What to read at Christmas

For as long as I can remember there has been a box of Christmas books in my house. It emerges from an unknown location on the 1st December and quietly returns there come January for a long hibernation until Christmas comes again. The box, in my mind, is a treasure trove of excitement, containing within it some of the stories which mean most to me. These books are timeless; I read them when I was a child and I read them now. They have become the unchanging part of Christmas which have outlived the anticipation for toys or nervous wait for Father Christmas. Whilst many associate reading at Christmas with enjoying the books given to them as gifts, the joy for me is in the festive books that can be read in the run-up to the 25th. In this article I have, with some difficulty but jubilant reminiscence nonetheless, narrowed down my favourite tales to read at Christmas. The list is a merry muddle of children’s and adult’s books which, for me, truly symbolise the beginning of YULE.

Lucy and Tom’s Christmas, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes.

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Now it’s bedtime. Lucy and Tom hang up their stockings at the end of their beds. They look out at the sky. It’s beginning to snow. Mum says, “Good, it’s going to be a white Christmas.” Lucy and Tom are far too excited to go to sleep. How can you get to sleep when Father Christmas may be coming?”

The beauty of ‘Lucy and Tom’s Christmas’ lies in Shirley Hughes’ iconic pen and ink illustrations. With each and every one like a separate work of art, the warm pictures draw you in; stirring within you the Christmas spirit which has lain dormant for many months. The book begins in the run-up to Christmas and Lucy and Tom, young siblings, are busying themselves with festive revelry and merriment. Parcels arrive, cards are made, paper chains are hung and letters to Father Christmas are sent. For me, this book epitomizes the Christmases of my childhood, not just for its content but for the memories I have of my parents reading it to me every December.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Christian Birmingham.

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He spoke not a word, but went to straight to his work, and filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk. And laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose. He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night!”

Could it be Christmas without this beautiful poem by Clement C. Moore? The New York clergyman wrote it for his children in 1822, originally titling it ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ however upon being printed in a NY newspaper and gaining publicity the poem’s first line (‘’Twas the night before Christmas’) soon replaced the original title. The official introduction to the classic edition of the book reads, “One reason Moore’s poem has endured is that it is a joy to read aloud. Beginning in hushed suspense, the poem builds to a dramatic crescendo as the rollicking verses usher in the mysterious midnight visitor.” The illustrious language and magical paintings bring this Christmas tale to life in a way that is eternally accessible to all readers. Despite having read it every Christmas Eve with my family, the final illustration of the morning sun rising over a crisp, snow-covered city never fails to rouse in me that enchanting feeling only brought about by this holiday.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch.

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“The village children called him Mr Gloomy. But, in fact, his name was Toomey, Mr Jonathan Toomey. And though it’s not kind to call people names, this one fitted quite well. For Jonathan Toomey seldom smiled and never laughed.”

If you have never read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey – prepare yourself; it will wrench the tears right out of you. It is the story of a wood-carver, the best wood-carver in the valley, who was the laughing stock of a village who did not know the reason for his misery. “Some years earlier, when Jonathan Toomey was young and full of life and full of love, his wife and baby had become very ill. And, because those were the days before hospitals and medicines and skilled doctors, his wife and baby had died, three days apart from each other.” One day a woman and a boy knock on Mr Toomey’s door (the widow McDowell and her son, Thomas) asking for a nativity scene to be crafted in replacement of an original set which was lost when they moved house. The book details the visits made by the mother and her child to Mr Toomey’s house in the run-up to Christmas as he carves the figures and his cold façade ever so gradually softens. It is a tale of the generosity and compassion that all people hold in their hearts, and of this magical time of year which can find love in the unlikeliest of places…

Christmas at Chatsworth by Harold Macmillan.

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These were the Christmases I remember with the keenest pleasure- the beauty of the great trees in the garden and park, and the house shining with a strangely golden glow in the rays of the low winter sun.”

This short extract written by former British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, about Christmas at one of the country’s most beautiful stately homes, is perfect for the Downton Abbey fans among you. Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, is presided over by the Devonshire family (the Cavendishes) and has been since 1549. Macmillan was married to Lady Dorothy Cavendish; daughter of the 9th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and so it was by such means that he found himself spending Christmastime alongside 150 others each year at Chatsworth. The excerpt is overflowing with strong traditionalism and festive ritual; only perhaps on a far grander scale than you or I are accustomed to… Families arrive with their ponies before gathering in the Outer Hall to be greeted by ‘Granny Evie’ (Evelyn Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire). The dawn of Christmas Day brings with it an early trek to church, followed by breakfast and minor presents. Christmas lunch is then served (only for children over a certain age) and then on to the annual photograph outside the Orangery. As grandiose as it may seem, Christmas at Chatsworth; with children rollerblading down the hallways and parties staying for weeks after the holiday is over, sounds very much like something I would like to try… Obsessive Pride and Prejudice enthusiasts (like myself) may have already noticed that Chatsworth was the house which Jane Austen based Pemberley on. Yes, there you have it. My secret reason for loving this account of Christmas. I am imagining spending the season of Yule in that alluringly beautiful house alongside the equally (if not, more so) alluring Mr Darcy.

Grimble at Christmas by Clement Freud, illustrated by Quentin Blake.

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He tried to hum Good King Wenceslaus… mm mmmmmmmm mm mmmmmm m but he did not hum very well and his father thinking it was God Save the Queen, stood up and when Grimble had finished humming his father turned off the television set and went to bed.”

Ah, Grimble. More sellotape goes towards keeping this tattered old book together every year than does in wrapping presents. Grimble at Christmas is the second part of Clement Freud’s hilarious Grimble compendium which collectively I regard as my favourite children’s book. Published in 1968, Grimble at Christmas is the story of a young boy, (unsurprisingly) named Grimble, whose parents can be described as nothing but decidedly odd.  “For most of the year Grimble – Grimble was his whole name, his parents had forgotten to give him any other names – rather enjoyed having a father and mother who were different from those of the other boys at school, but when it came to Christmas there were very definite disadvantages.” Concerned that his parents have demonstrated no sign of being aware that Christmas is coming, Grimble takes it upon himself to organise a cake, tree and presents before stumbling on one minor hiccup: he has no money. As Herbert Hoover once (foolishly) said, “Prosperity is just around the corner” and in Grimble’s case, right he was: prosperity was born in the form of The Grimble Home Toast Delivery Service. It truly does not matter how old you are, Clement Freud’s deadpan wit combined with Quentin Blake’s signature illustrations are all the ingredients required for a smashing Christmas read. Before I finish, I would like to add if anyone has ever read Grimble PLEASE tell me! I can honestly say I have never spoken to a single person, outside of my family, who has read it due to my generation… Tragically, it is out of print so my chances are low but still – if I can talk to one person this Christmas who has heard of David Sebastian Waghorn then I will be a tremendously happy person.

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