Dressed up as a child-friendly, pocket-sized hardback, just the right size for a Christmas stocking and with a pretty front-cover illustration of two dear little children in a snowy fir forest, Inventing the Christmas Tree (Yale, £12.99) is actually a learned 90-page thesis on the history of the Christmas tree by the German author Bernd Brunner, who has also written monographs on bears, the moon and snowmen.
As it’s translated into American, we have gray, color, luster, skeptics and travelers. But rather than reading it in an American accent, I read it in a German one. The bibliography lists such formidable sounding books as Der Weinachtsbaum: Botanik und Geshichte des Weinachtsgrüns, seine Beziehung zu Volksglauben, Mythos, Kulturgeshichte, Sage, Sitte und Dichtung, and this book is in a similar vein.
And why shouldn’t it take itself seriously? If you really want to do justice to the cultural history of the Christmas tree, why should there be a limit to what is interesting and relevant? Brunner devotes a whole page to candle-holders. One section is called ‘Solid Footing: A Diversity of Christmas-Tree Stands’. In the pages on the history of the bauble, we learn that in 1870 Justus von Liebig developed a coating of silver nitrate which ‘provided the same visual effect as lead, with a much lower health risk’. (See what I mean? Are you saying ‘with a much lower health risk’ in a German accent?)
It’s all deliciously Teutonic, especially the humour. In colloquial German, Brunner tells us, tinsel is known as ‘silver-plated Sauerkraut’. As I read this I imagined being a Berlin housewife who would find that very funny. We have an anecdote about Schiller being discovered nibbling the tidbits hanging from a tree in 1793. The book widens its scope towards the end and mentions Charles Dickens, Brooklyn, Trafalgar Square, Nazis, cloning and plastic. Of plastic decorations, Brunner makes the characteristic remark: ‘Thus is a little romance traded for durability.’
‘A veritable Christmas pudding of a book, enticingly full of silver threepenny pieces,’ says the blurb of A Royal Christmas by Jeremy Archer (Elliott & Thompson, £20). Off-putting, but it could have said ‘a right-royal Christmas pudding’ which would have been worse. This is a book for Christmas-loving royalists for whom the names Teck, Saxe-Coburg, Mecklenberg-Strelitz and Hohenlohe bring on a tingle, especially when set against a backdrop of Christmas afternoons in palaces, with royal children going out in the snow in their new miniature barouches.
The author must soon have realised that there wasn’t going to be enough to fill a book unless the definition of ‘Christmas’ was extended. So this is really about what happened to some 19th- and 20th-century royal figures in the months of December and January, with occasional spills into February.
The resulting anthology is a veritable hotchpotch of vignettes, many of them charming and some of them moving. Reading it brought home to me a few facts to bear in mind, for example what a traumatic lifespan Queen Mary had (1867–1953); how many animals princes used to shoot on an average Boxing Day; how much Queen Victoria adored her grandchildren; how much grief she had to bear; and the all-important difference between Lehzen and Lehnchen (one was her governess, the other her daughter). One sees how Victorian clutter came into being, as the little boxes, prints, lamps, bracelets, pins and pen-stands accumulated by the year.
It’s hard not to get confused between the five Augustas, five Fredericks, four Louises, five people with the surname Ponsonby and five with the surname Wigram (not to be confused with Wagram). The most lovable remark goes to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Duchess of York, describing Kenya on 25 January 1925: ‘It is exactly like a warm summer evening at Glamis here — nice & cool & Scotch.’
Nicola Sly’s previous books comprise six Grim Almanacs and 16 books about murders, each one devoted to a separate British county. Her Amazon profile tells us that she lives in Cornwall and enjoys walking her dogs. Now, in A Horrid History of Christmas (The History Press, £9.99) she turns her attention to deaths all over Britain at Christmastide, and her sources are old local papers. Each account of something terrible happening is about as long as an Aesop’s fable, and starts with a normality-describing sentence, for example: ‘On Christmas Eve 1881, Mrs Ratcliffe, of New Brompton, Kent, popped out to do a little last-minute shopping.’ Two lines later something goes terribly wrong, and the words ‘coroner’, ‘inquest’ and ‘verdict’ inevitably follow. The book could make therapautic reading on Christmas afternoon when you’ve had to be unnaturally nice and smiley all day.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012