Henry Jeffreys

Assorted Christmas crackers

Henry Jeffreys reviews stories by P.L. Travers, Laurie Lee, Hans Christian Andersen — and a modern take on Scrooge

Assorted Christmas crackers
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There’s a moment in a child’s life where Christmas begins to lose its magic. Once lost it cannot be regained, but as adults we can catch glimpses of that wonder through our own children, through booze, and most of all through songs, films and stories. Christmas is the one time of the year when it’s not only acceptable to cry over such sentimental things, it’s almost compulsory.

The wonder ceases at around eight or nine years old. Andrew Szlachetko (who publishes this book, £5.99) addresses this in The Age of Not Believing. The hero, Thomas, on his way to Santa’s grotto, is mocked by some other boys for his belief in Father Christmas. Later, full of rage and shame, he hits one of them because ‘the magic has simply disappeared’. But that night he is transported to Semdar (an anagram of ‘dreams’), a Narnia-esque world where he must save Christmas from a malevolent witch called Torga. It’s a sweet, affecting read with some vivid illustrations by Patricia Moffett.

On a similar theme is The Fox at the Manger by P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame. It features three rather supercilious children who see Christmas in purely material terms. They mock the service at St Paul’s Cathedral until they hear the story of the fox at the manger, and their innocence is restored. It manages to remind us of the importance of the spiritual side of Christmas without being too didactic. Originally published in 1962, it has now been reissued in a handsome hardback by Virago (£9.99).

Another nicely packaged new edition is of The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Misha Hoekstra, with beautiful illustrations by Lucie Arnoux (Pushkin Children’s Press, £6.99). On the front is a sticker reminding readers that the story is the inspiration for the Disney film Frozen. Seeing as Frozen functions as something close to a religion for little girls, this is a canny marketing move.

All Christmas stories stand in the shadow of the greatest of them all, A Christmas Carol (or perhaps I should say second greatest there is that one about Jesus). It’s such a durable tale that it can take any amount of updating. I never miss the opportunity to see Scrooged or The Muppet Christmas Carol when they come on television. A worthy successor to such classics is Chris Priestley’s The Last of the Spirits (Bloomsbury, £10.99). It’s the story of two street children, Sam and Lizzy, whose paths cross with Scrooge. It’s dark, moving and there’s a twist at the end so Dickensian that I cheered as I finished the book. I know I’m going to love reading this to my daughter when she’s a bit older.

Definitely not for children is Carol Carnage: Malicious Mishearings of Your Yuletide Favourites by Martin Rowson (Atlantic, £6.99) in which the Guardian cartoonist creates grotesque punning stories based on well-known carols. It’s very much the anti-Dickens. I’m not sure why someone with such a misanthropic view of the world would do a Christmas book but I did laugh when I wasn’t grimacing. One for the Scrooge in your life.

I doubt whether even Martin Rowson could resist the delights of Village Christmas: And Other Notes on the English Year by Laurie Lee. This collection consists of some previously lost stories packaged by Penguin Classics with some well-known ones (£9.99). ‘A Cold Walk in the Country’, one of the lost ones, reminded me what a superlative nature writer Lee was. He was born in rural Gloucestershire and didn’t leave until he was 19: ‘People in our valleys seldom budged very far.’ It has the sort of unselfconscious engagement with the countryside that modern nature writers strive for but rarely capture.

The title story is a sentimental picture of the author’s boyhood Christmas, featuring geese roasting by the fire, meagre but heartfelt gifts, snowball fights and church choirs. It’s so perfect that a little cynical part of you will say ‘I bet it was never like that’; but of course Christmases are only how we remember them, not as they actually were. I finished it with an ache in my heart and a tear in my eye.