I recently had an MRI scan during which the nurse in charge put some music on the headphones to calm me down. The first song that started pumping out? Last Christmas by Wham!
So not only did I have to battle discomfort and claustrophobia, but I also had to contend with a steady stream of Xmas pop hits assailing my ears.
As you can probably tell by now, I am no fan of the pop culture that surrounds this festival. I cannot deal with Love Actually (though Hugh Grant as Prime Minister - yes please) and the sudden descent into total consumerism.
But before I complete my inevitable transformation into the Grinch who stole Christmas, I will say I do love a Christmas carol, especially when sung in church. And I love a cosy winter book.
Here are three books around winter and the festive season that I love revisiting at this time of the year. 1) Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
Like most of Pratchett's books, Hogfather is set in the fantasy world known as Discworld, yet bears an uncanny resemblance to aspects of life on earth. In this particular novel, malignant forces decide to end life on Discworld, and their chosen method of destruction is to assassinate the Discworld equivalent of Santa Claus - the Hogfather.
After all, if children no longer believe in a fat jolly man who comes down the chimney to give them gifts, what is the point of humanity?
I absolutely adore this book and have re-read it at least three times. It features one of my favourite Discworld characters, Death (yes **that** Death) and has a satisfyingly creepy villain that is even more sinister than the Grim Reaper.
By using a fantasy world as his canvas, Pratchett is able to explore themes around belief, stories and how myths are formed without stirring up a controversy. The magic of Christmas permeates the book while paying homage to the festival's pagan roots at the same time. The movie version starring Michelle Dockery (of Downton Abbey fame) is really quite good and a movie I would choose any day over Love Actually.
2) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
I love that a wooden object is given equal importance to the chief villain and the omnipotent presence in the title of this marvellous adventure. And damn right, too. The wardrobe in the attic that leads the four children to the magical world of Narnia is one of the most iconic images to come out of this series (and incidentally, a great metaphor for the process of getting lost in any book).
As a child growing up in the baking hot South Indian city of Chennai, I was so enthralled by this novel that I would picture myself walking through this landscape, the snow crunching under my boots, the steam flowing past my chattering teeth. Many winters later, when I found myself walking through the snow-laden Scottish countryside, my mind went inevitably back to Narnia.
While this isn’t strictly a book about Christmas, it is drenched in Christian imagery and reference. There’s even a bearded man in a red coat who gives the four protagonists gifts. Even though these gifts are swords and daggers and whatnot, rather than toys and Playstations, it does add a sort of grim festivity to proceedings.
The defining sense I had after reading this novel is that spring isn’t quite as joyous without winter. That sense of sunshine and warmth falling on your skin after months of snow and frost is the very essence of magic.
3) If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
It's actually really hard to describe this wonderful book by the master Italian novelist. It's that rare novel written in the second person narrative, making the reader the protagonist of the book.
I won't give too much away, really, because I don't want to take away from the experience of reading this book for the first time. But what I will say is, I picked this book up at a time when I was doing a lot of travelling in Europe and wanted to expand my knowledge of continental writers. But If on a Winter's Night did so much more than expose me to a different region. It exposed me to a different vision of how to write a novel and to challenge your reader's brain.
And to do it all in such an easy, engaging, page-turning style (I'm looking at you, James Joyce) is the true genius of Calvinho, in my opinion.
In fact, you know what? I might just go away and re-read this little masterpiece right now. What's your famous Xmas read? Ping me directly or drop me a comment below!