In November I was invited to take part in The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge hosted by The True Book Addict on her festive blog. It encourages readers to pick up books with a connection to the season and will run until Twelfth Night. It was challenge made for me; I get excited by all things sparkly, snowy and ho ho ho-ey from September onwards.
I was a little disappointed however when I tapped ‘Christmas’ into Amazon for Kindle and got lots of rather schmaltzy rom-com or light mystery stories. I enjoyed one or two with a glass of Baileys and a packet of peanuts but, and I hope I don’t offend anyone here, those stories can be rather repetitive. Frankly many are just a previous offering by the author with a switching on of fairy lights and a few snowflakes falling. Like a box of Cadbury’s Roses, you devour too many and start to feel slightly nauseous.
So, having read ‘Santa -a Life’ by Jeremy Sear (a biography of good old St Nicholas), Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (again) and A Christmas Mystery by Anne Perry, I then failed to find myself arrested by PC Hamish McBeth in A Highland Christmas by M.C.Beaton. Enough I thought. I would take a different approach and go back to the source of the magic. Childhood.
What books had I read at Christmas as a child? What books had I read to my children? Returned to year after year, these were the books that I felt would set fire to the Yule log of memory and offer me a proper reading ‘challenge’. Particularly as I would have to haul myself up the loft ladder to find them.
But I had some success and much pleasure in my discoveries, which I shall now re-read for the challenge, although this might be difficult with my copy of The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, which in Christmases of the 1970s was used to inflict many a recorder recital on my poor parents. How they tried to look proud…
Then there is my copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Not a Christmas book of course, but my favourite scene is where, desperately homesick, Mole takes Ratty back to Mole End. They make the best of the little Mole has in the larder to create a feast before they hear the ‘scuffling of small feet on the gravel’ – the field-mice have come a-carolling:
“It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little fieldmice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, ‘Now then, one, two, three!’ and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the oldtime carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.”
I read the Wind in the Willows to my children and introduced them to the BBC animation of the 1980s, which I had loved even as an adult but they didn’t seem to appreciate it as much as I had. Chapter titles like ‘The Paper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Dulce Domum’ perhaps losing them somewhat, who knows.
Another favourite that didn’t grip my children, but which I still adore, is A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas. It has to be the edition illustrated by Edward Ardizzone who, it often feels to me, drew the pictures in every book I read at primary school.
“Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t a shaving of a moon to light the flying streets.”
Dylan Thomas’ poetic prose.
However, I found a whole box of books that my children, now 20 and 17 had enjoyed - Santa Claus has a busy night and The Christmas Robin, both Ladybird books; Teddy’s Christmas by Michelle Cartlidge; Happy Christmas Rita! by Hilda Offen in which Rita the Rescuer has to perform a daring rescue from a chimney pot:
Aaah, I know that feeling well….
Well-thumbed too is the classic Lucy & Tom’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes. The beautiful illustrations are so ‘real’ that you can believe Lucy and Tom and the family are people you know and their world one that you inhabit. There is a Salvation Army band, tired and grumpy children on the big day and supportive grandparents. It might not be the life many of us lead in the 21st century but it is magical.
And lastly I find the book my children loved most of all – an illustrated version of The Twelve Days of Christmas. I don’t know where the edition I have was bought or how long ago, but it is falling to pieces. I am not sure whether the children liked it because they could join in, or whether they liked to embarrass their parents by making them sing. Certainly a favourite family story involved my husband coming home late from his work Christmas meal rather the worse for a tipple singing ‘Five Go-Old Rings’ rather louder than a dozing child might want. No matter – every memory associated with it is precious.
This is the first Christmas Day my son, now 20, won’t be sharing with us. He will be with his partner in London. Bittersweet – to know your children are happily fledged but no longer so eager to wake up to a stocking in their (old) bedroom.
So this is for him…