Christmas Past and Words of Winter

I am delighted to say that our November display of childhood memoirs (see last month’s blog post) has proved so popular, and there is such a wealth of diverse books in this category, that we are going to keep it going throughout December.

To mark the festive season, we are supplementing it with some unusual memoirs of Christmases past which we hope you will enjoy, as well as some on generally wintry themes.

Verily Anderson wrote a number of extremely funny memoirs, including of her life with a young family and a houseful of lodgers in Kensington after the Second World War.  She also devoted herself to the history of her forebears, the illustrious Quaker families of Gurney, Hoare and Buxton, which included the great prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and the anti-slavery campaigner Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton.  Her Scrambled Egg for Christmas is one of her memoirs – our 1970 copy has lovely illustrations and it’s worth getting past its old fashioned appearance as it really is a joy.

Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales is the definitive evocation of Christmas in a small Welsh town in the 1920s, but his fellow Welshman, the actor Richard Burton, also explored this theme with his A Christmas Story drawing on his own childhood memories of a Glamorgan mining community, where debates rage about religion and politics, chestnuts are roasted in the fire, and the child Richard dreads the humiliation of being given a second-hand Christmas present, the refurbished toy of a more privileged boy.

One of my favourite of the more idiosyncratic books in the Biography Collection is Crackers at Christmas by Hazel Wheeler, documenting the “Festive Trials of a Yorkshire Housewife” from the 40s to the 90s.  Wheeler recorded the whole of her life in great detail, and this volume brings together her reminiscences of Christmas in Huddersfield over six decades, characterised by unrelenting deadpan gloom.  From food preparation to family relationships, every subject is treated with the same acerbic pessimism.  This is the perfect book for anyone who is not a fan of Christmas cheer, and strangely Hazel’s pared down Eeyore-ish narrative ends up being very uplifting.

More than any other figure from the English literary scene, Charles Dickens helped shape our Christmas mythology with his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, and in Dickens and Christmas his great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley explores his personal and artistic relationship to the season as it was celebrated during his lifetime.  (You can listen to an episode of our BioEpic podcast which looks at this in detail    https://anchor.fm/bio-epic/episodes/BioEpic—Episode-3—Charles-Dickens-etiaql  ). 

Expanding our view from Christmas to the winter season in general, we have some wonderful books looking at the cold and dark time of year, and how its challenges and beauty affect us.  For some the season is a real challenge to mood and wellbeing. Horatio Clare (The Light in the Dark, 2018) and Fraser Harrison (A Winter’s Tale, 1987) have both written rawly beautiful memoirs of marriage and fatherhood in rural settings during winter.  Clare struggles with seasonal depression, and both writers evoke the steely challenges of winter and the coming of milder days both internal and external; these are moving and enlightening books to curl up with on a dark winter afternoon.

One of the greatest works of art to deal with winter is Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) which he composed in 1828 and which is one of nearly 170,000 pieces of music available to stream through Naxos via our website In Schubert’s Winter Journey, the celebrated tenor Ian Bostridge examines the music, how Schubert conceived it and what it has meant to Bostridge himself to interpret it, as well as how it relates to its historical context – a fascinating read which will deepen the appreciation of those who are already familiar with this music, and open it up to those who are not.

Finally, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ s Cold looks at how it feels to experience some of the most extreme conditions on earth and why the polar regions have gripped the imaginations of so many over the centuries.  Brrrrr!

Whatever you are doing over the festive season, I wish you warmth and happiness, and all the very best for further reading adventures in 2022.

Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library

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