The Best Literary Christmases

Here is a cosy feature on the best literary Christmases, which originally appeared in Spectator Life.

The most interesting Christmas traditions can be found in literature. Here are some of the best ways to spend Christmas, as told in books. 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

‘“I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him. He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can’t help thinking better of it – I defy him – if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying, Uncle Scrooge, how are you?”’

Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew Fred reaches out to him every Christmas, but his efforts are always met with a ‘Bah! Humbug!’ Scrooge witnesses Fred explain to his family and friends that he tries to include his uncle in the festivities to make him feel welcome. After the visitations from the three ghosts, Scrooge is a transformed man, and he goes to visit Fred. They enjoy a ‘Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!’ together. Making family feel welcome and involved is something we should all think about doing too. 

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

‘“Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.” It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather!”’

Baking 30 fruitcakes (before polishing off the excess whiskey) sounds wonderful. Christmas in ‘A Christmas Memory’ is full of love and kindness. Our narrator, nicknamed ‘Buddy’, fondly remembers the Christmas tradition he had as a child when he and his elderly distant cousin would bake Christmas cakes in their kitchen. They live together, with other family members. They are very poor. We are told that his cousin ‘has never: eaten in a restaurant, travelled more than five miles from home.’ But every year they scramble together a ‘Fruitcake Fund’ to bake Christmas cakes for ‘Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons who we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.’ We might be tempted to roll out this tradition and try giving gifts to people we see regularly but barely know, as a gesture of thanks and to let them know we are thinking of them.  

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 

‘As Christmas approached, the usual mysteries began to haunt the house, and Jo frequently convulsed the family by proposing utterly impossible, or magnificently absurd ceremonies, in honour of this unusually merry Christmas. Laurie was equally impracticable, and would have had bonfires, sky-rockets, and triumphal arches, if he had had his own way.’

‘Absurd ceremonies’? And bonfires at Christmas? Why not? While Jo and Laurie’s extravagant suggestions jar with the family plans for a quiet and restful Christmas, this might be something for us to try at our own homes this year. The more lavish, the merrier!

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford 

‘The objects thus distributed were exactly the same every year, a curious and wonderful assortment including a pocket handkerchief, Old Moore’s Almanack, a balloon not as yet blown up, a mouth organ, a ball of string, a penknife, an instrument for taking stones out of horses’ shoes, a book of jokes, a puzzle, and, deep down in the woolly toe of the stocking, whence it would emerge in a rather hairy condition, a chocolate baby.’ 

Christmas with Lady Bobbin is an organised affair: ‘Not a moment of its enjoyment was left to chance or to the ingenuity of her guests.’ Her tradition of giving the same (yet varied) gifts in stockings every year might inspire those stuck for what to buy somebody difficult: a pocket handkerchief would prove useful and there is something pleasing about a good puzzle at Christmas (but caution should be taken with the gifting of a penknife.) Unfortunately, after the description of colourful presents, we are told that they would be happily exchanged for a good night’s sleep by the guests. So perhaps Lady Bobbin’s usual presents could be used as a springboard for improvement instead, rather than a direct replication unto loved ones.

Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

‘“You have said that Christmas is a season of good cheer. That means, does it not, a lot of eating and drinking? It means, in fact, the overeating! And with the indigestion there comes the irritability!”’

“Crimes,” said Colonel Johnson, “are not committed from irritability.”’

Overindulgence at Christmas can lead to feeling uncomfortable, which, in turn, can lead to grumpiness and anger, and end up in an explosive row, or worse, a more bloody occurrence. Poirot recommends a little restraint at Christmas time to avoid the inevitable rage and arguments that follow excessive food and drink. If this proves impossible, then stock up on plenty of indigestion remedies that Poirot would approve of, like root ginger and fennel seeds. 

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

‘I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers.’

While Poirot tries to prevent crimes at Christmas, Sherlock Holmes seems to embrace the opportunity to put his mind to work. For one moment in the story however, Holmes seems to be taking it easy. It is after Christmas so he seems to have let his home become untidy around him, and receives Watson in a dressing gown. Maybe we too shouldn’t feel so bound to be tidy and well-dressed in the days that follow Christmas. Strive to be less Marie Kondo and more Sherlock Holmes this year. 

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