Paul Burke’s Ten Alternative Christmas Crackers

Article published on December 8, 2017.

What’s your favourite Christmas book? Possibly A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (that must top all the polls)? Maybe you prefer a favourite from early childhood, perhaps How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss? Then there are the classic novels that feature a Christmas event that stands out. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott comes to mind (Christmas on a shoestring but one to remember!)

Here’s my alternative Christmas list and if you think it’s a little bleak, blame the authors for setting their tales at Yuletide.

1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous. There are several very good verse translations of this strange story (those by J.R.R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage among them). It could be subtitled ‘How the Green Knight stole Christmas’, since the intruder gate crashes the Yuletide celebrations at Camelot to offer a challenge to the knights of the court. Gawain accepts and promptly decapitates the interloper, only to witness the knight retrieve his head and demand Gawain seek him out one year hence for a conclusion to their duel.

2. The Lion in Winter by James Goldman. This very readable play, which also became a wonderful film, crackles with intelligence and witty dialogue. The Plantagenets, contenders for the most dysfunctional family ever, have a Christmas gathering. Henry II welcomes his loving family to court. His wife Eleanor is on holiday from prison, where she has been since plotting rebellion against her husband. Their sons, Richard, John and Geoffrey, are all hungry for the crown and ready to kill the king and/or each other to get to it. Delicious fun.

3. Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub. A decent account of the most famous Christmas at war – the truce of 1914. The soldiers of both sides forgot their enmity and sang, drank and played football together for one brief interlude in the madness. The stuff of legend, heart-warming enough to restore your faith in humanity.

4. Morality Play by Barry Unsworth. One of Unsworth’s most accomplished novels. On the surface this is a literary whodunnit. A woman is set to be executed for the murder of a young boy as the travelling players arrive in the village. The Mystery Plays aren’t making any money so the troupe decide to stage a play based on the murder. Their leader and a disaffected priest soon realise that the facts don’t fit. This is a reimagining of the medieval world and mind-set shortly after the Black Death. The clash between the secular and religious worlds, the decline of the chivalric order and widespread economic and social changes all come into play. In this medieval world being a travelling player can be a very dangerous thing.

5. Sugar Money by Jane Harris. Fresh in my mind because I just reviewed this novel for Nudge. Ok, a novel about slavery that happens to be set in the run up to Christmas doesn’t have a lot of cheer. On the other hand, if this doesn’t make you think about man’s inhumanity to man and how we should all behave a little better towards each other then… and that’s the festive spirit right.

6. The ECCO Book of Christmas by Alberto Manguel (ed.). A collection of short stories from writers as varied as Cheever, Spark, Trevor and Winterson. Not a lot of Ho Ho Ho!, so some people will hate this choice but it’s not all about fun is it? …Is it?

7. Voices by Arnaldur Indridason. Possibly the best of the Icelandic writer’s crime novels. Burdened by the personal tragedy of losing his brother in a snow storm as a child, Detective Erlandur has to solve the brutal murder of a man in his hotel room. The other guests all seem to have something to hide and, of course, as it all happens in the few days before Christmas, it’s all the more disquieting. An emotionally evocative crime thriller and what is Christmas without a bit of Scandi-noir, right?

8. 1588: A Calendar of Crime by Shirley McKay. A Hew Cullen mystery told in five tales throughout the seasons culminating at Yuletide. Cullen is as entertaining as Cadfael; a warm fireside read that just makes you feel cosy inside. The medieval world set to rights.

9. Ghost Stories by M.R. James. I don’t know why but there is something Christmassy about a good psychological ghost story and these were written by the master to entertain his friend one Christmas Eve. Dark and spooky, not so much for what’s on the page as what it conjures in your mind.

10. A Maigret Christmas by George Simenon. Just got hold of this recently translated collection of short stories/novellas. This is Maigret at home for the festive season when a few local difficulties interrupt his peace and quiet. If you aren’t a fan this is a good introduction to the famous Parisian detective.

Paul Burke
December 2017


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