At this point I should perhaps say that I personally don’t subscribe to the idea that Die Hard is a Christmas film. Action-adventure, yes. Christmas, no. Not for me. Christmas films include, in no particular order, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle of 34th Street, The Nightmare before Christmas, The Grinch, Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St Louis (just, for that fabulous scene of Judy Garland singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ after the snowmen have been decapitated), Home Alone even at a pinch. Not Gremlins or Die Hard. Just being set at Christmas doesn’t make a film a Christmas film – for me. (Other opinions are available, of course.)
As for Christmas books, there are a few that will always stand out for me – and on re-reading them as an adult, one stands head and shoulders above the others. I think it’s because I first read it at just the right time (aged around 11 myself) and perhaps because it’s closest to my own experience of Christmas.
It’s not Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a fantastic fusion of morality tale and traditional Christmas ghost story which is often credited with popularizing so much of what makes our ‘modern’ Christmas: turkeys, Christmas trees, etc.
Nor is it The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which for all its snowy ‘winter but never Christmas’ and appearance by Father Christmas himself, doesn’t say ‘Christmas’ to me.
Two others, for younger readers, are Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, with its wonderful Christmassy elves, and The Jolly Christmas Postman, both of which I’ve loved reading to small relatives.
In second place when I was growing up was John Masefield’s The Box of Delights – ‘The Wolves are running!’ But although I delighted in its ‘traditional’ Christmas when very young, it lost some of its flavour for me when I re-read it as an adult. Perhaps because, although the tale is fantasy, I no longer felt I could relate to the 1930s, upper-middle-class boarding-school-holiday setting. Should I give it another chance?
So I guess there’s really no contest for me in terms of favourite Christmas book. In my late teens I started to read it almost every year – beginning on the day on which the narrative starts – Midwinter’s Eve – and reading the appropriate chapters on the following appropriate days – until it all gets a little difficult as the action moves towards Twelfth Night and the days run together, as the snowy crisis intensifies…
The build-up to the scariest white Christmas ever from the first snowfall at the winter solstice is exquisitely drawn, as a tight-knit family play out all their usual Christmas traditions – present buying and wrapping, collecting the tree and putting up the decorations (on Christmas Eve – note!), carol-singing around the village, mince pies and punch, roaring fire and Yule log on the hearth, going to bed and draping a stocking across the foot of the bed – waking up in the half-light of Christmas morning and pushing down with your foot to feel the lumps and bumps in that stocking that confirm Father Christmas has been during the night…
All of this provides the comfortable, familiar, traditional backdrop to the fantastic quest undertaken, and growing danger faced, by the lead character, Will Stanton, who wakes up on his eleventh birthday and discovers that he is no ordinary boy but …
Perhaps it’s no surprise that J. K. Rowling has acknowledged the influence that Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising had on her as she was growing up and becoming a writer. Her Harry Potter books paint a similar picture of Christmas traditions (albeit more unusual ones, except perhaps the Weasley Christmas jumpers) – providing apparent stability in the precarious world now inhabited by her characters.
That’s what it is for me, I think. That fuzzy, warm, Christmassy feeling – so elusive, like the bell-like music in The Dark is Rising – brought by those oh-so-familiar traditions and family rituals that makes a Christmas book or film what it is. And no amount of explosions and terrorists and tall buildings and pumped men in sweaty vests is ever going to say ‘Christmas’ to me.