For the past few years, I’ve taken great pleasure in choosing a Christmas-themed book to read on cold December evenings. In the depths of winter, on foggy evenings when the streets are glistening with frost, curling up with a book is one of the great cold-weather comforts.
The white Christmas lights are blinking on and off in the window, the heating is on, and I open a bottle of port. I choose a bottle of Sandman port if I can – a small reminder of a hot summer’s day when, on one of my first trips to Portugal, I visited the Sandman cellars, and walked up and down the riverside at Vila Nova de Gaia with the woman who is now my wife.
I’ve always been enthusiastic about Christmas books, and I don’t care whether or not I’m falling for some marketing gimmick (I probably am). If a writer I like has written a book to be read around Christmas, I will seek it out. Whether it’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or a specially published edition of Laurie Lee’s Christmas memories. Crime writers, poets, authors from the canon of English language classics, obscure short stories by Anthony Trollope, classics of German Romanticism, I’d happily read them all.
Yes, the front cover will probably feature snow, and perhaps splashes of red and green to indicate the season. And yes, the ending might be a bit sugary. What’s more sugary than a mean Scrooge becoming a good man, or of Inspector Morse giving an anonymous Christmas present to show he’s not really all that grumpy? The Christmas Hirelings is a Victorian classic recently made available in audiobook form. I think I guessed the ending after the first chapter, but still enjoyed seeing it play out to its sweet-as-a-gingerbread-house end. Even the gritty stories have a bit of sweetness: the Simenon story called ‘The Little Restaurant Near Places des Ternes’ (from A Maigret Christmas) where a down-and-out prostitute saves another girl from her fate in the spirit of goodwill on Christmas Eve in Paris.
A few years ago, a forgotten crime novel called Mystery in White was a surprise bestseller. A train gets stuck in snow on Christmas Eve, and the passengers find shelter in an abandoned house. Is one of them a murderer? It’s got a splash of Murder on the Orient Express about it. I happened to be in Portugal in 2017, so bought it in Portuguese. It seems bizarre that an obscure, out-of-print crime novel from 1937 can become a hit, and something so English as the classic detective story can travel so successfully.
I can revisit the magic of a child’s Christmas by reading children’s books to my daughters: Mog’s Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Shirley Hughes has just published Dogger’s Christmas – a sequel to the much-loved Dogger which has been published over 40 years after the original. I will buy that for my children, whether they want to read it or not.
Then there is the tradition of the ghost story. The tradition seems to have come, at least in part, from M.R. James (and a little from Dickens?). A Cambridge don, James would tell a ghost story around the fire at Christmas. I actually don’t remember any being set at Christmas time, but the stories of M.R. James are classics, and perfect for dark winter evenings. They have the right atmosphere, and go especially well with that glass of port.
Then there’s the story of the nativity. For me, the gospel accounts don’t get tired, and also don’t allow for sentiment. The baby Jesus was a refugee, born in filth, his life threatened by the insecurities of a corrupt ruler. And the person who has to cope with this is a teenage mother who is well out of her depth, along with her husband who is quietly bewildered. It’s a wonderful story, and it’s worth reading the original, whether or not you regard yourself as religious. Its themes of light and darkness are timeless.
And so I enjoy it all – the Christmas books, the mysteries, the Sandman port wine, the gospel narratives, the sentimental, the unsentimental. Small comforts and big comforts; all of them great pleasures. Turn on your Christmas lights, pour a glass of something warming, light a fire if you have one and reach for a book with snow on its cover.