I went up to the bathroom and found my mother crying and running the turkey under the hot tap. She said, ‘The bloody thing won’t thaw out, Adrian. What am I going to do?’ I said, ‘Just bung it in the oven.’ So she did.”
Everybody’s favourite misunderstood, totally intellectual, teenage diarist, Adrian Mole, has perhaps experienced some of the most realistic Christmases in literature. His entry on one particular day sees him recall the hectic and hilarious events of the previous 24 hours, after his mum serves dinner to unexpected guests four hours late while his dad ends up drunk. We all know that feeling – of a parent acting manically and those annoying guests that just won’t leave – all too well. Also, I’m amused and touched that he gets Pandora a can of deodorant as her present. Other favourite details of the Mole family Christmases are the one where his prison warden Aunty Susan, brings a ‘friend’ in a disturbingly low cut top and the seasonal Fancy Dress Party at the Braithwaites where Pandora dresses as a belly dancer, much to Adrian’s disgust. Oh and the dog, who always manages to eat something he shouldn’t or has bizarre accidents like getting a model pirate stuck in his paws. His many Christmases, even into adulthood, are always disastrous and still make me laugh out loud.
The Long Winter is just one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books with wintry scenes that make me feel Christmassy. There’s the party in Little House in the Big Woods where the girls stay with extended family so they can help with collecting maple sugar. There are such wonderful descriptions of making candy by freezing the maple sugar in the snow, beautiful descriptions of all the women’s best dresses as they get ready for the party and an incredible table groaning with food! Later, in her novel The Long Winter, Laura is a teenager and the family are living in North Dakota. As winter nears, the family move to their house in town from their ‘claim’ out on the open plains. Winters are harsh and this one is the worst, as blizzards rage for months. The Ingalls family have a very lean Christmas. They make presents for each other and sit down to a dinner of watery soup. It takes till May for the tracks to clear and the trains to run, but when they do a Christmas ‘barrel’ turns up with presents and food to allow them a second chance and they enjoy their first ‘Christmas in May’. A final favourite is Pa’s friend Mr Edwards arriving unexpectedly through a blizzard to ensure the Ingalls girls get a Christmas present. This scene can bring tears to my eyes:
“oh thank you, Mr. Edwards! Thank you!” they said, and they meant it with all their hearts. Pa shook Mr. Edwards’ hand, too, and shook it again. Pa and Ma and Mr. Edwards acted as if they were almost crying. Laura didn’t know why. So she gazed again at her beautiful presents.”
“It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting “Cathy” and banging your head against a tree.”
This is a modern classic and nothing can beat those excruciating moments when Bridget’s parents take her to their friend’s Turkey Curry Buffet. Bridget in her antlers enduring endless insinuations about her love life, or lack of it. Mark Darcy in his ridiculous Christmas jumper. Oh dear, says a friend of her parent’s, have you lost another man Bridget. It’s always the same, off they go, wweeeeee…. It really is mortifying. It’s the perfect update of Pride and Prejudice, the modern equivalent of the ballroom arena. Bridget is simply herself, it’s those around her who are irritating and embarrassing, but we see the stiffness in Darcy and the way he makes judgement. It’s all so real. Fielding pitches the comedy and emotion perfectly. She completely represents the awkwardness of being an adult but returning home for Christmas and reverting to childhood. The childhood bedroom and the dreaded single bed! I think it’s wonderfully written.
‘Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t,” and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.”
Of course no Christmas round up is complete without Little Women. ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’ is the first line, but the March girls are going to learn the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas Day might be very lean on the present front, but the girls are excited about the breakfast Hannah has made for them. They’re just about to start when Marmee comes home to tell them that a poor German family nearby have no fire, no presents and are hungry. Their Mum has given birth the night before. With only the odd grumble from Amy they pack up their breakfast and take some firewood round to the Hummel’s shack. Witnessing the family on their errand, Theodore Lawrence is inspired to make a Christmas gesture of his own. He has watched the family, from his lonely position in the mansion next door with his Grandfather. To repay their kindness to the Hummel’s the Lawrence’s send an incredibly luxurious breakfast over to the Marches. Even Amy is inspired not to be selfish with her one dollar Christmas gift from Aunt March. Everyone else has used their dollar for a gift for Marmee, but Amy chose to gift a small bottle of cologne so she still had money for drawing pencils. But she goes back and buys a bigger bottle and returns her them. The girls Christmas gift is a letter from the their father who is a chaplain with the army, fighting in the Civil War. Even though this isn’t strictly a Christmas film, just watching any adaptation of Little Women with its opening of the festive season makes me feel that Christmas spirit.
“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tumnus.”
“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Tumnus,” said Lucy.
“And may I ask, O Lucy, Daughter of Eve,” said Mr. Tumnus, “how you have come into Narnia?”
“Narnia?” What’s that?” said Lucy.
“This is the land of Narnia,” said the Faun, “where we are now; all that lies between the lamppost and the great castle of Cair Paravel on the Eastern Sea. And you–you have come from the wild woods of the west?”
“I–I got in through the wardrobe in the spare room,” said Lucy.
“Ah,” said Mr. Tumnus in a rather melancholy voice, “if only I had worked harder at geography when I was a little faun, I should no doubt know all about those strange countries. It is too late now.”
“But they aren’t countries at all,” said Lucy, almost laughing. “It’s only just back there–at least–I’m not sure. It is summer there.”
“Meanwhile,” said Mr. Tumnus, “it is winter in Narnia, and has been for ever so long, and we shall both catch cold if we stand here talking in the snow. Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?”
Of course the worst thing about the country of Narnia is that it’s always winter, but never Christmas. In fact it takes Aslan’s amazing return from death for Christmas to finally be celebrated in Narnia, and Father Christmas brings the children the gifts they will need as they become Kings and Queens of Narnia. Yet for me, I get a Christmas feeling from the very first time Lucy finds her way through the wardrobe. She feels her way through the furs and can smell a pine forest and feel the cold. She finds a snowy forest landscape and slowly makes her way towards the light of a lamppost. It’s here she meets one of my favourite creatures in all literature – Mr Tumnus. I have a beautiful painting in my hallway of the way I imagine him, with his furry haunches, velvet coat, long striped scarf and carrying a pile of books and an umbrella. If I could be taken to any point in a book it would be tea in Mr Tumnus’s little house, next to a warm fire. There would be lots of books, a ticking clock and a wonderful tea tray of crumpets and cake. In this warm haven with snow falling outside I would feel completely relaxed and immersed in this magical world.
“Christmas ought to be brought up to date,” Maria said. “It ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.”
Maybe the reason I associate this book with Christmas is that when I was primary school age this book was serialised on the BBC and shown on Sunday teatimes. It is set as a young boy called Kay travels home on the train for Christmas, and is waylaid by a travelling Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawlings. Hawlings is being pursued by a band of criminals dressed as clergymen. They are seeking the ‘box of delights’ – a magical box that can take the bearer on a world of adventures. My middle-aged brain remembers tiny mice appearing through the floorboards, meeting the King and Queen of the fairy folk inside a tree, a wonderful Christmas celebration and a plane that can take off vertically. I love the nostalgic feel of the book too, with Kay using terrible school slang – I haven’t a tosser to my kick – and the very lively heroine Maria who is toting guns she took from the villains! She had a very Agatha Christie view of Christmas thinking it should be filled with guns and gangsters!
‘In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.’
The Snow Child is such a beautiful book and although it’s not specifically set at Christmas, it has such a snow filled setting and a fairy tale quality that makes me feel that Christmassy magic. Jack and Mabel are married, but don’t have any children after a traumatic miscarriage. They long for a child and one winter, at their homestead in Alaska, they build a snow child – complete with mittens. The next morning their snow child is gone and tiny footprints lead away into the forest. From time to time the couple see a little girl in the woods accompanied by a fox. We’re not sure whether she is a magical manifestation of their wish or exists just in their mind, but what is so stunning is the background. The Alaskan wilderness is not easy to survive in, but the author makes it so beautiful:
‘The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness. It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.’
This is an absolutely stunning book, full of magic and the realisation that life is short and we need to grab our happiness, wherever we can.
And finally these two little gems above and below are this year’s Christmas reads. Christmas is a time for romance and both of these novels are unashamedly romantic. In Last Christmas in Paris it’s 1914 and Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris. But of course it all happened so differently. Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene? In Christmas 1968, with failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…
In Tom Ellen’s All About Us we meet Ben, tasked by his wife Daphne to put up the Christmas tree he decides to meet his friend Harvey for a drink instead. Daphne is at a work party, alone. Ben is at a crossroads in his marriage, he barely recognises his wife these days because she seems so angry and tense. His mind has been wandering to his old uni friend Alice, who he always imagined he’d get together with some day. There is one pivotal moment, at a university play, where he felt it was an unspoken agreement that he and Alice would take things further. Then in walked Daphne and he was instantly smitten. What if he made the wrong choice. In a format based on A Christmas Carol, Ben meets a watch seller who gives him a magical watch set at a few minutes to midnight and he’s astonished to wake up the next morning on 5th December 2005: the day he first kissed Daphne, leaving Alice behind. This is just the first of his stops into the past, and the possible future, to make the biggest decision of his life, all over again. But this time around, will he finally find the courage to follow his heart?
I’m so looking forward to curling up by the Christmas tree with some chocolate and both of these novels.