So, it’s January and I’m doing a Christmas book review. Just think of it like I’m super organised.
Jeanette Winterson’s “Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days” is a beautiful book, first and foremost. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but it’s hard not to when it’s so aesthetically pleasing. Cloth-bound in navy and adorned with silver filigree type illustrations front and back, it’s a joy to read. The only slight niggle I have is that I kept looking for the non existent ribbon – it feels like it should have a navy blue or even navy and silver plaited ribbon bookmark.
Luckily, the contents deliver on the promises the cover holds, and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s set out as a short story anthology, interspersed with recipes. The theme is Christmas, but the topics Winterson covers extends to giving thanks for all you have, remembering those who are lost to you and how to make the most delicious gravlax.
Christmas stories, especially short ones, have a tradition of being ghost stories, or murder mysteries. Something about the eternal gloom of a Winter’s day, or maybe the ethereal mist if Victorian London, evokes a feeling of unease and a look to the past. What is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, after all, if it’s not a ghost story? (Minor spoilers ahead, although I am pretty sure you all know what the ending is by now) Scrooge spends the time, real or imagined, reliving his past snubs and bad behaviour before coming to the realisation that it is not too late to change, that redemption is available to all. Even him.
Winterson’s stories tell tales of wedding day brides getting revenge, long dead murder victims getting peace and Christmas sceptics finding festive cheer. I think I share a lot of the same outlook as she does – not a Christian believer but happy to buy in and engage with the notion that the 12 days are about spending time with friends and family, those that love us and care for us, and that we love and care for in return – God or no God. There is a story that tells the story of the Nativity through the eyes of the hapless donkey, which is beautifully written. Another story is a first person narrative where the sex is unclear – something that dawned on me about halfway through as a clever, unassuming way to play with conventions.
Interspersed with these short stories are the recipes. Not just straight recipes, and in some cases, not really recipes at all – they’re more like anecdotes from her life. Afternoons making marmalade with Ruth Rendell, and a tradition of making Christmas pudding with her Mum even though their relationship was strained in later life. It reinforces the idea, the theme, of Christmas being a time to reflect on times gone past, on people in your life (and no longer) and almost a promise to yourself for the year ahead.
While I might not be about to make all of the recipes in the book, I look forward to re-reading them and the stories next December. Maybe earlier, if I need a reminder to be grateful and focus on the promises I set for myself this year.