christmas in These Happy Golden Years when the newly engaged Laura is fretting that she has not heard from Almanzo since he had gone Back East to see his family, but then all of a sudden, he appears at the door!  Laura is a such a restrained writer but her joy bubbles under the surface of her prose and when one of her sisters asks if Christmases get better every year, Laura simply replies that yes, they do.

Ah Molesworth.  You’re wonderful in any season but your musings on Christmas are particularly awesome.  His descriptions of the horror of having one’s parent read A Christmas Carol are hilarious (I don’t share the sentiment but I appreciate the humour) as ‘nothing can stop those terrible words, Marley. Was. Dead.’  Similarly, there’s the self-adjusting thank you letter, Molesworth’s thoughts on Father Christmas and how to set traps for him and then the seasonal horror of spending time with one’s family.  I have had so much joy and hilarity through reading Molesworth over the years but I first fell in love with him as a ten year-old when my mother read me the Christmas chapters so they are particularly special.
Wombats Don’t Have Christmas, Jane Burrell

This is a picture book that I have had since childhood – as an occupational hazard of being born in Australia, I own a large number of children’s books with a heavy Antipodean theme.  There’s something about wombats – they do look fairly reassuring kind of animals.  As well as this one I also have A Home for a Wombat, The Diary of a Wombat, Wombat Stew and The New Wombat at the Zoo.  Wombats are cool.  Apparently when I was about one I chased a baby one around the living room for about an hour without catching it.  Christmas in Australia looks bizarre to the average dweller of the Northern hemisphere – my first Christmas was spent toddling about on the lawn of a family friend’s house, showing off my newly acquired walking skills and enjoying the picnic.  Indeed, Mr Wombat in Wombats Don’t Have Christmas crossly tells his wombat children that wombats do not do Christmas and there is no way the Wombat family will be celebrating it.  On a completely unrelated note, his wife makes a fruit cake pudding with white icing.  Then the wombat children decorate the house with holly … and decide to wear paper hats for dinner … and so on.   I always liked the way this book shows that Christmas is for everyone – no matter where you are or whether or not you are a wombat, you can feel free to celebrate Christmas.


Welcome Yule, Jan Mark (short story from Black and White)

I know that ghost stories are kind of a traditional part of Christmas.  I scare really easily so it’s not a tradition that I look to very frequently but I do love Jan Mark’s Black and White anthology.  They’re more gently spooky tales rather than anything else and my favourite one by a long chalk is the Christmas-themed Welcome Yule.  Emma’s Dad has been co-opted by the new vicar to help with his Christmas festivities.  The vicar refuses to take no for an answer and is briskly dismissive when the locals suggest that his planned date for doing carols around the village is perhaps a little risky given that it is the date that the Waits have always used.  Always.  Putting full steam ahead, the vicar cheerily assures everyone that the Waits, whoever they may be, are entirely free to join them but that the carols will go ahead on that date.  Emma and her parents stick with it but large chunks of the congregation drop out, knowing that the Waits will not be happy.  It is the villagers’ bland acceptance of the Waits that makes it all the more hilarious – when the vicar finally comes up against them, he is aghast to realise that they are supernatural spirits bent on honouring Christmas their way rather than his.  Demanding to know how long it has been going on, Emma’s Mum blithely assures him that it wasn’t until around the Black Death that it ‘really got going’.  The only one of the Waits they really know is Big Will with the lantern and ‘it takes more than Oliver Cromwell to make him miss his Christmas Carols’.  By the end of the story, it is pretty obvious that vicar will not be messing with the Waits again.

Lucy and Tom’s Christmas, Shirley Hughes

 

I love Shirley Hughes – from Alfie and Annie-Rose to Dogger to The Trouble with Jack to Ella’s Big Chance, I think I’ve been a fan of everything she’s ever written.  Still, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas is a particular festive favourite. There’s the build-up with stirring up the pudding and sorting the presents, then the day itself with a full itemisation of their respective stockings, the arrival of the guests and the divvying up of the presents.  There is the old lady who has joined them who has no family of her own, then baby cousin Elizabeth who is far more interested in the wrapping paper and towards the end of the day, Tom gets slightly over-wrought and so Granddad takes him out for a walk, just the two of them.  Shirley Hughes captures the detail of family life so perfectly and yet she gives it such beauty.

A Country Child, Alison Uttley

I first encountered this one as part of my Christmas Anthology which was the book that my mother and I always read in December if we managed to finish A Christmas Carol.  Alison Uttley is the woman who wrote The Little Grey Rabbit series (loved those when I was a tot) but The Country Child is sort of like Little House on the Prairie if Laura had lived in England and her parents had just stayed put.  It’s a beautiful account of a rural upbringing, full of the fears and superstitions of countryside life.  Susan’s Christmas day is described in delicious detail, she feels for her stocking in the dark, she gives her presents to her family, they walk to church in the snow.  Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Uttley has a gift for the kind of description that makes the reader really feel what is going on around – this is a beautiful account of an old-fashioned Christmas.

Jesus’ Christmas Party, Nicholas Allan
The first time I was ever told this story, I was at primary school and the teacher put the pictures on the overhead projector.  That does indicate just how long ago that was.  Anyway, so this is an old favourite.  This is the story of an innkeeper who just wanted a good night’s sleep but then made the terrible mistake of letting two people sleep in his stable.  First they wake him up because they mysteriously need another smaller blanket.  Then these shepherds knock on the door.  Then three wise men.  Then a bunch of angels start singing overhead!  That really does it – the poor innkeeper stomps up to the stables and then … he sees the baby.  Happy Ever After.  Although not really a good night’s sleep.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

 

 
This for me is The Book I Have Reread Most Often (and I’m reading it again!)  I have read it every December since I was … nine?  Hard to remember.  My Mum used to participate but she dropped out round about when I was fifteen.  It was always kind of linked to burning the advent candle but I’ve been living in candle-free accommodation for a wee while now.  To be fair, I had loved the story since I was a child watching The Muppet Christmas Carol (still my favourite Christmas movie aside from It’s A Wonderful Life).  I always liked the way that Marley explained his own damnation – that if a man’s spirit did not go forth in life, then it was doomed to go forth in death.  Marley’s Hell was that he was forced to see the sufferings of others and how he might have prevented them.  Scrooge’s last chance to unshackle himself from the chains he has forged perhaps seems cheesy given how many times this story has been retold but it’s just so beautifully written – the contrast of Scrooge as a youngster to how he is currently perceived and then the horror of what awaits him after death.  I also think that it is a battle cry for people who keep saying that they will change – change comes whenever you want it to.  The most important step is the first one.  Of course, all of this is a bit rich coming from Charles Dickens – the man who blackmailed his own children into disowning their mother more or less because she was fat.  Still – no matter the source, there’s no denying the core wisdom so in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one.”

 

The First Christmas, Jan Pienkowski

I think the ultimate still does have to be this one.  Using the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the very Christmas unfolds accompanied by Jan Pienkowski’s trademark silhouetted illustrations.  They are incredibly beautiful – I remember how this book captivated me when I first received it.  They are so simple in so many ways but the detail that it is captured is remarkable.  I love the one where the angel appears to the shepherds – they all look so afraid!  What is fantastic though about Pienkowski’s book is that the pictures unlock the text – the King James Bible would probably have been pitched a bit high for the average eight year-old but I remember being caught by the beauty of the words.  In many ways this was the book that first got me to think about the Bible!



Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone
(Visited 363 times, 1 visits today)

6 thoughts on “Top Ten Christmas Moments in Books

  1. Wonderful list! I especially like the summary of Christmas scenes in the Little House books; it's true they are key to Laura's development. I just reread Little Women for a readalong and it remains as brilliant as ever. The Pienkowski book looks amazing too.

  2. I so agree about The Snowman and Father Christmas, they are perfect in their own different ways. The animated versions of both are also excellent, but like you I have a couple of provisos. I saw The Snowman the first year it was broadcast on Channel 4 and was immediately hooked, then a year or so later they added an introduction using David Bowie, why? Why? Thankfully it was dropped the next year. The introduction of the Snow Dog was just spoiling something that couldn't be improved; the film had none of the original's production values. Did you know that Raymond Briggs received angry letters from some parents about Father Christmas book, as there is a frame showing him sitting on the toilet! Far too much information for some people.
    Dicken’s Christmas Carol is another good choice, particularly when Scrooge wakes up and is almost instantly reformed. I have to admit it is the only Dickens I have actually read.
    I hadn't realised Shirley Hughes had done a Christmas book, her illustrations are brilliant.
    Most of your choices seem to be children’s books, at the moment I can’t think of any non-children’s novels that have Christmas scenes but there must be some.

  3. Thank you for commenting! I love Jan Pienkowski – when I was nine, I took the book into school and my class ended up spending two weeks recreating the pictures. So much fun. I just reread Little Women too! It's such a beautiful story, I appreciated it in an entirely new way …
    Laura's story is so brilliant but the part when Pa is singing, "Come in and close the door" and then Almanzo does – ah, happiness! 🙂 x

  4. Yes, that Snowman animation is sort of ingrained in our cultural consciousness. Nothing against the Snow-dog but it didn't measure up. Didn't know about the toilet thing … mind you, it was only in the 70s or so that they started actually showing toilets on television. Goodness only knows what we were pretending TV people did beforehand.
    Christmas Carol is easy-going Dickens, it's got quite a gentle sense of humour for Dickens. Very sweet story at its core – enjoying the re-read!
    Shirley Hughes has a few books with a Christmas theme I believe but this one is particularly lovely.
    Yes, I suppose most of them are children's books – Christmas is more stressful I guess as you get older. Anyway, these happened to be the ones that I liked best! 🙂

  5. A lovely list! I think that the reason that so many of Christmas books are children's books is because Christmas-themed novels as a class are so often poorly written. You know-the Christmas-themed mystery, the Prodigal son/daughter at Christmas novel that is full of weeping and drama, etc. etc. But children's books? Many brilliant authors have successfully written children's Christmas books. 🙂

  6. Yes – I think you're absolutely right! I see Christmas-themed chick lit books all the time that I have no interest in reading but yet these ones I am prepared to dig out again year after year. Hence the Christmas Carol re-appearance. Thank you for the lovely comment 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.