Stories for Christmas and the Festive Season, ed. Simon Thomas

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Reviewed by Harriet

‘These stories are to fortify you over the Christmas period’, says the blurb on the back of this new collection from the British Library Women Writers Series. I suppose if you feel in need of fortifying they will do an excellent job, but even if you don’t, they will entertain, amuse, puzzle, wrench your heartstrings and make you think. The Library has cast its net wide and the collection includes both stories from periodicals, mostly never republished since their first appearance, and ones by a mouthwatering selection of celebrated authors, including Alice Munro, Maeve Binchy, E.M. Delafield, Muriel Spark, Stella Gibbons, Richmal Crompton, Elizabeth von Arnim, Cornelia Otis Skinner and last, but by no means least, Beryl Bainbridge. Dates of publication range from 1924 to 1989, but the stories are arranged not by date of appearance but by the days of the Christmas period. So from preparation and planning (or lack of it) we move on through Christmas itself to post-Christmas pantomimes and finally to New Year resolutions.

Many of these stories almost deserve a whole review to themselves, but we don’t have the space for that. So here are some brief mentions of ones I particularly liked, which will hopefully whet your appetite for the whole book. The collection starts with ‘The Turkey Season’ by Alice Munro, first published in 1982. Here a fourteen year old girl gets a part-time job as a gutter in the Turkey Barn. The other, much older girls all talk about sex a great deal, and speculate about kindly Herb Abbott, about whom they have a ‘voluptuous curiosity’.  They wonder why he doesn’t seem to like women, but homosexuality isn’t something they ever talk about. 

Ethel, in Maeve Binchey’s ‘This Year it will be Different’, is sick of Christmas and the endless preparation it entails, and which her family fails to help with or appreciate. So she decides to go on strike, but will anyone notice? 

These two are well-known authors, but I was particularly struck with Barbara Robinson’s ‘The Christmas Pageant’ (1968), which is both funny and moving. The story is about the Herdman children, ‘absolutely the worst children in the world’:

They were so all-round awful that they were almost mysterious….They moved from class to class through Woodrow School like death watch beetles, nibbling away at the fortitude  and good intentions of one teacher after another, and they seemed headed straight for the bad end widely predicted for them.

By series of coincidences the Herdmans not only get involved in the pageant which is organised every year by the Sunday school, but one of them, Imogene, is chosen to play Mary. They question everything, finding the Christmas story strange and often perplexing: when Imogene hears about ‘No room at the inn’, she shouts out ‘My God! Not even for Jesus?”. Ultimately, though, the pageant is a surprising success: the Herdmans have brought a touch of reality to it.

The strangest story in the collection has to be Muriel Spark’s ‘Christmas Fugue’. Cynthia, for a variety of reasons, has decided that she will take her flight home to England from Australia on Christmas Day. The plane is almost empty, but Cynthia is made uncomfortable by a disagreeable man in glasses who is hassling some other passengers. She’s rescued by Tom, a charming young co-pilot, who whisks her into a beautiful first-class cabin with curtains and yellow flowers, where they have an idyllic time together. But when she gets home, the airline tells her there was no co-pilot called Tom, and no such first-class cabin…..

In Stella Gibbons ‘The Little Christmas Tree’ (1940), Rhoda is spending Christmas alone, which she’s perfectly happy about, or so she convinces herself. She’s bought a tiny tree and decorated it beautifully with baubles and candles, and is amazed on snowy Christmas morning when she gets a visit from three young children, asking for shelter. Rather dubiously she lets them in, and finds herself not displeased by their presence. But things are not what they seem – in a good way, as it turns out.

I also liked ‘Freedom’, by Nancy Morrison, a magazine story from 1928. Sylvia Grey is spending the festive season at a Swiss ski resort, and is anxiously awaiting a phone call. She has met a young man there, and fallen in love, but when her call comes through it seems Mark, the caller, will not give her the freedom she has asked him for. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about what this scenario is about, but there’s a clever twist that takes it in quite a different direction.

And then there’s Beryl Bainbridge, who has to be one of my all-time favourite authors. She certainly doesn’t disappoint in ‘Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie’ (1985). Mrs Henderson has been given tickets for Peter Pan by the woman she cleans for, who thinks a present of money would be ‘degrading’. Mrs Henderson would rather have had the money, but she talks her adult children Alec and Moira into coming, and finally persuades her husband Charles to take the fourth ticket. He’s rather bemused by the plot, but finds things to interest him in it just the same – if only he didn’t have such terrible indigestion…..

I haven’t even mentioned E.M. Delafield’s brief 1933 sketch about Christmas shopping, which will please her fans (of which sadly I am not one) or Cornelia Otis Skinner’s 1936 ‘On Skating’, full of her characteristic wit, and there’s more too.  In fact every story has something to recommend it – not surprising since the collection was edited by our Shiny co-founder Simon Thomas. I need hardly say that it would make a perfect Christmas present for anyone who loves really excellent writing. 

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books

Simon Thomas, ed. Stories for Christmas and the Festive Season (British Library, 2022). 978-0712368353, 208pp., paperback original.

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  1. Enjoyed this one very much myself, Harriet – an excellent collection! 😀

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