From Hans Christian Andersen to Angela Carter, edited by Jessica Harrison
As an antidote to the holiday murder mysteries I’ve been reading, I turned to this collection of Christmas stories in a variety of styles, from fanciful tales and ghost stories to humor and seasonal reminiscences.
There were some well-roasted chestnuts that I enjoyed re-visiting, such as Saki’s “Reginald’s Christmas Revel,” and Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” I think that Dylan Thomas’s closing lines in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” beautifully sum up the little boy’s sense of security—and wonder—in his small corner of the world:
Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
Ranging beyond Great Britain, Ireland, and the U.S., the collection brings together authors from Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, and the Philippines. We get a mystery, but thankfully no murder, in “The Necklace of Pearls” by Dorothy L. Sayers. There are desolate Christmases, as in Georges Simenon’s “The Little Restaurant near Place des Ternes,” where a seasoned prostitute “plays Father Christmas” by looking out for an innocent young woman. And there are stories of impoverished holidays, too, such as Langston Hughes’ “One Christmas Eve” and Frank O’Connor’s “Christmas Morning”—both of which center on childish expectations soon to be dashed.
A memorable selection was Irène Némirovsky’s “Noël,” with a focus on holiday cynicism and materialism in 1930s Paris, strikingly imagined in a cinematic style. I also fell in love with Laurie Lee’s poetic “A Cold Christmas Walk in the Morning”:
A clear cold radiance hangs over the landscape and a crow crosses it on creaking wings. The rich earth, with all its seeds and humming fields and courtships, is now closed and bound in white vellum. Only one colour remains, today’s single promise, pricked in red over the ashen world—seen in a flitting robin, some rosehips on a bush, the sun hanging low by the wood, and through the flushed cottage windows the berries of holly and the russet faces of the feasting children.
Taken as a whole, The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories isn’t particularly light-hearted—and some of the entries are downright sad. It’s book for those who understand that Christmas can be a time of looking forward gleefully and looking back wistfully; that it can be a time of joy and sorrow, abundance and want. This thought-provoking collage of Christmas will be in my rotation for many years to come.