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Bridget Jones, Santaland Diaries and A Christmas Carol: 25 literary treats to read this December

1 December

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

All Enid Lambert wants is everyone home for one last Christmas. Her husband, Alfred, is rapidly deteriorating with Parkinson’s. And so her three adult children – banker Gary, wannabe writer Chip and celebrity chef Denise – dutifully make their way from Philadelphia, Lithuania and New York up the snow-lined path of their parents’ house in St Jude. They manage breakfast together on the day itself. “This is the best Christmas present I’ve ever had,” poor Enid exclaims. A sabotaged shower stool, narcotics down the waste disposal unit and enemas are just some of the highlights of the holiday. Few writers do dysfunctional families better than Franzen. He can make you squirm with shame and recognition. Denise “loved her parents more than she’d ever loved anything”, she reflects on her first day home; on the second, her anger at everything her mother says is “an autonomous neurochemical event; no stopping it”. This whopping, big-hearted novel, set at the end of the last century, made Franzen’s name. Start it now, and it will see you through the whole “season of joy and miracles”. In his most recent novel, Crossroads, Franzen visits an equally catastrophic Christmas on another midwestern family.

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2 December

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” So begins the much-loved coming-of-age story about four sisters living in genteel poverty in 19th-century New England, which (helpfully for its many film adaptors) ends happily at Christmas. Not only are the girls required to look grateful for receiving copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress, they have to give away their Christmas breakfast to a poorer family. They all put a brave face on things and everyone has a perfectly lovely time. If you’re too busy to read it, sit back and bask in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation (an unlikely warmup for her box-office hit Barbie), which managed to liven things up while remaining faithful to the original.

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3 December

Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou
In 2005, 77-year-old Maya Angelou was invited to write a poem for the turning on of the lights at the White House. “We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Non-Believers, / Look heavenward and speak the word aloud. / Peace.” The Iraq war was two years in. George W Bush nods inanely in the background as she reads. While the prayer for world peace is more urgent than ever, we might do well to remember another Angelou apercu as we are getting out the Christmas decorations. “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.”

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4 December

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
As Wendy Cope put it in A Christmas Poem, “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”. And so it is for Fielding’s famous singleton. Colin Firth as Mark Darcy in his Christmas jumper is seared almost as strongly into the national imagination as his Mr Darcy in wet shirt and jodhpurs in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, on which, of course, Bridget Jones is based. The whole premise is more than a little dated (Bridget is a mere 34, after all, and the less said about his caddish rival Daniel Cleaver the better), but Fielding’s novel was joyfully original, almost revolutionary, in its day. “DECEMBER. Oh, Christ.”

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5 December

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Set in an Irish town in 1985, Small Things Like These (shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2022) follows Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, as he makes his deliveries in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Bill, a father of five daughters, is a good man. The family aren’t well off, but they are doing better than many of their neighbours in this time of layoffs and closures. This security, both financial and domestic, has been hard won – Bill was born to an unmarried mother and brought up by a Protestant widow.

The warmth and love of the Furlong home, alight with festive baking and preparation, is set in stark contrast to the darkness and squalor he stumbles across making a delivery to a local convent – one of the notorious Magdalen laundries, where women suffered until shockingly recently. If the Catholic church doesn’t come out of it well, the novel’s message of human kindness and moral duty is clear as a church bell. At barely more than 100 pages, this slim, luminous novel can be read in one sitting, but will stay with you for much longer.

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6 December

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

“Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!” Mr Tumnus tells Lucy on her arrival in Narnia. “How awful,” she replies. Lewis’s friend Tolkien didn’t approve of his playing fast and loose with mythologies – fauns and talking animals, all in the same story! And the inclusion of Father Christmas has bothered Narnia nerds for decades. As befits the moral seriousness of his enterprise, Lewis’s Father Christmas, although sporting the regulation red, “bright as holly berries”, is rather formidable, doling out suitably serious presents. “They are tools not toys,” he tells Peter of his sword and shield. The release of the 2005 Disney film – with Tilda Swinton magisterial as the white witch – made converts of a new generation and some people angry again. “Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion,” Polly Toynbee fumed in these pages. But children will always fall under its snowy spell.

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7 December

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
“Oh my. It’s fruitcake weather!” announces the elderly woman at the heart of Capote’s 1956 Christmas story, which looks back to his own childhood in 1930s Alabama. It is the sad, gentle tale of an unlikely friendship between a seven-year-old boy and his distant cousin, who is referred to as “still a child” following a childhood illness. She calls him “Buddy”, he calls her “my friend”. Both unwanted by their families, they have been sent to live with stern “skin-flint” relatives. Each Christmas they make fruitcakes for anyone they like or admire – 31 this year, including one for President Roosevelt. More often associated with murder and martinis, Capote here writes with joyful innocence about making decorations and flying a kite. It will break your heart. Hunt it down, read it, or watch the Emmy-award-winning 1967 TV version with Geraldine Page, narrated by Capote himself, with his distinctive southern drawl.

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8 December

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie
A run-down country house, an ancient butler, a handsome chap with a dubious reputation, a missing ruby, a young woman’s body in the snow and an anonymous note: “DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING.” All the ingredients are there for a perfect Poirot mystery. This 1960 short story was “an indulgence” on the part of the author, as she fondly recalled her lavish childhood Christmases spent at her sister’s stately home in Cheshire. As you’d expect, the story turns up as many surprises as the pudding itself. “This book of Christmas fare may be described as ‘The Chef’s selection’, I am the Chef,” Christie writes in an introduction – this story is, in fact, the only festive tale, but there is also a surprise showing from Miss Marple – the only time her two detectives appeared in the same edition. Crime doesn’t get much cosier.

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9 December

Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris
“Congratulations, Mr Sedaris. You are an elf.” Ever since Sedaris read his wickedly funny essay about his season in Macy’s Santaland on National Public Radio in 1992, he’s been the book world’s unofficial Naughty Elf. His job was to entertain visitors during the two-hour queue for children to have their photograph taken with Santa. “Goddam it, Rachel, get on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about,” one mum yells. Sedaris calls himself Crumpet and spends most of his time flirting with fellow elf Snowball. Santa is an anagram for Satan, the elves figure out (they have time to kill). “Father Christmas or the Devil – so close but yet so far.” The essay transformed Sedaris from struggling writer and sometime-elf in green velvet pants to the toast of the town. It still slips down like a whiskey sour amid all the seasonal schmaltz.

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10 December

Tenth of December by George Saunders
There is nothing festive about this story of a dying man who goes into the woods in an attempt to freeze to death and a bullied kid who falls through ice on the lake. Saunders is Buddhist so Christmas isn’t really his bag anyway. Despair, hope, redemption, acceptance, love, death – it’s all here, delivered with Saunders’s unique brand of manic zaniness and gargantuan generosity of spirit, which always stop him slipping into sentimentality. “Why were we made just so, to find so many things that happen every day so pretty?” Eber thinks before he wades into the snow in his underpants. Even with the darkest day of the year so close there are still moments of light. Read it today.

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11 December

The Loudest Voice by Grace Paley
Jewish American short-story writer Grace Paley was born on this day in the Bronx in 1922. Her 1959 story is much anthologised for its celebration of immigrant life in New York, while making clear the importance of staying true to yourself – all in barely six pages.
“There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.” So young Shirley Abramowitz introduces herself in the glorious opening paragraph. Her loud clear voice leads her to be cast as the narrator in the Nativity, much to her mother’s consternation. “You’re in America! Clara,” her father reminds his wife. Paley read it for the first time for radio in 1997 and you can listen to the recording online.

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A 2022 Royal Ballet production of the Nutcracker.
A 2022 Royal Ballet production of the Nutcracker. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


12 December

The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann
While few readers attempt Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker, his story, with some thanks to Tchaikovsky, has taken on a life of its own. There are many delightful editions for children, in particular a lively retelling by Jane Ray, with candy-coloured illustrations. Today the Royal Ballet’s production by Peter Wright will be broadcast live in cinemas across the world, with encore screenings for the rest of the month.

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13 December

Mistletoe Malice by Kathleen Farrell
“Do you really enjoy spending Christmas with your family? Or do they talk too much? – ask too many questions? – push your life away?” Widowed matriarch Rachel has gathered her errant family together in her house by the sea for Christmas. The mood indoors is as stormy as it is outside, as the home truths flow as freely as the sherry. It would be no surprise if one of them went over the cliff. A world of luncheons, love affairs and cigarettes, this caustic 1951 comedy of manners by Farrell (she had a long and tempestuous relationship with the now better known Kay Dick, author of the dystopian They) is reissued this year by Faber.

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14 December

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson
As with many things in life, we would all do well to make like the Moomins and hibernate until spring. The next best thing is to hunker down with Jansson’s collection of stories for adults, published in the UKfor the first time in 2006. These stories reveal glimpses of the author from a young girl to old age. Like the Moomin tales, they are simple and strange, infused with the same melancholy gentleness in the face of an often frightening and unpredictable world. In The Dark she recalls her artist mother (the model for the unimpeachable Moominmamma) reading to her in front of a fire in her studio. “A soft, gentle voice in the warm darkness and one gazes into the fire and nothing is dangerous. Everything else is outside and can’t get in. Not now or at any time.”

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15 December

Letter to Quentin Bell by Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s Christmas shopping expedition, described in a letter to her nephew in 1931, speaks to us all nearly 100 years later: “This is a black foggy Christmas week; and the human race is distracted and unlovable. That is, I spent yesterday in Oxford Street buying things like gloves and stockings.”

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16 December

Emma by Jane Austen
Austen was born on this day in Hampshire in 1775. All her novels – bickering families, irritating visitors and too many parties – might be seasonal romcoms in their way, but it is only in Emma that Christmas gets a proper showing. Emma Woodhouse and her father are guests at a Christmas Eve supper at the neighbouring Westons. A snow storm means the guests must leave early and our heroine finds herself alone with slippery clergyman Mr Elton, who proceeds to make “violent love to her in the carriage”. Thankfully, snow keeps her “a prisoner” at home on Christmas Day, so no chance of awkward meetings at church, or visitors, except, Austen artfully slips in, Mr Knightley, “whom no weather could keep entirely from them”. You could do much worse than holing up with Emma for a few days, or a couple of hours with the stylish 2020 adaptation by Booker-winning novelist Eleanor Catton.

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17 December

Charades by Lorrie Moore

Moore is on typically dyspeptic form in this story from her bestselling 1998 collection Birds of America. “It is fitting that Christmas should degenerate to this,” observes Therese, the eldest of three grown-up children spending the festive season with their parents. In the course of a game, ancient grudges, rivalries and secrets are duly revealed. Charades is a perfect metaphor for the jolly act we are forced to perform at Christmas, and also the inevitable question – “Who is this person?” – when we spend too much time with those we are meant to know best. “She had no idea who he was any more,” Therese reflects of her brother. As always, Moore shoots straight to the truth. Here’s Therese on her mother: “She loves affection, is hungry and grateful for it. When she was younger, she was a frustrated, mean mother, and is pleased when her children act as if they don’t remember.”

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18 December

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
“One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

The germ for this prose poem came from a commission from BBC Wales Children’s Hour on the subject “Memories of Christmas”. Thomas wrote a piece but was considered too “tricky” to be allowed to record the reading live. Five years later he turned it into a piece for Harper’s Bazaar, which he later read for the B-side of an album at Steinway Hall in New York in 1952. The crackling recording transports you to 1920s Swansea in the snow. He died the following year aged 39.

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19 December

The Snowman and Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
Briggs’s Father Christmas is 50! The curmudgeonly, overworked old fella created by the illustrator back in 1973 was modelled on his father, a milkman: “He’s been doing it all his life and he gets cold, dirty and tired, it’s perfectly logical that he is going to be grumpy,” Briggs said.

The Snowman followed in 1978. While it seems heresy to say it, there is no Christmas in the original wordless picture book: the Lapland party scene was invented by the 1982 TV adaptation, an addition Briggs considered “corny and trite”. But it was an immediate hit and has been screened every Christmas since.

Starting in 1993 with choreographer Robert North’s version for Birmingham Rep, Sadler’s Wells ballet has been running for more than 25 years. Complete with flying Snowman and falling snow, it’s a magical introduction to ballet. Santa and his reindeers also take flight in the Lyric Hammersmith’s long-running theatre production, but it is Father Christmas on the toilet that gets the kids off their seats in giggles every time. Blooming Christmas!

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20 December

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
Another 50th anniversary. Cooper’s snow-shrouded 1973 fantasy novel follows one boy’s quest to stop the malign forces of “the Dark”. Set just outside Windsor, where Cooper grew up, it opens, on 20th December, in the warm festive babble of the large Stanton household. But outside strange things are afoot: the rabbits and dogs are suddenly afraid of Will and the rooks are behaving oddly. “This night will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining,” an old farmer whispers in his ear. The next day is winter solstice and Will’s 11th birthday, when he will come into his powers.

In her introduction to the illustrated Folio edition published in 2012, Cooper makes clear that Will is “no boy wizard”, but one of a magical people called “the Old”. Cooper recalls that her own childhood fears during air raids in the second world war gave her “a very strong sense of good and evil, Us and Them – the Light and the Dark”. The names Merriman, Hawkin, the Rider and the Lady make a generation shiver – Katherine Rundell, Helen MacDonald and Robert Macfarlane all cite Cooper as an early inspiration. It still exerts an eerie pull over young readers.

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21 December

The Turkey Season by Alice Munro
The Turkey Season takes place in the two weeks before Christmas in the Ontario of Munro’s childhood. “Scrunch, scrunch,” the enigmatic foreman of the turkey farm instructs our 14-year-old narrator, who is working there before school ahead of the holidays. “‘Now put your hand in.’ I did. It was deathly cold in there, in the turkey’s dark insides.”

She learns not only the dark art of gutting but the messy business of adult relationships. Sex, snobbery and violence are all hinted at as the workers go about their plucking. Despite her reputation as one of the greatest writers of domestic short stories, there is nothing cosy about Munro.

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22 December

Talking Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah
Zephaniah’s first collection of poetry for children, published in 1994, takes its title from his much loved Christmas dinner poem and was such a hit that it had to be reprinted in six weeks. Hip-hopping turkeys! Kids still love it, especially listening to the poet perform it himself.

Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos’ turkeys jus wanna have fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I’m on your side.

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The Grinch, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.
The Grinch, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Photograph: Illumination and Universal Pictures/AP

23 December

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss
Forget backstories and psychoanalysis, can there be a better explanation for mean-spiritedness than that someone’s heart is simply “two sizes too small”? The pot-bellied, furry green grump has been everyone’s favourite party pooper since he first tried to ruin Christmas back in 1957, created by Theodor Geisel – AKA Dr Seuss – when he was 53, the same age as the Grinch. Recent film versions, with Jim Carey (2000) and Benedict Cumberbatch (2018) as the green meanie, are two of the biggest grossing Christmas movies of all time. The Grinch – what “a wonderful, awful idea!”

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24 December

Christmas Eve at The Moon Under Water by Carol Ann Duffy
The poem The Night Before Christmas, published anonymously in 1823, but later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, has had several rebootings. In satirist Frank Jacobs’s 1981 version, “Inflation was rising; the crime rate was tripling; / The fuel bills were up, and our mortgage was crippling”; and Carol Ann Duffy’s 2005 Another Night Before Christmas is set “in an age where celebrity ruled / and when most of the people were easily fooled / by TV and fashion, by money and cars”. In this year’s festive offering from the former poet laureate a horse, a hedgehog and an owl put their differences aside for a night at the pub. Cheers!

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Paterson Joseph in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic (2019).
Paterson Joseph in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic (2019). Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

25 December

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
“‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge, calling downwards to a boy in Sunday clothes …
‘Eh?’ returned the boy with all his might of wonder.
‘What’s to-day, my fine fellow?’ said Scrooge.
‘Today!’ replied the boy. ‘Why, Christmas Day.’”

Scrooge is almost as famous as Santa, and if Dickens didn’t quite “invent Christmas” as he is often credited, he certainly helped it merrily along (A Christmas Carol was partly responsible for popularising the greeting Merry Christmas). His “ghostly little book” as he called it, written in six weeks to fend off money problems, haunts our Christmases past and present and no doubt our Christmases yet to come.

If you’ve read it (watching The Muppets version doesn’t count), chances are it was when you weren’t much bigger than Tiny Tim. It is stuffed with more gleeful lines than I remember – “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it”; “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” – and however much you resist its sentimentality, the story never fails to lift your spirits. “Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh.” Merry Christmas.