Cressida Cowell on the best books to celebrate the magic of Christmas
The festive season has always been full of defiance against the crowding in of the dark.
When the year is at its bleakest, we surround ourselves with friends and loved ones to drive that darkness away with fires and joyful noise. Because this is also the time of year to remind ourselves of all the good humanity can do, and to believe in the impossible.
There are so many stories that convey the magic of the festive season. When we return to Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St Nicholas, or Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising and read them aloud, we find a kind of magic, cast a spell.
Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester offers consolation, magic and hope all at the same time. There is a dark side to this tale – the tailor is on the edge of starvation, and Simpkin the cat’s capture of the little mice is made all the more terrifying because he traps them so delicately under teacups. But the tailor pities the mice, and the mice save the tailor, and the magic of Christmas is encapsulated in perfect picture-book form.
There’s magic aplenty in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In the preface to this “ghost story of Christmas”, Dickens writes that he has tried to “raise the Ghost of an Idea”, hoping it will haunt readers’ houses “pleasantly”, and that no one will “wish to lay it”. This evergreen classic is an ebullient Christmassy read from its magnificent opening line – “Marley was dead: to begin with” – to its gloriously redemptive ending.
Six centuries after an unknown poet wrote down his story of Gawain and the Green Knight, I still feel a shiver of shock when Gawain chops off the Green Knight’s head and the knight reaches down and picks it up from the ground. From that moment, the clock is ticking for Gawain. In a year and a day’s time, the Green Knight will come back and Gawain will have to allow him one blow at his own neck in return. There’s a message in this extraordinary poem that could not be more relevant to modern times. Respect nature, poor humans. Be humble in the face of forces larger than yourself. Be kind, and who knows? The axe of the Green Knight may be merciful in return.
Acknowledge the dark, but fasten your belt, take steps to make things better, and believe in the impossible
It may have been March when EB White, author of Charlotte’s Web, replied to a Mr Nadeau who had asked for his opinion on the future of humanity, but White’s letter (included in Letters of Note) is full of the hope and kindness we need during the festive season. “Hope is the thing that is left to us,” White writes, declaring that he will “wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness”.
“Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble,” he continues. “We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out. Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”
All these winter tales remind me to wind the clock. Hang on to your hat. Acknowledge the existence of the dark, but fasten your belt, take practical steps to make things better, and believe in the impossible. For one of the many lovely things about the season is that it will happen all over again, next year. And next year, with a little kindness, we’ll do it better … hopefully.