I stumbled across this on the trawl for festive fiction. I adored my Collins Christmas Treasury as a child so was in the mood for something similar. But with The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories, we are a world away from that kind of feel-good Christmas story. This collection has been carefully crafted to hit a consistent mood of melancholy and disillusion. From the tragedy of the dying Christmas tree in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Fir Tree’ to Frank O’Connor’s childhood disenchantment in ‘Christmas Morning’ to the icy horror of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘A Christmas Party and a Wedding’, the theme is of innocent lost. Yet there are still smiles to be found in and among in this diverse range of stories from every corner of the globe.
I have often thought that Christmas is the time of year when we feel closest to our own past childhood selves. So many of the traditions centre around the very young and it is natural to see ourselves reflected in them. We remember the years when we still believed in magic. We add romance to what would otherwise seem to be crass consumerism. Several of the stories in this collection have a memoir basis, gazing back longingly at childhood such as in Truman Capote’s ‘A Christmas Memory’ and Tove Jansson’s ‘Christmas’. But there are others such as Shirley Jackson’s ‘A Trip to the Bank’ and Italo Calvino’s ‘Santa’s Children’ which slyly wink at the capitalist forces which drive the cogs of the festive season. No child is too young to become a consumer.
While I was unfamiliar with almost all of these stories myself, there were several which were iconic in their native lands such as Joaquin Maria Machado De Assis’ ‘Midnight Mass’. In that respect, reading this book felt like I was broadening my own reading horizons, something which I appreciate but which also leaves me feeling uncomfortably pretentious. The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories captures the ugliest side of Christmas such as in Langston Hughes’ ‘One Christmas Eve’, which depicts with heartbreaking truth how oppressive racism destroys one little boy’s enjoyment of the season. In that respect, this is an anthology which encourages the reader to look on the uncomfortable truths of the season. It may be a ‘special time of year’, but there are still people who are alone, people who are weary, people who are desperately unhappy. And not all of them get their magical happily-ever-after.
Not everything in the book is doom and gloom though and we still get glimpses of the fairy tale in chapters such as Irène Némirovsky’s ‘Noël’ and ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ by Dorothy L Sayers, featuring the iconic Lord Peter Wimsey. Indeed, this is one of the most high quality short story anthologies that I can remember reading. But it does feel a little like a snow globe. Exquisite and beautiful but cold to the touch.
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Published by Penguin Classics on October 29th 2020
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