Christmas is a time for tradition. Turkey, trimmings and the Quality Street purple one, every family has a way of doing things at Christmas. And that extends to festive reads. Here are the books that Northern Soul writers turn to during the holiday season.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
(chosen by Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul)
Are you driving home for Christmas? When I lived in London, my December journey northwards consisted of leaving at the crack of dawn (there’s no such thing as ‘light traffic’ in the capital), mainlining dodgy service station coffee, and missing my cats. But there was another annual must-have: listening to the audio version of A Christmas Carol, read by Anton Lesser.
While Charles Dickens’ account of the miserly Scrooge and his spectral visitations is probably the world’s best-known Christmas story, like all great literature each reader interprets it in a different way. For me, it was hearing Lesser’s soothing tones while I beetled up the M1, often in a car with no heating and temperamental windscreen wipers. ‘Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.’
As much as I love the many adaptions of Dickens’ classic ghost story (I’m looking at you, Muppet Christmas Carol), nothing comes close to chuntering up the motorway in my ancient Ford Fiesta, condensation from the roof raining down, hearing Lesser’s gentle tones proclaim ‘God Bless us every one!’
More recently, I’ve leaned towards bite-sized Christmas wisdom. By the time the big day dawns, I’m usually fairly exhausted, preoccupied with picking endless snippets of tape off jumpers and cardigans. And so A Literary Christmas, an anthology compiled by the British Library, is a welcome addition to my December reading. All Christmas wisdom is here, from D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Christina Rossetti to Laurie Lee, Samuel Pepys and Nancy Mitford. ‘Be as merry as a king, And sound a lusty laugh-a,’ sayeth Washington Irving. And so say I.
A Tudor Christmas by Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke
(chosen by Claire Fleetneedle)
As the nights draw in and the festive season approaches, there is one book that always makes me feel Christmassy. Received about five years ago as a gift, A Tudor Christmas has been my favourite fireside read on the run-up to Yule ever since. Packed into a gorgeous pocket-sized edition, it explores every aspect of Christmas and New Year Celebrations during Tudor times. From food and festivities to religion and the origins of customs, this book has it all.
Inspired by a play written during the Tudor period, each chapter is named after the imagined names of Father Christmas’s children: Misrule, Carol, Mince-Pie, Wassail…well, you get the general idea. Covering the 12 days of Christmas, it shares popular poems, carols, and recipes. Looking at how the season was celebrated by the richest in the Royal Court to the poorest in Tudor society, and how goodwill and acts of charity were always a part of the Yuletide tradition, it’s difficult not to feel the Christmas spirit growing in the Scroogiest of hearts. The book is illustrated beautifully with original drawings and told with such vivid colour that you can almost taste the figgy pudding and whiff the fumes of the wassail cup.
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
(chosen by Damon Fairclough)
It’s exactly 50 blooming years since my favourite festive book was published – a shocking half-century since I came face-to-face with the weary working-class Santa created by the peerless Raymond Briggs.
The book, simply titled Father Christmas, was the first of Briggs’ famous comic strip works, created five years before he walked on air with The Snowman. But while comic strips weren’t new, his further innovation was to dispense with the magical and miraculous elements of most Christmas stories (elves and all), and instead spin enchantment from the prosaic and mundane.
Briggs presents us not with a jolly magician but a working man, a delivery driver akin to a milkman, for whom Christmas Eve is the most exhausting night of the year. The mood is set on the first page when, dreaming of Mediterranean beaches, Father Christmas is rudely awakened by a clattering old alarm clock and, with no hint of a ‘Ho ho ho!’, he curses his calendar.
“Blooming Christmas here again,” he chunters with all the bitterness familiar to anyone who’s ever had to leave a cosy bed to get up for a wintry day at work.
What follows, it now occurs to me, isn’t even a story. It’s a narrator-free fly-on-the-wall documentary that simply records his routine – making breakfast, reading the paper, even going to the loo.
The plot, such as it is, is predictable enough. He dons his familiar outfit, hitches up his reindeer, delivers presents right round the world – to houses, caravans, palaces, igloos – then returns home for turkey, trimmings, pudding and brandy, then it’s time for holiday brochures, washing-up, and bed.
So if there’s no twist, no page-turning hook, what makes the book so special? Well, it’s down to character and detail, the specificity and truth of Briggs’ warmly illustrated world.
If you were a 1970s kid, which indeed I was when the book came out, it’s likely that Father Christmas’s world was familiar. From the inter-war trappings of his home (floral wallpaper, shiny eiderdown, electric bar fire) to the fact that he puts his false teeth in a glass and carries cocoa on a tray up to bed, this was the life of my grandparents and other elderly people I knew, and it was from these details that my emotional connection with the book was forged. Briggs captures beautifully the vernacular of lives which were fading but still ticking over: tea in a caddy, no central heating, milk bottles on the step outside the door.
It goes without saying that when my own kids were little, we read Father Christmas together and giggled over his grumpiness, and that only makes me love it all the more. But it’s Briggs’ poetry of the humdrum that really snags my heart, and makes this the greatest Christmas book of all.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
(chosen by Beth Smith)
There’s something cathartic about picking up a tattered book. Page tips stuck in a folded-over position, droplets of tea and bath water blurring the words, all telling a story within themselves.
Every Christmas since I was 14 I have read the same book, one that was given to me by my auntie. It’s nothing profound, the words won’t inspire future philosophers, but something in it speaks to me. That book is Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.
It follows two adolescents. The boy, Park, navigates childhood dramas such as making friends in school and trying to retain popularity as your Mum kisses you goodbye. The girl tackles something altogether more sinister. They sit next to one another at the back of the school bus, and what begins with awkward side eyes and grimaces soon turns to pinky fingers grazing over the seat divide and secret giggling. Their heads rest like feathers against each other the whole time.
Eleanor & Park is a story of premature love, of first times (the beauty and excitement of them), and of the unbridled hope you can only have as a child. Ultimately, though, it is a story of loss.
I had so much to learn at 14. Now aged 25, I have so much more to learn. Every time I read this book I’m that little kid again, wading through the agony and bliss that is adolescence. It reminds me of the lessons I learned as that 14-year-old, why they still hold value at 25, and why they will always hold relevancy in life.
Christmas is about being thankful for those around you, for the joy you felt during the year – no matter how plentiful or wanting – and for looking to the year ahead. This book forces me to look at how far I’ve come since last I read it, and how much farther I will be by the next time I start it, once again, from the beginning.