To help your days be merry and bright, an independent British publisher has produced a sparkling collection of thoughts about Christmas past and present.
“On Christmas: A Seasonal Anthology” offers something for everyone. As English broadcaster, wit and wordsmith Gyles Brandreth reminds us in his introduction, Christmas has featured in literature for well over 1,500 years, and the book — “a Christmas cornucopia” — reflects this, packing in a range of old and new voices, motley viewpoints and diverse modes of writing.
Despite its centuries-old history, Brandreth believes that our kind of Christmas begins with Charles Dickens. So, too, does the anthology. In his early sketch “A Christmas Dinner,” Dickens extols the pleasures of the Christmas family party: “We know nothing in nature more delightful!”
Other contributions from eminent Victorians include Anthony Trollope’s account of a journey across Palestine, William Makepeace Thackeray on pantomimes and Jerome K. Jerome on evergreen trees (in the “gathered glory of the dying year” they seem out of place, “like poor relations at a rich man’s feast”).
Contemporary offerings are more playful or inventive. Ali Smith provides an acerbic take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas”; Will Self reveals how he learned a valuable lesson after opting to boycott Christmas one year; and Kathy Lette recounts a disastrous Caribbean Christmas spent in a tornado shelter that, by the end of her ordeal, “had an unwashed jock strap smell.”
Several autobiographical pieces describe hard-won celebrations. Sue Townsend writes in 2008 about how Christmas with her family “was a time of enchantment when they, the working poor, enjoyed the illusion that they were rich, carefree, good-looking and could put as much coal on the fire as they bloody wanted.”
Ninety years earlier, at the end of World War I, Paul Fournier tells of how his father and other Canadian soldiers attended mass with German civilians on Christmas Eve in Cologne’s cathedral. “A few days before, these uniforms would have been bloodied with anger and reeked of cannon smoke — yet here, they had come to adore a child.”
Some writers refuse to enter into the festive spirit. C.S. Lewis mocks the “absurdity” of the Christmas card and Charles Dudley Warner bewails the “burden” of Christmas. Two Russian tales — a sad one by Chekhov, a disturbing one by Dostoevsky — are, according to Brandreth, the book’s “shadows.” He clearly overlooked the sobering slave narrative here from Mary James.
In the main, the book is top-heavy with warmth and good cheer. There are surprises (Christ’s Nativity is relayed through a chapter from the Qur’an), fascinating insight into yuletide customs and traditions, plus constant variety: stories, essays, memoir excerpts, letters, diary entries — and a tribute to the turkey from the culinary bible “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.”
All that is missing is a seasonal poem or two. Otherwise, this charming little book hits the spot.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
On Christmas: A Seasonal Anthology
Introduced by: Gyles Brandreth.
Publisher: Notting Hill Editions/New York Review of Books, 192 pages, $18.95.