This December, indulge in 25 literary delights including Bridget Jones, Santaland Diaries, and A Christmas Carol.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Enid Lambert’s sole wish is for her entire family to gather for one final Christmas. Her husband, Alfred, is rapidly declining due to Parkinson’s disease. As a result, her three grown children – Gary, a banker; Chip, an aspiring writer; and Denise, a renowned chef – dutifully journey from Philadelphia, Lithuania, and New York to their childhood home in St. Jude. On Christmas day, they manage to have breakfast together, which Enid declares as the best present she has ever received. However, the holiday is filled with mishaps such as a malfunctioning shower stool, drugs being accidentally disposed of, and enemas. Famed writer Franzen excels at portraying dysfunctional families, often causing readers to feel both discomfort and familiarity. Denise reflects on her love for her parents on the first day of her return home, but by the second day, she finds herself uncontrollably angry at everything her mother says. This sprawling, emotionally charged novel, set at the turn of the century, solidified Franzen’s reputation as a writer. It is the perfect read for the entire “season of celebration and wonder”. In Franzen’s most recent novel, Crossroads, he delves into yet another disastrous Christmas experienced by a family in the American Midwest.
The book “Little Women” was written by Louisa May Alcott.
“Jo complained from her spot on the rug, ‘Christmas just won’t feel like Christmas without any presents.’ This classic tale follows the journey of four sisters living in genteel poverty in 19th-century New England. The story, which ends happily during the Christmas season, has been adapted into several films. The girls are not only expected to show gratitude for receiving copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but they also selflessly give away their own Christmas breakfast to a less fortunate family. Despite their hardships, the sisters put on a brave front and manage to enjoy the holiday. For those who don’t have time to read the book, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation stays true to the original while adding a refreshing twist. It’s an unexpected precursor to Gerwig’s highly successful film, Barbie.”
“Maya Angelou’s Incredible Harmony”
In 2005, 77-year-old Maya Angelou received an invitation to compose a poem for the lighting ceremony at the White House. Titled “Peace,” the poem reflects on the current state of the world and calls for unity among all people. As she recites her words, former President George W. Bush can be seen in the background, seemingly oblivious to the gravity of the message. As we prepare for the holiday season, let us also remember another wise quote from Angelou: “I’ve learned that a person’s character can be revealed through how they handle rainy days, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas lights.”
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
In Wendy Cope’s A Christmas Poem, she states that during Christmas, children sing, bells jingle, and the cold air makes our hands and faces tingle. Families happily go to church and mingle, but for single individuals, the holiday can be unbelievably dreadful. This is also the case for Fielding’s well-known character who is not in a relationship. Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mark Darcy in his Christmas sweater is just as memorable as his Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt and jodhpurs from the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which inspired Bridget Jones. The premise of the story may be outdated (Bridget is only 34 years old and her caddish love interest, Daniel Cleaver, is best left unmentioned), but Fielding’s novel was groundbreaking and original at the time of its release. “DECEMBER. Oh, Christ.”
Rewording not possible.
In 1985, Small Things Like These takes place in a small town in Ireland. The novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022, follows Bill Furlong, a merchant who sells coal and timber, as he makes his deliveries during the weeks before Christmas. Bill, a father to five daughters, is a kind and decent man. Although the Furlong family is not wealthy, they are doing better than many of their neighbors during a time of economic downturn and business closures. This sense of security, both financially and within their home, was hard-earned – Bill was raised by a Protestant widow after being born to an unwed mother.
The cozy and affectionate atmosphere of the Furlong household, filled with holiday baking and preparations, sharply contrasts with the dismal and filthy conditions he encounters while delivering to a nearby convent – one of the infamous Magdalen laundries, where women endured unimaginable suffering until disturbingly recent times. While the Catholic church may not be portrayed positively, the novel’s underlying message of compassion and moral responsibility rings clear as a church bell. Despite its short length of just over 100 pages, this slim and radiant novel can be devoured in one sitting but its impact will linger for much longer.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
“Can you imagine, always being stuck in a never-ending winter without the joy of Christmas?” Mr. Tumnus exclaims to Lucy upon her arrival in Narnia. “That sounds terrible,” she responds. Lewis’s friend Tolkien was not pleased with his mixing of different mythologies – fauns and talking animals in the same story! And the addition of Father Christmas has sparked debate among Narnia enthusiasts for years. In line with the serious themes in his writing, Lewis’s portrayal of Father Christmas, though dressed in red and “bright as holly berries”, is quite formidable and gives out meaningful gifts. “These are tools, not toys,” he tells Peter of his sword and shield. The 2005 Disney film, starring Tilda Swinton as the commanding White Witch, gained a new generation of fans while also reigniting some old animosities. “To me, Narnia embodies everything that is wrong with religion,” Polly Toynbee angrily declared in this publication. But despite any controversy, children will always be enchanted by its snowy world.
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
The elderly woman in Capote’s 1956 Christmas story proclaims, “Oh my. It’s fruitcake weather!” The story reflects on Capote’s own childhood in 1930s Alabama and follows the unlikely friendship between a young boy and his distant cousin, who is still recovering from a childhood illness. The boy affectionately calls her “Buddy” and she refers to him as “my friend”. Both children are unwanted by their families and are sent to live with strict relatives. Every Christmas, they bake fruitcakes for those they admire, including President Roosevelt. In this story, often associated with darker themes, Capote writes with pure innocence about making decorations and flying kites. It is a touching tale that will tug at your heartstrings. You can seek it out and read it, or watch the Emmy-award-winning 1967 TV adaptation featuring Geraldine Page and narrated by Capote himself in his distinct southern accent.
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie
A rundown rural estate, an elderly butler, a handsome man with a questionable reputation, a missing precious gem, a deceased young woman in the snow, and an anonymous message: “Do not consume any of the plum pudding.” All the necessary elements for a classic Poirot mystery are present in this 1960 short story, which the author admits was a personal indulgence as it was inspired by her opulent childhood Christmases at her sister’s grand estate in Cheshire. As expected, the story is full of unexpected twists and turns, much like the pudding itself. In her introduction, Christie describes this festive tale as “the Chef’s selection” and proclaims herself as the Chef. Interestingly, this is the only holiday-themed story in the collection, but it also features a surprise appearance from Miss Marple – the only time both of Christie’s famous detectives appear in the same edition. It doesn’t get any cozier than this in the world of crime fiction.
David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries.
“Congratulations, Mr. Sedaris. You have been chosen as one of Santa’s elves.” Ever since Sedaris shared his hilariously witty essay about his experience working in Macy’s Santaland on National Public Radio in 1992, he has been known as the book world’s mischievous Elf. His role was to entertain visitors during the long wait for children to take photos with Santa. “Come on, Rachel, sit on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about,” one mother yells. Sedaris goes by the name Crumpet and spends most of his time flirting with his fellow elf, Snowball. The elves even discover that “Santa” is an anagram for “Satan” (they have a lot of free time). “Father Christmas or the Devil – so similar yet so different.” This essay catapulted Sedaris from a struggling writer and part-time elf in green velvet pants to the talk of the town. It still stands out among all the sappy holiday stories like a refreshing whiskey sour.
George Saunders’ work, Tenth of December.
This story is not a festive one, as it follows the journey of a dying man who ventures into the woods with the intention of freezing to death, and a bullied child who falls through ice on a lake. The author, Saunders, is a Buddhist and does not have much interest in Christmas. Themes of despair, hope, redemption, acceptance, love, and death are all present in this story, portrayed through Saunders’s unique style of manic humor and generous spirit, which prevents the story from becoming overly sentimental. “Why were we created to find so much beauty in everyday occurrences?” ponders Eber before he steps into the snow in his underwear. Despite the approaching darkest day of the year, there are still moments of brightness to be found. Don’t miss out on reading this story today.
Grace Paley’s The Loudest Voice
On this day in 1922, Grace Paley, a Jewish American writer of short stories, was born in the Bronx. Her story from 1959 is frequently included in anthologies for its depiction of immigrant life in New York and its message of remaining authentic, all within a concise six pages.
In this particular location, there are sounds of dumbwaiters booming, doors slamming, and dishes crashing. The windows act as a representation of a mother’s mouth, telling the street to be quiet and go play somewhere else. The narrator, Shirley Abramowitz, introduces herself with confidence in the captivating first paragraph. Due to her loud and clear voice, she is chosen to be the narrator in the Nativity, causing frustration for her mother. Shirley’s father reminds his wife that they are in America. In 1997, Paley read this piece for the first time on the radio and it is available to listen to online.
The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann
Although not many readers tackle Hoffmann’s original version of “The Nutcracker,” his story has gained popularity thanks to Tchaikovsky. There are numerous charming adaptations for children, including a vibrant retelling by Jane Ray with colorful illustrations. The Royal Ballet’s performance, directed by Peter Wright, will be shown live in movie theaters worldwide today, with additional showings throughout the month.
Mistletoe Malice by Kathleen Farrell
“Are you truly happy spending Christmas with your family? Or do they tend to overwhelm you with chatter and questions, making you feel disconnected from your own life?” Rachel, a widowed matriarch, has gathered her estranged family at her seaside home for the holidays. The atmosphere inside is just as turbulent as the storm brewing outside, as the family members openly share their honest opinions fueled by sherry. It wouldn’t be surprising if one of them ended up falling off the cliff. Set in a world of fancy lunches, romantic affairs, and smoking habits, this sharp 1951 comedy of manners by Farrell (who had a tumultuous relationship with the now renowned Kay Dick, author of “They” – a dystopian novel) is being republished this year by Faber.
Tove Jansson’s book, A Winter Book.
Similar to many aspects of life, it would be beneficial for us to follow the example of the Moomins and hibernate until spring. If that is not possible, the next best option is to relax and immerse ourselves in Jansson’s collection of stories for adults, which was first published in the UK in 2006. These stories offer glimpses into the author’s life, from her childhood to her old age. Like the Moomin tales, they are simple yet peculiar, conveying a sense of gentle melancholy in the face of a world that can often be frightening and unpredictable. In “The Dark,” Jansson recalls her mother, who was the inspiration for the unimpeachable Moominmamma, reading to her in front of a warm fire in her studio. She describes it as a soothing experience, where one can escape from the outside world and feel safe and protected.
A letter from Virginia Woolf to Quentin Bell.
Correspondence from Virginia Woolf to Quentin Bell.
In a letter to her nephew in 1931, Woolf recounts her Christmas shopping trip, which still resonates with us today, almost a century later. She describes the dreary atmosphere of the holiday season and the general turmoil of humanity. Despite this, she spent the day in Oxford Street purchasing practical items such as gloves and stockings.
Emma by Jane Austen
On this day in 1775, Austen was born in Hampshire. While all of her novels feature feuding families, annoying guests, and numerous social events, it is only in Emma that Christmas is truly depicted. At a Christmas Eve dinner hosted by their neighbors, Emma Woodhouse and her father are in attendance. However, a snowstorm forces the guests to leave early, leaving Emma alone with the sly clergyman, Mr. Elton, who attempts to profess his love to her in the carriage. Fortunately, Emma is snowed in on Christmas Day, preventing any uncomfortable encounters at church or with visitors, although Austen cleverly mentions that Mr. Knightley manages to visit despite the weather. Spending a few days with Emma would not be a bad choice, and if you prefer a more modern take, you could also watch the 2020 adaptation by award-winning writer Eleanor Catton.
In this story from her popular 1998 collection Birds of America, Moore uses her signature cynicism to depict the dysfunctional dynamics of a family spending Christmas together. The oldest child, Therese, remarks that it is fitting for Christmas to devolve into chaos as old grudges, rivalries, and secrets are exposed during a game. The game of charades serves as a metaphor for the performance we are expected to put on during the holiday season, as well as the inevitable question that arises when we spend too much time with our loved ones – “Who are they really?” Therese reflects on her relationship with her brother, admitting she no longer recognizes him. Moore’s blunt honesty shines through in Therese’s observations about their mother, who craves affection and is content when her children act as if they don’t remember her past mistakes as a frustrated and harsh parent.
Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”
Each Christmas felt identical to the one before, in those years by the corner of the seaside town. The only sound was the faint voices I sometimes hear right before I fall asleep, making it impossible to recall if it snowed for six days and nights when I was twelve, or for twelve days and nights when I was six.
The inspiration for this poetic prose originated from a request by BBC Wales Children’s Hour to write about “Memories of Christmas”. Thomas wrote a piece, but it was deemed too difficult to be performed live. Five years later, he adapted it into a piece for Harper’s Bazaar and recited it as the B-side of an album at Steinway Hall in New York in 1952. The recording captures the atmosphere of snowy 1920s Swansea. Sadly, Thomas passed away the following year at the age of 39.
Raymond Briggs’ “The Snowman and Father Christmas”
Briggs’s depiction of Father Christmas, created in 1973, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The cranky and overworked character was based on Briggs’s own father, who worked as a milkman. According to Briggs, it makes sense for Father Christmas to be grumpy since he has been doing his job for so long and it can be physically demanding and exhausting.
The Snowman was released in 1978. Although it may be controversial to say, the original wordless picture book does not feature Christmas: the Lapland party scene was created for the 1982 TV version, which author Briggs thought was “cheesy and cliché”. However, the TV adaptation was a huge success and has been aired every Christmas since.
Starting in 1993 with choreographer Robert North’s version for Birmingham Rep, Sadler’s Wells ballet has been running for more than 25 years. Complete with flying Snowman and falling snow, it’s a magical introduction to ballet. Santa and his reindeers also take flight in the Lyric Hammersmith’s long-running theatre production, but it is Father Christmas on the toilet that gets the kids off their seats in giggles every time. Blooming Christmas!
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
This is the 50th anniversary of Cooper’s 1973 novel, which takes place in a snow-covered fantasy world. The story follows a young boy on a mission to defeat the malevolent forces of “the Dark”. The setting is based on Windsor, where Cooper grew up, and the story begins on December 20th in the bustling and cheerful Stanton household. However, strange things are happening outside – the rabbits and dogs are afraid of Will, and the rooks are acting strangely. An old farmer whispers to Will that this night will be dangerous, and the following day – Will’s 11th birthday and the winter solstice – will bring unimaginable events. On this day, Will will come into his powers.
In the introduction to the illustrated Folio edition released in 2012, Cooper emphasizes that Will is not just a typical “boy wizard” but a member of a magical group known as “the Old”. She recounts how her own childhood fears during air raids in World War II shaped her understanding of good and evil, as well as the concept of “Us and Them” – representing the forces of Light and Dark. The names Merriman, Hawkin, the Rider, and the Lady continue to evoke a sense of unease among readers, with authors Katherine Rundell, Helen MacDonald, and Robert Macfarlane all citing Cooper as an early source of inspiration. It continues to hold a haunting fascination for young readers.
Rewritten: “The story “The Turkey Season” written by Alice Munro.”
The Ontario of Munro’s youth held the Turkey Season during the two weeks leading up to Christmas. The mysterious foreman at the turkey farm would tell our 14-year-old narrator, who worked there before school during the holiday season, to “scrunch, scrunch” and then instruct them to put their hand inside the turkey. Despite the freezing temperature inside the turkey’s dark insides, they complied.
She not only masters the gruesome skill of gutting, but also navigates the complicated world of adult relationships. Themes of sex, classism, and aggression are subtly woven into the scene as the workers carry out their plucking duties. Despite being known for her exceptional talent in writing domestic short stories, Munro’s work is far from comfortable or cozy.
The poem “Talking Turkeys” written by Benjamin Zephaniah.
In 1994, Zephaniah released his initial book of poems for kids, which was inspired by his popular Christmas dinner poem. The book was so successful that it had to be reprinted within six weeks. Even today, children enjoy the book, especially when they hear the poet recite it live.
Please show kindness to turkeys this Christmas.
Turkeys just want to have a good time.
Turkeys are awesome, turkeys are amazing.
Each turkey has a mother.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be your friend, but not on your plate.
Hey there, Turkey! I’m on your team.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss
Can there be a better explanation for meanness than simply having a small heart? The grumpy, green creature with a pot-belly has been a well-known holiday party ruiner since his debut in 1957. Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, created the character at the age of 53, the same age as the Grinch himself. The more recent film adaptations, starring Jim Carey (2000) and Benedict Cumberbatch (2018) as the green villain, have become two of the highest-grossing Christmas movies of all time. The Grinch – what a “wonderful, awful idea”!
On the evening before Christmas at The Moon Under Water, written by Carol Ann Duffy.
The classic holiday poem “The Night Before Christmas” was originally published in 1823 under an anonymous author, but is now credited to Clement Clarke Moore. Over the years, there have been various adaptations of the poem. In a satirical version by Frank Jacobs in 1981, the poem references rising inflation, crime rates, and financial struggles. In 2005, Carol Ann Duffy’s “Another Night Before Christmas” takes place in a time where fame and materialism rule, and people are easily swayed by television and fashion. This year’s festive rendition from the former poet laureate features a horse, hedgehog, and owl putting aside their differences for a night out at the local pub. Cheers to that!
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
“What day is it?” exclaimed Scrooge, shouting down to a boy dressed in Sunday attire …
“Excuse me?” responded the boy with a strong expression of surprise.
“Good day, my good sir,” asked Scrooge.
“The boy responded, ‘Today!’ ‘It’s Christmas Day,’ he exclaimed.”
Scrooge and Santa are both well-known figures, and although Dickens may not have completely created the concept of Christmas as he is often given credit for, he certainly played a role in promoting it (his book A Christmas Carol helped popularize the phrase “Merry Christmas”). He referred to it as his “ghostly little book” and wrote it in just six weeks to help with financial difficulties. It continues to have an impact on our memories of past Christmases, our current celebrations, and likely our future ones as well.
If you have read the story (excluding watching The Muppets version), it was most likely when you were a small child. It contains many joyful lines that I recall – “Darkness is inexpensive, and Scrooge enjoyed it”; “There is more gravy than grave in your demeanor, regardless of who you are!” – and no matter how much you try to resist its sentimentality, the tale always manages to uplift your mood. “Truly, for someone who had not laughed in so many years, it was a fantastic laugh, a truly outstanding laugh.” Happy holidays.