One of the best things about Christmas is curling up by the fire with a good book. Stories are a Christmas tradition; we return to places from our childhood and fondly remember feeling enchanted with the tales and poems that were read to us in anticipation of Christmas morning. Here AnOther revisits ten favourite Christmas stories and their first edition book covers. Some are Victorian moral tales, which perfectly encapsulate the nineteenth century world in which they were written, whilst others are more recent, and reflect the writers’ nostalgic memories of a Christmas past.
1. ’Twas Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
The familiar refrain of this poem, first published anonymously in 1823, and its rhythmic anticipation of Christmas morning, recalls all the childish excitements of Christmas Eve, the hushed house and Christmas stockings hanging over the fire. While his children sleep, a man awakes to the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof and sees Father Christmas himself, in all his chubby fur-suited joviality.
2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
First published on 19 December 1843, Dickens’ moral tale follows Ebenezer Scrooge – famous expounder of the phrase "Bah humbug!" – in his supernatural reawakening to Christmas cheer. Scrooge is visited by three spirits – the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – who lead him back through scenes of his childhood, illuminating his current loneliness and despair. Scrooge joyfully awakes on Christmas morning and becomes a charitable and compassionate man. Through this story, Dickens popularised the greeting ‘Merry Christmas’.
3. The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
Printed in 1902, the story follows the tailor of Gloucester as he sends his cat Simkin to fetch a twist of cherry-coloured silk for the waistcoat he is making, to be worn by the mayor on Christmas morning. Simpkin imprisons some mice beneath teacups, who are be rescued by the tailor. When the tailor falls ill on Christmas and is unable to finish the waistcoat, he awakes to find that the grateful mice have been very busy.
4. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Originally published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1956, Capote’s is an autobiographical short story, which takes place in the 1930s and follows the relationship between a seven year-old boy and an elderly woman who is his best friend. The story focuses on a Christmas season together they spend together making fruitcakes, which they send as anonymous gifts, including one to President Roosevelt.
5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
"Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents". So begins Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. First published in two volumes in 1880, the story traces the lives of four sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March – from childhood to womanhood. Based loosely on Alcott’s own sisters, the story teaches that virtue is more important than wealth.
6. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
Every year, from 1920 to 1942, Tolkien wrote letters from Father Christmas to his children, with lively and colourful illustrations. The letters follow the adventures of Father Christmas, his secretary, and The North Polar Bear and his cubs – Paksu and Valkotukka – who often fall into trouble. Each letter was enclosed in an envelope marked with special hand-drawn North Pole stamps. The affectionate collection was published posthumously in 1976.
7. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E. T. A. Hoffmann
Hoffmann’s original tale, written in 1816, follows Marie Stahlbaum, a little girl whose favourite toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive. After defeating the Mouse King, the toy whisks Marie away to a land of living dolls. In 1892, Alexandre Dumas adapted the story, which was then taken up by Russian composer Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and transformed into a ballet. The Nutcracker as we know it was first performed in St Petersburg on December 18, 1892, and is perhaps the most enduring children’s Christmas story.
8. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson
In Hans Christian Anderson’s short story from 1845, a poor girl sells matches on New Year’s Eve. She becomes cold and so lights her matches for warmth. In the halo of each illuminated match, the little girl sees visions: a Christmas tree, a feast, and, finally, her dead grandmother, whom she loved. When the girl freezes her to death, her grandmother carries her soul to heaven. Though melancholy, the story also touches upon Christmas themes of philanthropy and hope.
9. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
A Christian allegory first published in 1950, the first installment of The Chronicles of Narnia follows siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy as they travel through an enchanted wardrobe into the land of Narnia. The kingdom is ruled by the White Witch, who declares it is "always winter, but never Christmas". With the help of Mr and Mrs Beaver, Mr Tumnus, Father Christmas and the golden figure of Aslan, the children begin to break the spells imprisoning Narnia and restore Christmas.
10. The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
In Dodie Smith’s novel of 1956, Mr and Mrs Dearly and their Dalmatians – Pongo, Missis Pongo, Perdita and fifteen puppies – live in Regent’s Park. But after a dinner party with Cruella de Vil, who expresses her contempt for animals and her love of fur, the puppies go missing, coinciding with the kidnap of 97 other local puppies. Through the system of Twilight Barking, in which dogs relay messages to each other up and down the country, the puppies are located at Cruella de Vil’s country estate in Suffolk, and rescued on Christmas Eve.
Text by Harriet Baker