The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories

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Title: The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories

Writer: Various edited by Jessica Harrison

Publishing House: Penguin Classics

Date of Publication: October 29th 2020

Rating: 4 stars

‘’First, heavy, blinding snow that falls slowly from above. Then it turns to rain, forming a light wintery mist over the streets of Paris.

  Garlands of holly and mistletoe turn to dead leaves and are carried away by the floating water.

 A large log disintegrating into sparks cuts to the image of radiators.

A panorama of snow, an idyllic scene, turns into a small street in Montmartre, and the songs of children gradually become nasal, unpleasant.

 Everywhere, shop signs are shining brightly. Christmas Eve. Dinner parties, etc. The songs become clearer; we recognize words like:

   Childhood

Innocence…

Dawn of the world…

Dawn of love

The most wonderful days…

Accompanied by the shrill music of an organ grinder.’’

This is not a lovey-dovey, super-cuddly, bright-and-happy Christmas collection. It demonstrates a very tangible, realistic and thoughtful depiction of Christmas, containing gems from world-famous writers and lesser-known works that give us a multi-cultured aspect of the holy days of Christmas, family disputes and loves, vices, secrets and the implications of coming together and instead of celebrating, getting at each other’s throats seems the only solution.

 But it’s not all gloom, fear not. It’s just life.

‘’Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-coloured snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the has down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.’’

Russia and the strange twists of Fate, Norway and its trolls and fearsome cats, Brazil and the secrets that need to be whispered on Christmas Eve, Paris and the sins that can’t be concealed under the bright light of artificial lights and artificial families, England and thefts hidden in the mistletoe, Wales and children’s carols and hopes, USA and families in financial trouble, Portugal and Christmas miracles, Sweden and traditions. Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Italo Calvino, Tove Jansson, Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas, Muriel Spark, Grace Paley, Laurie Lee, Hans Christian Andersen, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor, Irene Nemirovsky, Dorothy L. Sayers and many more…

My personal favourites were Midnight Mass by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Noel by Irene Nemirovsky, The Christmas Turkey by Mario de Andrade, Christmas Eve by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Christmas by Tove Jansson, and The Ghost Ships by Angela Carter, a haunting chronicle of British Christmas customs and the lunacy of the Puritans.

Why 4 stars, then? Because you cannot neglect Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Gogol and include a story written by Wolfdietrich Schnurre who served in the Nazi Army. And I don’t care whether he expressed guilt or remorse. In my books, Jessica Harrison committed a moral error while editing the collection. Period.

‘’The tree gave off a wonderful glow that touched everything with its light. It was as if a star had come down to Earth. It was Christmas. And that’s why the tree was decorated with lights and its branches hung with exotic fruit, a reminder of the joy that had spread throughout the world on that other night many, many years ago.’’

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