Even if you feel you have had more “curling up quietly at home” time than is strictly necessary this year, finding a good Christmas read is still an extremely pleasant yuletide activity, to add to your newer pleasant yuletide activities of not having to go to your office party and not tearing off your coat in overheated department stores. So find a quiet corner, pretend your Zoom isn’t working, and enjoy the treats of the reading season.
An ideal Christmas book will thrill both adults and children – John Masefield’s classic The Box of Delights falls into this category – and the very best example is The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Originally published in 1973, it is one of those books whose reputation grows year on year: a heady mix of Arthurian myths, time travel and a boy born to save the world. “Tonight will be bad ... and tomorrow will be beyond imagining” is the line that throws young Will Stanton, last of the Old Ones, headlong into a world of snow and danger, fire and floods, in what is still as satisfying a winter’s tale as can be found. As a bonus, Alex Jennings, the world’s best audiobook reader, does the Audible edition.
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is now so entertainingly done in a variety of other mediums (special mentions to the Muppets and Bill Murray) that the original feels overfamiliar. But if you are drawn to a classic tale brimming with the ghosts of the past, James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”, in which memories surface during a Christmas party and snow falls “upon all the living and the dead”, never fails to provoke an enjoyable shiver..
If you fancy a bit of cosy, traditional crime, Hercule Poirot is a good fit at Christmas, being rotund and mysterious. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, he is summoned to quickly solve a festive murder. Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party is also her usual cracking fun, as a variety of pleasingly loathsome characters may or may not have bumped off an old Scrooge.
For children, there’s a reason why The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore has sunk its claws into our popular culture so deeply: the rhymes are bouncy and endlessly repeatable, and there is a sense of pride in learning the names of all the reindeer, not just the show-off at the front: “On Comet! on Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!” It has also been produced in so many different formats there’s bound to be some version of the artwork that you’ll love.
When I worked in bookselling, I rarely saw a book that made children happier than The Jolly Christmas Postman by Allan and Janet Ahlberg, with its adorable little letters and postcards sent between nursery rhyme characters that bring a child’s world intensely alive (before they are all lost/scribbled on by jealous siblings by Boxing Day. Still worth it, though).
In my experience, children these days find Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rather pious, but Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, with its wolves and thick snow and maple sugar and red mittens, continues to weave a reliable spell. For younger children, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is a beautiful work of art, as red-outfitted Peter discovers snow for the first time.
As for nonfiction, given the plethora of comedians’ cash-ins, tedious autobiographies and cobbled together will-this-do anthologies, there are really only two completely reliable works I can recommend: Radio Times and, in this, its valedictory year … the Argos catalogue.
• Christmas at the Island Hotel by Jenny Colgan is published by Sphere (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.