Well I must say that if you like a Christmassy read, then Christmas Days has got be one of the most Christmassy books around at the moment.
Twelve stories and twelve feasts for twelve days, it simply oozes Christmas spirit. The volume opens with ‘Christmas Tide’ an introductory essay by the author, ruminating on what Christmas is and where it, and all those traditions we take for granted come from.
The twelve stories which follow are a wonderful mixture, incorporating magic, love, ghosts and Christmas gatherings. There is snow, mistletoe, and mysterious spirits, a Christmas tree in a New York apartment, a haunted house a small silver frog and a SnowMama. There really is something for everyone in this collection. A recurring theme, perhaps unsurprisingly is that of abandonment, of unhappy children, a tiny child is found locked into a department store – another child returns to a cold dark house, her mother at work, unprepared for Christmas, then in a Dickensian style story of children in an orphanage we encounter sadness and cruelty, before the season of Christmas works its inevitable magic to set things right. Twelve stories are too many to talk about individually so I will attempt to give a little flavour of the whole book by focusing a little on some of my favourites. More of that later.
In-between each short story is a Christmas recipe, and along with the instructions of how to create the dish, we get the story behind the recipe. There is Mrs Winterson’s mince Pies, Kamila Shamsie’s turkey biryani, Ruth Rendell’s red cabbage as well several of Jeanette Winterson’s own favourites. In these recipes, and the stories behind them Jeanette Winterson’s personality shines through – where else this Christmas will you be told:
“… yes all unpasteurised. I could write a long essay here about bacteria, but it’s Christmas and bacteria aren’t that festive. So look up the pros and cons of pasteurisation once we’re past Twelfth Night, and see if I aint right.”
There is plenty to raise a smile here, as well as recipes you might actually want to try out. If you like cooking that is – I’m afraid I hate it. The recipes contain some great reminiscences, the story of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas at Shakespeare and Company, the Christmases she spent in the company of her friend Ruth Rendell and we learn about Jeanette Winterson’s own traditions. If, like me you have read Oranges are not the Only Fruit and Why be Happy When You Could be Normal, you might be surprised at how much Jeanette Winterson loves Christmas, she even has happy memories of Christmas as a child, as it was, she tells us, the one time when Mrs Winterson was happy. There is a feeling of letting go of the past with this collection, I feel that Winterson is reflecting, and laying to rest perhaps, aspects of her upbringing, that she wrote about in those two previous books.
Incidentally if you love all this stuff as I did – you must listen to this episode of Radio 4’s Women’s Hour with Jeanette Winterson, Kamila Shamsie and Mary Portas – it’s a joy – I listened the other morning. I don’t know how long it is available for but you can find it here. For now anyway.
Also, because I read the book straight through, rather than just pick bits out over a longer period, I found the recipe sections a wonderful palette cleanser between stories.
The child at the centre of The SnowMama builds a snow-woman with her friend, they call her the SnowMama. When Jerry returns home, the house is in darkness, her mother still at work. Jerry’s mother is still grieving for Jerry’s father, and is unprepared for Christmas. Thankfully the SnowMama is on hand to help – for Jerry discovers the secret of the snow people, who come to life.
“They came to the city park.
All day long the children had built SnowMen and now the children had gone home and the SnowMen were still there.
They looked eerie in their brilliant white coats lit up by the brilliant white moon.
Then Jerry saw that some of the SnowMen were moving slowly towards the lake – where two of them were fishing.”
While some stories contain magic, which is not easily explained, the Christmas miracle at the centre of the story Christmas in New York is more easily explained. The narrator of the story is not really into Christmas, he lives in an apartment looked after by a doorman who he has only ever seen from the back – he must surely be dead. One of his friends Lucille is determined to bring Christmas into his life.
There are three great ghostly tales, which are always go down so well at this time of year, Dark Christmas, A Ghost Story and The Second Best Bed, will all deliver a delicious little shiver down the spine. A Dark Christmas takes place in a large old house with a little wooden nativity scene in the attic. The narrator is waiting for her friends to join her, only with the weather closing in, she is left alone in the house, as strange things begin to happen. In The Second Best Bed, a woman spending Christmas with her friend and her husband, is terrified by the appearance of a strange figure in her bed, while outside she hears a voice crying ‘help me’. While A Ghost Story is set in the ski resort of Mürren in Switzerland.
“I had gone to bed and was deep asleep when I heard it clearly. Above me. Footsteps. Pacing. Down the room. Hesitate. Turn. Return.
I lay in bed, eyes staring blindly at the blind ceiling. Why do we open our eyes when we can’t see anything? And what was there to see? I don’t believe in ghosts.”
The glow-heart, is a wonderfully poignant story of a man still mourning the death of his partner two years earlier. Marty needs to let David go, taking the memory of him into the rest of his life. Marty is struggling to do this – so it is David who must help him.
So, there we have it – the most Christmassy book of 2016? Well yes probably – and if you don’t feel just a little bit Christmassy after reading this book then there really is no hope for you.
Finally let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a joyful Christmas/holiday season, wherever you are and however you spend it.