When I think of Christmas in children's literature, the scenes that pop out of my memory are from books that don't have Christmas as a main theme at all. I loved the Christmassy bits mixed into stories, and was fascinated as to how other children from other countries celebrated that time of year. Or how they did not celebrate Christmas, as in Little Women, which appalled me.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” is the opening line of Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel, first published in 1869, as spoken by Jo, and who could disagree? The father of the house is away at war, and their mother, Marmee, has deemed there will be no Christmas gifts for anyone as a result. No proper gifts, anyway. The sacrifices being made at war have to be mirrored at home, which seems a strange, martyred kind of logic.
On Christmas morning, each sister receives a copy of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress from their mother. Decades later, I still have not read that book, which was first published in 1678, and probably never will. But I now know it is a classic work of religious literature, involving an allegorical journey to atone for sin. No offence to Bunyan, but if a child received this book as their only Christmas present in 2014, it would be the equivalent of receiving a gift-wrapped piece of coal.
Almost as bad, the March sisters have to donate their Christmas breakfast to a nonplussed German-speaking family of seven children and their mother. Why? Another of their mother's terrible ideas. "Das ist Gut!" the "poor things" in their "poor, bare, miserable room, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes" cry out to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy as they distribute their exotic-sounding breakfast of "buckwheats" and "muffins".
I had no idea what buckwheats or muffins were, but I was pretty sure that if my one gift had been a religious book, I’d at least want my Christmas breakfast. Marmee would have found me sadly wanting as a daughter.
Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, published in 1940, is my favourite of the Little House books. It's a superb, enthralling narrative of surviving a winter of blizzards in Dakota, when the trains can't get through with supplies.
On Christmas day, the long-awaited train can’t come due to yet another blizzard. Supplies in the town have all but run out. Christmas dinner for the hungry Ingalls family of six is oyster soup, made from two cans of oysters with a little milk from their half-starved cow and a lot of hot water. She manages to make this meagre meal sound delicious.
“For supper there were hot boiled potatoes, and a slice of bread apiece, with salt. That was the last baking of bread, but there were still beans in the sack, and a few turnips.” The description is almost Beckettian in its starkness. The real message of this Christmas narrative is the importance of family; how they don’t have turkey, but they have each other, huddled together in their frail wooden house, which is being battered and tormented by snowy winds that have cut them off for months.
When in May, the train finally makes it through, the family have Christmas dinner in summer. The descriptions of that bountiful table after so many months of near-starvation are to be savoured. There is “roasted turkey” with “glowing cranberry jelly”, “white and fluffy mashed potatoes”, “large brown-crusted loaves of white bread, a sugar-frosted loaf of cake, and three crisp-crusted pies”.
Then Pa plays his fiddle, and, “as they sang, the fear and the suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music”.
Food, glorious food
Most of my memories of Christmas in children's literature seem to involve food. In CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950, I am certain there were sausages for the Christmas breakfast that Peter, Susan and Lucy share with Mr and Mrs Beaver.
But after reading it again, it turns out that Father Christmas takes out of his sack “a large tray containing five cups and saucers, a bowl of lump sugar, a jug of cream and a great big teapot, all sizzling and piping hot”. The sizzling teapot must have made me think of sausages.
The March sisters got no decent Christmas gifts, but the Pevensie children certainly did, bar poor Edmund, who was going through his long night of the soul at the time. Lucy, my favourite character, got a great gift from Father Christmas: “A little bottle of what looked like glass (but people said afterwards that it was made of diamond) and a small dagger.”
The bottle contains “a cordial made of the juice of one of the fire flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun”. One drop could – and soon would – heal the most serious wound. Of course I longed for such an arcane and magnificent thing for myself, a gift that was “a tool, not a toy”, as Father Christmas told her solemnly.
Sisters Katy and Clover Carr spend a year at a New Hampshire boarding school in What Katy Did at School, published in 1873, during which time they never go home. They even spend Christmas there, which is about as bad as it gets.
So what makes up for having to spend Christmas at school? Christmas boxes. The Carr sisters are the only pupils lucky enough to receive boxes, as all the others get stuck in transit due to a snowstorm.
Katy and Clover receive not just a box but a crate and a smaller box from home, stuffed with presents, letters, baked goods, fruit and flowers. Their faraway family can’t be with them for Christmas, but they are present in every home-made ginger snap, plum cake, hand-knitted hood, letter and gift that comes out of the crate that had taken “three mornings” to pack.
Everyone has sent the sisters something. Their father sends gold chains for their watches. The cook has made four different cakes. The gardener has cracked “a bag full of hickory nuts”. Cousin Helen sends “glove-cases, of quilted silk, delicately scented, one white and one lilac”. There are apples, pears, raisins, figs, roses, carnations, heliotrope, sugar plums, almonds, ribbons, books, ink stands, pens and threadcases.
The sisters give away most of their presents to their classmates and teachers. Such unselfishness should be nauseating, but Susan Coolidge’s quirky writing somehow makes it charming. I am glad Katy and Clover kept the gold watch chains and the silk-lined glove boxes for themselves, even if a glove box remains an object of mystery.