The best Christmas books of 2017

by Super User
This year’s big trend is for books with a seasonal theme, says David Sexton Despairing at last of celebrity biographies, for Christmas this year the publishers have turned to… Christmas books. Perhaps the idea came to them in the night? A masterstroke, however arrived at, we must agree. And the nice surprise is that quite a few of these books are good, appealingly repackaging the treats of the past rather than whoring after novelty. Christmas is a time for happy recurrence, more of the same, after all, as Dickens points out in the extract from his first book, Sketches by Boz, that opens On Christmas: A Seasonal Anthology introduced by Gyles Brandreth (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99, Buy it now). “Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused — in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened — by the recurrence of Christmas.” This compact little book, handsomely produced, includes some enterprising choices, ranging from the Koran to Ali Smith, and concluding with an essay by P G Wodehouse, Just What I Wanted, that was published in Vanity Fair in 1915 but remains perfectly apposite today. “The first rule in buying Christmas presents is to select something shiny,” Wodehouse advises — and that’s why glossy books make such good choices. “My only objection to the custom of giving books as Christmas presents is perhaps the selfish one that it encourages and keeps in the game a number of writers who would be far better employed if they abandoned the pen and took to work. Publishers rely on the festive season to help them to get rid of all those bulky volumes which they have published at intervals during the past 12 months to oblige their wives’ relations. A more judicious spirit of giving on the part of the public would kill almost entirely the sale of such works as Travels Among The Lesser-Known Haunts of the Siberian Eel-Vulture…” Quite so. A book very much with us still. The Faber Book of Christmas, the first title in a new partnership between Faber and Liberty London Fabrics (£20, Buy it now), with Liberty contributing the hectically patterned cloth in which it has been bound, is a much more substantial volume, exceptionally well-edited by Simon Rae, giving due space to the cons of Christmas as well as the pros, right from the opposed dedicatory poems from Rimbaud (A Season in Hell) and Milton (On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity). Rae, honouring tradition, also starts his extracts with Dickens (“Bah! Humbug!”), followed smartly by Ambrose Bierce (“Christmas. n. A day set apart and consecrated to gluttony, drunkenness, maudlin sentiment, gift-taking, public dullness and domestic behaviour”) and a superbly grumpy letter from Philip Larkin to one of his girls. “32 Pearson Park, Hull. 17 December 1958. My dear Judy, What an awful time of year this is! Just as one is feeling that if one can just hold on, if it just won’t get any worse, then all this Christmas idiocy bursts upon one like a slavering Niagara of nonsense & completely wrecks one’s entire frame…” This consistently thought-provoking anthology, including a lot of well-chosen contemporary poetry alongside such familiar pleasures as The Diary of a Nobody (“24 December. I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning”), Just William (“‘A Kings an’ Queens of England’s worse than a tie,’ said Ginger fiercely, as though his honour were involved in any suggestion to the contrary”), and Molesworth (“For children in fact Xmas is often a bit of a strane wot with pretending that everything is a surprise”). Here’s a Christmassy Christmas present that anybody, save perhaps William Brown, would enjoy. Wendy Cope is the author of one of the definitive Christmas ditties: At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,/ The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle/ And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle/ And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you’re single. However, there’s nothing else quite good enough to justify a whole little volume of her Christmas Poems (Faber, £7, Buy it now), however pleasingly produced. Still, it’s not as dismaying as the latest of the annual Christmas poems from the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. In floppy free verse, Pablo Picasso’s Noël, illustrated by Léa Maupetit (Picador, £6, Buy it now), describes a Christmas Eve turn by Picasso in Mougins, sketching away, like some kind of awful art-Santa. Nina Stibbe is coming on as the new Sue Townsend or Alan Bennett and her offering, An Almost Perfect Christmas (Viking, £7.70, Buy it now) aims to be a pot-pourri of quirky tips. “Never give cigarettes or toothpaste unless the person is in prison,” she commands. Ignore Nigel Slater when it comes to Brussels sprouts: “Boil, do not roast or fry or add anything. You’ve got enough to do.” And don’t bulk up presents with unnecessary items, she advises, before honestly but unwisely admitting, “It has just occurred to me that the book you’re now reading might well be a bulker-upper.” It is. Better by far are the most worthwhile straight reprints: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P D James (Faber, £7.99); Murder in the Snow: A Cotswold Christmas Mystery by Gladys Mitchell (Vintage, £6.29, Buy it now), one of the best of her 66 Mrs Bradley novels, originally published in 1950 under the challenging title of Groaning Spinney; and A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon, translated by David Coward (Penguin, £6.99, Buy it now), so powerfully evocative of impoverished, pre-modern Paris. And then there is a new edition of Christmas Pudding (Fig Tree, £8.29, Buy it now), Nancy Mitford’s second novel, originally published in 1932 when she was just 28. When a new edition was proposed 20 years later Mitford pretty much disowned it in a letter to Evelyn Waugh: “Xmas Pudding is pathetic, badly written, facetious & awful.” She was much too hard on herself: this Cotswolds Christmas house-party farce is a snappy, shiny treat, just the thing for a dim December afternoon. Back we go. And if you do want to think about the actual meaning of Christmas, why it still matters to us so much, the book you need is Christmas: A Biography by the cultural historian Judith Flanders (Picador, £5, Buy it now) which traces its “strange hybrid growth” all the way back to its origins. It is “a holiday that shape-shifts, that transforms itself, to become what we — what our cultures — need it to be at any given time”, she says. And like it or not, there it is in all of us: “Each of us is a storehouse of Christmases, a repository of all the happiness — and sometimes sadness — of seasons past.”

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