Christmas delights

Above The Dardy, Llangattock, Crickhowell

We never had a Christmas in the country before. It was simply ripping…
— E Nesbit, New Treasure Seekers

Love it or loathe it, Christmas is coming. Even if modern Christmases are increasingly tawdry* (a perpetual cry, I’m sure) at least we have past literary Christmases to fall back on for a quantum of solace when modern commercialised Yuletides get too much to bear, when our childhood memories of more magical midwinters need reviving, when we want the traditional once-upon-a-time seasonal fare to give us reassurance and sustenance.

As you may have noticed, I recently reread and reviewed John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk as preparation for a readalong of his more familiar The Box of Delights for the Twitter readalong #DelightfulXmas.

I then took to wondering how children’s fantasy literature through the years has presented and evolved the seasonal theme; a few thoughts are offered here (links are mostly to my reviews).

An early reviewer of The Midnight Folk (1927) saw John Masefield as the immediate successor to Edith Nesbit, who’d died in 1924. When it came to Noël she had ranged from the humour in the chapter titled ‘The Conscience Pudding’ in New Treasure Seekers (1904) to the more sentimental poem ‘Christmas Roses’ and on to the seasonal ghost story ‘The Shadow’ which had nothing remotely Christmassy about it. Then The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) starts around Bonfire Night in November and hurtles towards the end of the year, but any mention of Christmas is avoided. In fact I don’t remember if she ever dealt with the feast day in her fiction in any way that could be construed as nostalgic — but I’m happy to be corrected.

On the other hand Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) is all about the nostalgia: the tree, the presents, going to church in the snow. Available as a DVD (sadly not as a Box set!) and also on YouTube, the 1984 BBC adaptation remains a perennial favourite for viewing at this time of year, not least for its finale on Christmas Day and its haunting theme tune** melding the carol ‘The First Nowell’ with a catchy ostinato. There is even a marvellous website dedicated to that production here.

C S Lewis must have been familiar with Masefield’s fantasy, virtually referencing it in his 1950 novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (part of his allegorical Chronicles of Narnia). For here too is the snow, the menace (the witch Jadis instead of wolves and the wicked Abner Brown), the talking animals and the means of accessing other worlds, all elements present in Kay Harker’s story. But Lewis also enjoyed Nesbit’s fantasies — especially the magical episodes in the trilogy involving the Psammead, the Phoenix, and the amulet — because echoes of these can also be found throughout the Narnian Chronicles.

Let’s jump to another set of chronicles, those beginning with Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962). While there is no magic in the first of the Wolves Chronicles, here we again have snow, plus the wolves (and wolfish villains) from Masefield. While there is no mention of Christmas the story opens (as several of the Chronicles do) in or around dreary November, and continues past a wearisome midwinter to a more promising spring. Aiken’s debt to Masefield is more than just the wolves and word loans (like ‘scrobbling’ for capturing, especially kidnapping) — she is able to present the actions and emotions from a child’s perspective and, in addition, there is a certainty that the imaginations of both authors know no bounds.

Before Aiken’s novel there were other magical winterlude children’s novels, such as Alison Uttley’s haunting A Traveller in Time (1939) and, of course, Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe (1954) and its sequels. Like many of the previous novels, the Green Knowe books feature a grand house or mansion (such as Seekings, The Old Professor’s House, or Willoughby Chase) where adventures start with secret passages or wardrobe doors or, in young Tolly’s case, the mansion itself and even the snow-covered garden.

Then there is Susan Cooper’s remarkable but quite sombre The Dark is Rising (1973): set in the countryside, partly in an ordinary family home and partly a local manor house, there is snow, magical talismans, mythic creatures, a call to adventure at the midwinter solstice, and a protagonist — Will Stanton — who is sensitive to the great forces ranged against each other.

Within all these narratives — very disparate in many ways, in tone, in language, in historical and geographical context — there are all these commonalities, linked by magic. True, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase the magic is so muted as to be non-existent; but I’m convinced that with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a likely model the ‘magic’ of what that Victorian author calls presentiments, sympathies and signs is what permeates Aiken’s fantasy and furnishes its spirit.

Of course, a white Christmas is also what we remember about these fantasies. Susan Cooper’s novel even features a riff on the Twelve Days of Christmas, familiar from the folksong. The twelve days traditionally run from Christmas to the feast of the Epiphany, though it’s very possible to imagine a variation going from midwinter’s eve to the New Year, as seems to be case in Will Stanton’s story.

In The Box of Delights, with its twelve chapters, is it possible to postulate a different set of Twelve Days? The climax comes on what appears to be Christmas Day itself, suggesting that the sequence should start somewhere around the 12th or 13th December. Now this is approximately when Kay Harker is returning by train from his boarding school to Condicote for the Yuletide holidays, dates when the Michaelmas terms of many independent schools still often end, when they break for a very lengthy vacation. It is on this day that Kay comes to meet both friends and enemies, who will launch him into fresh adventures.

This might be the point when we start to discuss the class system as portrayed in 20th-century fantasies for children, but this should be for another time perhaps.


Have you noted other children’s fantasies which centre on a white Christmas? I don’t mean the likes of the Harry Potter books, where the season is just one episode among many, but those where midwinter is the very theatre in which the magic unfolds.

I will conclude now with some apologies for not interacting regularly and consistently with posts by fellow bloggers: blame the time of year, one when I seem to be involved with a great many rehearsals and musical performances for Advent and Christmas; I shall catch up when I can!

Near Crickhowell, Powys

* * * * *

* ‘Tawdry’ derives from St Audrey (originally Æthelthryth or Etheldreda, a 7th-century queen who was also Abbess of Ely in East Anglia). Lacework sold at the medieval fairs on her feast day in midsummer were often regarded as old-fashioned, substandard or tatty: St Audrey goods soon acquired the epithet tawdry.

** Excerpted from the third movement of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony (1927)

18 thoughts on “Christmas delights

  1. Pingback: Statio – nicktomjoe

    1. Good point, Karen. The so-called Little Ice Age of the Middle Ages which ended in the late 19th century accounted for our Dickensian view of Christmas, didn’t it. And there have been some memorable dumps of snow in the UK in our lifetime too, but so very rarely at Christmas. (In my ten years in Pembrokeshire and five in the Brecon Beacons there have actually been some quite heavy falls, perhaps every couple of years.)

      I suspect we are heavily influenced by movie depictions of that magical first snowfall on Christmas Eve, usually in New England, though I believe ‘Love Actually’ also nicked that cliché for its London setting.

      Like

    1. They’re in many ways very British, Ola, even Anglocentric, despite drawing on many Northern European traditions and even from further afield (fauns, phoenixes, centaurs and so on); and while some authors, notably Lewis, have international appeal, others seem to travel less well (though Cooper’s series does well in the States where she has lived for many years).

      A couple of other bloggers’ recent posts have echoed the ‘nostalgia’ theme I mention above: Nick Swarbrick (https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2019/12/11/statio/), Ben Harris (https://afewtoread.blogspot.com/2019/12/a-book-of-delights.html) and Jake Hayes (https://tygertale.com/2019/12/11/the-wolves-of-willoughby-chase-by-joan-aiken-2/amp/), all worth a little more than a glance.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Not being on Twitter, I shan’t be able to participate in The Box of Delights readalong. However, your lovely post has inspired me to actually purchase a copy of the DVD for my daughter; she is a sporadic reader and I am hoping this might be a gateway to the actual book.

    Does Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider count? There is Christmas, though it’s not as central as in the other books you’ve written about. To start stretching your requirements a bit, Rumer Godden’s ‘The Fairy Doll’ and ‘Holly and Ivy’ are different sorts of Christmassy fantasy centred on dolls, and there’s a great E. Nesbit story ‘The Town in the Library’ which is about some children who peek at their presents before Christmas… And a favourite of mine though not really a fantasy but it’s such a nice book I’m going to put it here anyway, Jenny Overton’s ‘The Thirteen Days of Christmas’. Oh and ‘A Christmas Wish’ by Katherine Rundell. These are all books for younger children.

    Enjoy your Christmas music!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t worry if you miss out on the Twitter #DelightfulXmas conversations, Helen, I hope to put up the odd post to summarise and complement them. The broadcast series was inspirational and led me to read a shortened version at the time: the unabridged version is so much richer, of course, and I hope your daughter is inspired to read it!

      Your other suggestions look marvellous! To my regret I haven’t read the Nimmo yet though I have a compendium of the trilogy to hand; and the Nesbit I’ll keep an eye out for, along with the Overton and of course the Rundell.

      Thanks for musical wishes, just a school concert, a carol service and two Christmas choral performances to go now!

      Like

      1. I’ll look forward to that, thank you!

        To MY regret I’ve never read the rest of the Nimmo trilogy so would love to know your thoughts. The Snow Spider is one I first read as an adult thus doesn’t have quite the magic for me of other books I read as a child (though Masefield is an exception to this, he is amazing whatever your age). I’ve also just remembered Moominland Midwinter, though that is surely a post-Christmas read.

        That’s a lot of music! I am envious. I live in Belgium and there just isn’t the tradition of beautiful carols here. I really miss it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m looking forward to the Nimmo. I’m currently reading the Jansson short story collection The Winter Book in between chapters of Moby-Dick and a couple of other bits and pieces, though I haven’t yet sampled Moomin magic.

          I’m here texting in the interval of a concert of Christmas music, from medieval to modern, by Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen in Cardiff. Quite magical. I’m surprised Belgium doesn’t have a legacy of carols, Helen, even borrowed from French or North German tradition. I suppose carols have been popular in England because it was known in the Middle Ages as Mary’s Dowry.

          Like

  3. Oh, Christmas concerts! Blondie played piano in her school’s winter concert as well as for pre-service for church last week. My heart burst, it really did. xxxx Of course, they’ve a Christmas service coming up with recitations and songs and such, which should prove interesting. I pray your concerts go well! Any favorite carols on the playlist?

    You know, I can’t recall too many Christmas stories my kids enjoy reading where winter is the focus. Does ‘Olivia Helps witih Christmas’ count? 😉

    Like

    1. Good for Blondie, playing in public is always scarey but it does get more enjoyable, especially when that enjoyment is appreciated and is passed on to others.

      Our choirmaster likes including more obscure seasonal carols among the usual mix: Awn i Fethlem is in Welsh, Il est né is in French, there’s a Wassail Carol by William Mathias and a Bavarian one in translation, for example, but also In Dulci Jubilo, Past Three O’Clock and the medieval Gaudete along with the familiar ones for the congregation to join in with.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. We sing the Robert Pearsall arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo, and I used to sing in an ensemble named after him, based in the area he was active in and run by a Bristol solicitor which, not so coincidentally, was what Pearsall was and where he practised.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Fascinating! I wish we’d sing such carols. We just went out to visit homes for the elderly with our carol books yesterday, and it was all “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” and such. I love those songs, but there are TONS of beautiful carols that almost get sung around here. Gah!

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I realised yesterday that it was nearly time for The Dark is Rising – I think I shall be joining the annual readathon this year, as I do love that book (but on my last read of the sequence it turned out to be one of my least favourites, unexpectedly, and I’d like to set that right).

    Class was very much on my mind as I read it last time – especially by the last two books, where I feel Bran’s class is as important as his Welsh identity in how he relates to (and is related to by) others. But reading as an adult the upper middle status of the protagonists (especially the Drews) was obvious to me as a factor in what they felt they could do and what they do in fact get away with doing – although I’d been completely unaware of it as a child. It got me thinking about class in other books I grew up reading – but like you, I’ve not yet made the time to go back and do a more thorough examination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for picking up on my final comments on class: I must, *must* get on with reading the rest of the TDIR sequence — I’ve left it far too long — but luckily I plan to include a lot more books for young readers, teens especially, in my 2020 reading, so I think these will figure.

      Lucy Mangan and particularly Katherine Rundell mention class issues where reading matter for youngsters is concerned, and there’s no doubt that there’s a preponderance of middleclass protagonists in 20th-century literature for kids. Gender identity and ethnicity seem to have joined class in increased recognition in more recent writing, which is all to the good, though speaking personally I’ve been rather conservative in my reading habits up to now. I feel a need to address that in 2020, so we’ll see how that pans out.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to imyril Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.