A literary Christmastime

Juliette Bowen 29 November 2016

If someone says to me “Christmas in literature”, my initial response is the stereotypical recall of Dickens’s famous A Christmas Carol, with scenes of Scrooge’s midnight ghostly visits and the ultimate happiness of Tiny Tim’s pronouncement, ‘God Bless us, Everyone!’ Yet I sought to look beyond this immediate reaction and further into the treasure chest of literature that holds some offering of Christmas.

I cast my mind back to my experiences of Christmas as a child: what did my childhood tales offer me of Christmas? When I fondly return to childhood memories of Christmas, images of my mother reading to me a story from ‘the Big Christmas Book’ before my bedtime, are present. Happy memories of The Nutcracker, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Gift of the Magi – or even the personalised tale she read aloud, a re-written account of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas with insertion of my sister’s and my own name. But Christmas is not just for children, and it appears in a plethora of novels, poems, and literary sources, depicted throughout different ages, forms, scenes, and individual experiences.

Christmas can be extravagance, as at King Arthur’s court with ‘Such glaum ande gle glorious’ upon a ‘Kyrstmasse’ that leads to quest and trials (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), or Christmas can be a lover’s first union in ‘Solution sweet…of Love’s alarum [opposing the] pattering the sharp sleet/Against the window-panes;’ ('The Eve of St Agnes' – Keats).

Or Christmas can be the magic of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world with feasts at Hogwarts prepared by house-elves, complete with flaming puddings with hidden silver sickles, food beyond Harry’s wildest wishes and wizarding crackers with ‘grow-your-own-wart-kits’ inside (!) – or it can feature in a bildungsroman in our world, with a singular surprised wonder at the thoughtful and longed-for gift of ‘puffed sleeves! […] Oh, it seems to me this must be a happy dream’ (Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery).

It can also just be a modest but happy Christmas in time of war with ‘Little food. No presents. But there was a snowman in their basement’ (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak). Some books focus on the glamour of the festive season in its sumptuous excess of food and celebration, some mediate Christmas through an individual’s own experience with family or friends, whilst others offer the symbol of Christmas as a time for hope, happiness, and new life. C. S. Lewis’s well-known The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe holds the first Christmas in an eternal winter, with Father Christmas’s arrival signifying more than presents as he offers hope for a future of passing time in a place where it has been arrested for too long. He offers the promise of spring and the return of life: a God-like allegory in his arrival.

Whether proclaimed in feasting and merriment, enjoyed quietly at home, or offering a single day of solace and peace – like in the tale of football on Christmas day in the trenches – Christmas across literature holds this one single message: it is a time of coming together, coming home (if possible), and celebration of what we do have mingled with hope for the future and a determination that carries through to the New Year “resolutions” to make this a reality.

So the tale that I would like to close upon is one which, after a little thought, I discovered really does encompass Christmas for me. It is not a widely-read book, it is not a particularly extravagant story, but it is one that I return to every Christmas – originally the only tale read to me by my dad at Christmastime, his Christmas story. It is the tale of Charlie The Chimney Sweep & Sooty, the tale of a brave orphan boy who earns his living as a chimney sweep and, on Christmas Day, receives what he deems to be the greatest gift of all: a new home with a loving family. It is a tale that touched my heart as a young girl, that continues to remind me every Christmas that, yes, Christmas is a time for celebration and feasting and merriment and indulgence, but it is more than that. It is a time for everyone to have something that they don’t usually have; it is a time for hope for everyone, and I feel that the best Christmas literature offers this and passes this message on through the little details that it includes, beyond the initial image of Christmas festivities: the details that make the jolly season “human”.