As the TV schedule fills up with re-runs and shops play Christmas carols on repeat, this is a time of year when it feel perfectly appropriate to return to tried and tested Christmas novels. Here are my personal seasonal favourites.
Emma (1815). Jane Austen brings her wry humour to every aspect of genteel Georgian life and the sentimental joys of Christmas are no exception. Mr John Knightley is voluble in his disgust at going to a party on Christmas eve, muttering ‘A man… must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and encounter such a day as this, for the sake of coming to see him. He must think himself a very agreeable fellow.’ The evening only gets worse when Emma finds herself having a private conversation with Mr Elton, another man equally convinced of his charms. There are always so many reasons to re-read Emma, but it has a special appeal at this time of year for giving us one of the most uncomfortable Christmas parties in literature.
A Christmas Carol (1843). What a difference a few decades can make. In Dickens’ literary world it’s clear that Knightley-style misanthrophy is no longer a case for sympathetic laughter. In fact, I have heard it argued that Dickens actually largely created the ‘Good-will to mankind-let’s all have a holiday’ Christmas spirit we know so well today. Before Scrooge, Christmas was a time when you might want to see family and friends, after reading this heart-warming novel though, it’s clear that it is the most important day of the year and only evil, evil men will ignore it. Putting cynicism aside though, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a true Christmas classic and it gets me every time.
Mapp and Lucia (1931). I know that I try to get E. F. Benson into every single book list that I can, but ‘Mapp and Lucia’ really does belong here! As the spoiler-tastic cover of my edition shows, there is a highly significant scene involving a servants’ Christmas day-off, a lot of rain and a large kitchen table. I can’t lie though. If it hadn’t been this book, it would have been the equally wonderful ‘Miss Mapp’, when the eponymous heroine reflects, Scrooge-like, that ‘Boxing day appeared … a very ill-advised institution. You would have imagined … that the tradespeople had had enough relaxation on Christmas Day … and would have been all the better for getting to work again. She never relaxed her effort for a single day in the year … ‘ Ah, Miss Mapp!
Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1998). Atkinson has been justly lauded for her excellent Jackson Brodie detective series and her recent Todd family novels (‘Life After Life’ and ‘A God in Ruins’). For Christmas though, it’s always got to be her fantastic debut ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’. Tragedy strikes just after the panto and the Christmas day that follows is a masterpiece of pathos and humour. The whole chapter wonderful, as an awestruck child, a moody adolescent and their senile grandmother spend the 25th December without parental supervision. It’s moving, funny and contains a lovely smattering of Christmas magic.
The Hogfather (1997). Especially relevant this year as we mourn the death of Fantasy writing legend Terry Pratchett, ‘The Hogfather’ is his Discworld take on the traditions of Christmas. The Hogfather is a magical figure who brings good children pig-based foodstuffs and travels on a sledge pulled by hogs. When evil forces start going after anthropomorphic personifications to make the world more ‘ordered’, an unlikely band of heroes are going to have to save Hogswatch Night. It’s all very silly fun and provides a wonderfully knowing commentary on the contemporary Christmas spirit.
About A Boy (1998). My last book from the twentieth century is saturated with the compromised and commercialised Christmas spirit that we know and love today. The super-cool male protagonist, Will, has no need to work because he can happily live off his inherited income. And how can he be so secure in his wealth? ‘“My Dad wrote a famous song, and I live from the Royalties”….”What’s this song, Will? Will told them. He hated telling people because the title sounded so silly. “Really?” Suzie and Marcus both started singing the same part of the song. People always did this and he hated that too.’ It’s the shameful side of the Christmas spirit and just thinking of the terribly plausible ‘Santa’s Super Sleigh’ makes me smile.
The Corrections (2001). If you like your satire more biting and less joyful, I have to recommend ‘The Corrections’. An utterly average and utterly dysfunctional American family are corralled into spending Christmas together. We’ve travelled a long way from Dickens, but if you find the following selfless invitation funny then this irreverent and frequently outrageous seasonal fare may well work for you: ‘Denise, I’m asking what you want. Gary says he and Caroline haven’t ruled it out. I need to know if a Christmas in St. Jude is something that you really, really want for yourself. Because if all the rest of us are agreed that it’s important to be together as a family in St. Jude one last time – ‘
Fashions in Christmas stories change over time, but a good book is forever. What is your go-to festive fiction? I know that I’m lacking many of children’s classics in my list, but I’ve been too impatient to add them … I’ve a lot of important re-reading to do!