The best Christmas books for adults and children that you didn’t know existed
What is it about Christmas that we so love sameness and repetition? There are literally millions of foods out there, yet we choose the same few for Yuletide dinner. We put up the same decorations, follow the same ceremonies for gift-opening, watch the same movies, wear the same novelty slippers.
Indeed for some people, that’s more-or-less the whole point.
This maybe explains why, when it comes to classic Christmas books and stories, a surprisingly small number have endured. These are the ones we read to children or for our own pleasure, pass on to the next generation, ritualistically re-engaging with them so often that parts of them are eventually known off by heart.
On the other hand, a surprisingly large number of Christmas books have been long forgotten, if not immediately, then certainly by the present day. We’re not talking fly-by-night scribblers either: many come from very famous authors who are still widely read.
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I must confess that I had never heard of Letters from Father Christmas by JRR Tolkien, despite ploughing through all his Middle Earth books (yes, even The Silmarillion). I worship Agatha Christie but didn’t know she’d written both a Yuletide novel (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas) and story collection (The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding). It’s a similar situation with Mark Twain’s A Letter from Santa Claus and Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.
Other famous writers whose festive stories have passed on to the great literary graveyard range from Russian grandees (Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol) to US stalwarts (Washington Irving, Fannie Flagg) to award-winners (Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Pearl S Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel) to familiar names from the 20th and 21st centuries: Alice Munro, Louis de Bernières, Laurie Lee, Raymond Carver, Jeanette Winterson.
L Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame wrote not one but two books about Santa that you don’t see people reading nowadays. I’d never heard of The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern either, although I do know the film it inspired: It’s a Wonderful Life.
Same thing with Maya Angelou’s Christmas poem ‘Amazing Peace’, Beatrix Potter’s story The Tailor of Gloucester, Dylan Thomas’s memoir A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Lemony Snicket’s The Lump of Coal (in fairness, that unappetising title doesn’t help).
But we haven’t got to the real goliaths of the disregarded Christmas story. First up, Hans Christian Andersen: we all know the sad tale of The Little Match Girl, but how many of us have read The Steadfast Tin Soldier or The Fir-Tree? (Don’t lie, Santa is watching.)
And top of the list is one Charles Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol is probably the ultimate story of the season and essentially created much of the sentimental/cultural atmosphere of Christmas as we know it today.
Dickens not only wrote a further four Yuletide novellas – The Cricket on the Hearth; The Chimes; The Battle of Life; The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain – but also a lengthy essay, What Christmas is as We Grow Older, and dozens of other stories, published in magazines over several years. Few people will have read, or even be aware of, any of this work.
Oscar Wilde greats
So what Christmas stories have endured? Apart from the aforementioned, Andersen gave us The Snow Queen – you may know its most recent iteration, Disney’s globe-conquering Frozen.
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs, The Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore, O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi and the Brothers Grimm’s The Elves and the Shoemaker are perennial favourites.
ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is possibly better known now through the Tchaikovsky ballet, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis is still catnip to kids; likewise the famous newspaper editorial Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, for adults. And while Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women isn’t specifically a Christmas story, it contains some of the most memorable Yuletide scenes in literature.
The Irish also get a look in. Oscar Wilde gave us two Christmas-themed greats in The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant. The modern kids’ classic The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey was written by an American but illustrated by Belfast artist PJ Lynch (the film adaptation starred a young Saoirse Ronan). The 19th century Irish writer Frances Browne – a blind poet and novelist – wrote a collection of short stories which included The Christmas Cuckoo and has been translated into several languages. Shane MacGowan’s ‘Fairytale of New York’ is basically a short story set to music.
More recently, O’Brien Press released Reindeer Down!, a children’s Christmas story from Natasha Mac a’Bháird. Rory, the smallest reindeer, is excited to be helping Santa deliver presents for the first time. When they crash-land in Ireland, injuring Dancer, Rory must save the day.
Who better to ask, than a professional, to explain the timeless appeal of the festive tale? “Stories have the power to transport us to another world,” Natasha says, “a different time and place, and that’s never more true than of Christmas stories. With the sense of anticipation, enchantment, togetherness and a good deal of nostalgia for Christmases past, the power of the Christmas story will always appeal, especially in Ireland where we never need an excuse to hear a good yarn.”
I’d add to that the element of melancholy. Christmas is such a happy time for most people that those who aren’t feeling quite right emotionally or mentally can find their sadness and alienation amplified.
So while Scrooge learns the joys of generosity and the Mouse King gets his comeuppance, there’s also an unhappy ending, or at least a bittersweet one, to many Christmas stories: the Happy Prince dies, Briggs’ Snowman melts, the Snow Queen remains forever trapped in an icy prison of loneliness, the Little Match Girl perishes.
And that’s okay.
‘White Christmas’ may be the biggest-selling song of all time, but some of us are partial to a bit of Elvis crooning about ‘Blue Christmas’ at this time of year, too.
Five great Christmas reads for adults
The Ice Harvest Scott Phillips
Funny, cynical crime novel, in which shady lawyer Charlie Arglist has given himself an early present – money stolen from the Mob – and has to skedaddle out of Wichita as Christmas, and a snowstorm, draw close.
The Dead James Joyce
Recently named as the greatest short story ever written, Joyce’s meditation on death, lost love and searing regrets is powerful and moving.
A Tudor Christmas Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke
A jolly entertaining look at how the Tudors celebrated the festive season. Many of their customs – including carol singing and Christmas pudding – survive today.
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
An unusually light-hearted Sherlock Holmes story sees the great detective and aide-de-camp Watson on the trail of a missing gemstone.
The King James Bible
You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the beautiful phrasing and warm sentiment of the nativity story. “And the angel said unto them, behold: I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
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