December in Queensland means the smell of gardenias. It means the song of the koel and the frangipanis coming out. The harsh summer light withers the grass until it crunches under your feet, there’s a heat haze on the horizon and sweat sticking your hair to the back of your neck. Cicadas drone from the bushes like insectoid hypnotists. Then the clouds start massing and a cool wind brings the smell of rain and the rumble of distant thunder as the heat breaks with a storm. It often storms on Christmas Day.
It’s a dichotomy, really. On days when a bottle of shampoo that hasn’t been anywhere near the sun feels like it’s been microwaved, we exchange cards printed with wintry landscapes and reindeer. But I love that. It’s an Australian thing, lifting something from another culture and bunging it in here even if it looks weird, just because we like it. The convict heritage always tells.
December means feel-good articles in the Courier Mail about Christmas lights and charity drives in the local paper. The term ‘Grinch’ is usually over-used. Glossy brochures offering all manner of enticing things fall in the letterbox, Santa chocolates appear at the corner shop counter, you start hearing carols on TV advertisements. There are specials on things that I, as a vegetarian, will never eat. But this is when you see the summer fruits, too – plums, mangoes, nectarines. Christmas food.
And I know people look at a lot of these things as gross commercialism, but in my opinion, if brochures no one is making you read and television advertisements no one is making you watch are enough to destroy your faith in the season, you aren’t trying hard enough. This is no time to be cynical. I get a thrill from it all – the recipes I will never get around to cooking, the holly-patterned crockery that gets used maybe once a year, the glitter and sparkle of decorations in shop displays that wouldn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in Mount Isa of fitting on our family’s overstuffed tree.
One of the biggest things about Christmas for me, though, has always been the annual re-emergence of the Yuletide Library.
I only started calling it that quite recently. When you have five or six large boxes of Christmas books, stuffed to the gills, and each year you get more, I think there’s a point when it needs an official name. It’s been a tradition in our family for as long as I can remember. When I was little, there used to be a mad dash on the day we started packing away the decorations, everyone trying to speed read through a few last books before they were hidden away for another year. It was an exciting and somewhat traumatic experience. Thus is nostalgia born.
In the spirit of the season, I will today be opening the doors to the Library on this blog and choosing twelve (a particularly Christmassy number) of my favourites to recommend. I’d also love to hear about what books are special to you at this time of year. What are your traditions? What is December like in your part of the world?
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (The Classic Storybook Collection, 1999). The ultimate of all Christmas stories, it was first published in 1843 and has been an integral part of the festive season ever since. Somehow spooky and heart-warming at the same time, it follows the transformation of vicious miser Ebenezer Scrooge one Christmas Eve when he is drawn into the world of the spirits. The copy I have in front of me is irritatingly awkward to pin down to a specific publisher or year of publication – I think the information I’ve provided is accurate – but it is otherwise brilliant, including little pieces of trivia in the margins that explain the more esoteric references to Victorian society. For instance, did you know that in the 1830s there were repeated attempts to ban all shops opening on Sundays and holy days? It would have put an end to the festive pleasures of the poor while leaving the wealthy unaffected and Scrooge upbraids the Spirit of Christmas Present about it as an example of hypocrisy. The Spirit is less than impressed by the lecture.
Wombat Divine – Mem Fox (Omnibus Books, 1996). Wombat has wanted to be a part of the Nativity play ever since he was very small. Now that he is finally old enough to take part, he hurries to the auditions, hoping for a chance. With illustrator Kerry Argent’s irresistable imagery and Fox’s enchanting style, this is possibly the sweetest picture book I have ever seen. It’s been in the family for as long as I can remember and I still re-read it every year.
The Lump of Coal – Lemony Snicket (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2008). Do you believe in miracles? A certain lump of coal – who, for the sake of argument, is both sentient and mobile – wakes up one winter morning full of wishes and optimism, but he soon discovers that finding a miracle is no straightforward business. This is a story completely characteristic of Lemony Snicket, an author best known for A Series of Unfortunate Events, with mysterious moustaches and interesting words. Spoiler: it’s happier. And Brett Helquist’s illustrations are so good they manage to make me want to hug of a lump of coal.
The Same Old Story Every Year – Anne Fine (Puffin, 1994). When her favourite teacher Mr Kelly is once again coaxed into running the school Nativity, Maya is eager to take part, but her casting as Mary produces an unexpected problem, and an even more unexpected solution. It is a genuinely funny book, and makes its message of tolerance so incredibly simple that if only every child read this I think world peace would have a good shot at success. Well, at least as long no one gave each other ‘the look’.
When Santa Fell To Earth – Cornelia Funke (The Chicken House, 2006). One stormy December night a caravan falls out of the sky and crash lands in a suburban street. It is the home, and sometimes the getaway vehicle, of the last real Santa, Niklas Goodfellow. He is on the run from the brutally bureaucratic new management that has taken over Christmas, and he’s still trying to deliver presents on the way. One way or another, he’s even going to make it snow…This book is a wonderful Christmas story that reminds us wishes aren’t quite the same thing as wants, and that generosity of spirit is something very much worth protecting.
Hogfather – Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 2006). First released in 1996 and made into a TV miniseries in 2006, this was my introduction to Terry Pratchett and pretty much sums up the intelligent insanity that is the Discworld. On the night before Hogswatch, an assassin is given a very surprising commission – to eliminate the Hogfather himself. It is up to Death, who draws a line at that sort of thing, and steely poker-wielding governess Susan to save the jolly man in red, and possibly the whole of humanity along the way. What are we, after all, when there is nothing left to believe in? Do we exist at all? Familiar Christmas traditions are given the full Pratchett treatment, including ‘The Little Match Girl’. If you ever finished that story in outrage, you need to read this book, just for that one moment.
The Night Before Christmas – Clement Clarke Moor (Scholastic Inc., 1999). On Christmas Eve, while the house is all asleep, there is a clatter on the roof as a visitor in red comes to call…The version I’ve chosen – and how many options do I have, everyone does a take on this one – is The Teddy Bear’s Night Before Christmas with photo illustrations by Monica Stevenson, because it’s unconditionally adorable. Santa Claus has never looked so cuddly.
Christmas in Australia – ed. Malcolm McGregor (Hutchinson Australia, 1990). I’m cheating with this one. It is not a story, as such – it’s more of an annual, a remarkable album put together by more than sixty photographers to capture one Australian Christmas. And I love it. There are stories captured in one picture and a brief caption, like the amazing Alf Harris, who collected and mended toys throughout the year, becoming the one and only Santa for the remote communities along his route – or a kangaroo gatecrashing Government House in Canberra. Why are there not more annuals like these? In fact, why is one not being put together right now?
The Twelve Days of Christmas [correspondence] – John Julius Norwich (Doubleday, 1998). The Yuletide Library has a great many copies of The Twelve Days of Christmas (which is actually a carol and not a story), ranging from a beautifully mysterious version that involves ice-skating turtledoves and frogs in wigs, to an Australiana version that replaces the traditional partridge with a bellbird in a flame tree – but this is not one of those. This is the story begging to be told about the recipient of all these very…unusual gifts. Where do you actually put seven swans a-swimming when they turn up on your doorstep? And what on earth do you say to your true love when you’d really like him to STOP BEING SO GENEROUS now, please? I give you fair warning, Quentin Blake’s illustrations will affect how you see this carol forever.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey – Susan Wojciechowski (Walker Books, 1995). Jonathan Toomey is the town curmudgeon, the man who never has a smile for anyone but can find a complaint about anything. What no one knows is why he’s that way. When a widow new to town comes to his door with her exuberant young son and a comission for a very special Nativity scene, however, Jonathan Toomey finds that perhaps you can make your own miracles. It’s a beautiful story, with rich illustrations by P.J. Lynch, that brims over with Christmas spirit.
The Witness – Robert Westall (Macmillan Children’s Books, 1995). This is the story of the Nativity told from the perspective of a troubled cat who finds shelter in an innkeeper’s stable on a night of miracles. It has Mary as a champion of religious tolerance and kindness to animals, capable of generosity to anyone who comes her way, and the Baby Jesus already picking up on her influence. It’s a gorgeous, poignant picture book enchantingly illustrated by Sophy Williams.
The Hole in the Sock – Alan Thornhill. This short story is taken from the treasury simply entitled Christmas, published by Blandford Press Ltd. in 1978. There are wonderful essays, recipes and trivia in this book, but The Hole in the Sock is the real reason I love it. The story starts in Egypt, where an air stewardess’s Christmas break is ruined by unexpected overtime on a flight to London. It means that she is there in a crowded aeroplane when a young Palestinian refugee goes into labour – and in doing so, unwittingly sets off a powder keg of conflicting opinions and violent emotion. It’s a very powerful modern retelling of the ancient Christmas legend and captures the elusive meaning of it all incredibly well.