The Tall Tales Now that We Told by the Fire: Christmas Reads 2020

As I write this, the rain outside has turned to snow, the wood stove is glowing with warmth beside me, and I have a little striped cat stretched out on my lap in contentment. It is Christmas Eve day, and although in many ways this is a strange and sad holiday, I also have lots of things that I am grateful for.

One of these things is the stack of books that I have centred on my coffee table—my own small take on seasonal decor. It represents past, present and future to me—perhaps the ghosts of all of these Christmases, if we want to get Dickensian about it. Stacked here I have A Family Christmas—a Reader’s Digest compilation that I have fond memories of from my childhood, The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories, a recent acquisition that I am making my leisurely way through, and a beautifully illustrated edition of A Child’s Christmas in Wales that was given to me by my mother-in-law.

I have to start with A Family Christmas. Published in 1984, it’s a delightful and magical compendium of everything you could ever ask for at Christmas. It has stories, crafts, recipes, poems, and carols. It was the book that introduced me to Miracle on 34th Street (still my favourite holiday story), Laura Ingalls Wilder (how excited her little prairie girls were to receive in their stockings one tiny cake each, made with white flour and sugar, was maybe my first inkling of my own privelege), Walter de la Mare (with a spooky and pretty little poem, “Mistletoe”), and—although I did not realise this until many years later—Dorothy L. Sayers, whose brief “Carol” is featured within it. It was the book my mom gave me, so that I could read “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” on the day that I came home from school asking for clarification on that point. A Family Christmas let me down gently.

The “Christmas Customs and Crafts” sections contained Make-It-Yourself projects that fascinated me as a child. They were all ridiculously advanced, and I certainly was not about to tackle “Santa’s Dream Dollhouse” or the “Cinderella Topsy Turvy Doll.” But I liked poring over the pictures every year and imagining who these people were who thought these things were make-it-yourself-able.

I mean, come on.

Likewise the menus presented were ambitious and sometimes pretty gross—Oxtail Conommé with Cheese Straws did NOT appeal, nor did Clams and Oysters in Mignonette Sauce (which in this book is basically just malt vinegar?). And surely it’s in bad taste to include a recipe for Marinated Saddle of Venison alongside a story about Rudolph? The pudding that was to be ignited “carefully but quickly” was more interesting. And the cookies looked pretty safe, although I don’t think I ever made any of them.

A Family Christmas, though a bit weird and certainly dated, still gives me all of the nostalgic feels. I bring it out every season and reread my favourite stories, while still not feeling up to the demands of the DIY projects. Just seeing the bright green hardcover book with its embossed golden writing makes me feel like it’s Christmas.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is different. It feels timeless, full of wonderful imagery and breath-catching language. A small piece of prose by the poet Dylan Thomas, it is a story in which a man recollects his childhood Christmases and describes his memories and sensations to a young boy. The timelessness comes right from the first lines:

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hand into the snow and bring out whatever I can find.”

He goes on to paint vivid pictures, reaching into the snow, as he says, and pulling out memories that could belong anywhere, to any Christmas, just so long as it goes along with that special feeling. It’s a magical and bittersweet book, a short, meditative read, and a Christmas must-have for me.

Finally, a new addition to my Christmas reading stack, The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories. I stumbled upon this at my local bookshop when I was (decently masked and distanced) doing my small bit of holiday shopping. The table of contents revealed short stories by, to name a few, Dorothy L. Sayers, Tove Jansson, Muriel Spark, and Shirley Jackson. If you are a reader of this blog you will recognise those names as some of my all-time favourites, and so I just couldn’t pass this book up.

I have tried very hard to Be Good, and to not turn straight to my favourites, but the book did not help me out with that, because the first handful of stories—including “The Fir Tree” by Hans Christian Anderson and “A Christmas Party and a Wedding” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky—were very sad. So I gave in and flipped to Dorothy L. Sayers, and thoroughly enjoyed “The Necklace of Pearls”, even though I had read it previously. But then again, I don’t think a Wimsey story exists that I haven’t read.

I’m looking forward to trying out some new authors in this collection, particularly Selma Lagerlöf, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Lucia Berlin. There are also new-to-me stories by Grace Paley, Angela Carter, Irène Némirovsky, Langston Hughes, and Laurie Lee.

So far my favourite story has been—surprise!—”Christmas” by Tove Jansson. It’s narrated by a child, naive and still full of wonder. It has the signature Tove Jansson tangle of charm, beauty, and pathos.

“The smaller you are, the bigger Christmas is. Underneath the Christmas Tree, Christmas is vast. It is a green jungle with red apples and sad, peaceful angels twirling around on cotton thread keeping watch over the entrance to the primaeval forest. In the glass balls the primaeval forest is never-ending; Christmas is a time when you feel absolutely safe, thanks to the Christmas tree.”

In the midst of a very bizarre and somewhat lonely pandemic Christmas, these books are stepping in to remind me of Christmases past, and look forward to Christmases future. I hope that wherever you are, however this season looks for you, you are keeping safe, and keeping some magic alive.

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