HERE WE ARE IN the middle of December already! Every year I try, with varying success, to find books with a Christmas theme to companion me through this busy and sometimes difficult season of decorating, shopping, and preparation. And before we get too far, I’d just like to say that if you don’t celebrate Christmas or there are other holidays you celebrate instead, I wish you all the joys of your particular festive season! If you wish to skip this post and catch up with me again in the New Year, I totally understand.
I’ve tried various writers at Christmastime, and I have to say that most of them don’t provide the deeply satisfying seasonal reading experience I’m looking for. One writer who does is the incomparable Rosamunde Pilcher.
Winter Solstice contains many of Pilcher’s signature elements, the most charming of which is a group of loosely connected people gathering in a beautiful house deep in the English countryside (in this case, it’s Scotland), who come together under varying circumstances to form a family. One slight issue I have with the book is the unfortunate name of her main character, who is charming in every other way: Elfrida Phipps. (I mean, really—Elfrida?)
Anyway, Elfrida moves to a village in Hampshire and meets attractive church organist Oscar Blundell, his wife Gloria, and their daughter, Francesca. The sudden deaths of Gloria and Francesca in a car accident while Elfrida is away leave Oscar in a state of grief and forced to leave his home, which his stepsons want to sell. But he owns a half-interest in a house in Scotland, and he and Elfrida form a “mad” plan to drive to Sutherland and spend the winter there, but, “No Christmas,” says Oscar. “Not this year.”
Of course that’s before the house’s other half-owner offers it to a business associate, Sam Howard, who’s traveling to Scotland to sort out an old woollen mill. And before Elfrida’s beloved niece (cousin? grand-niece?) Carrie, who’s recovering from a difficult love affair, asks Elfrida if she can join her for Christmas, along with Carrie’s fourteen-year-old niece, Lucy, whose mother is spending Christmas with her new boyfriend in Florida.
So they’re all gathered together in this wonderful old house in a Scottish village and of course there’s a snowstorm, as well as an old painting that could be worth lots of money—or not—and there’s young love and old love and whisky and much buying of perfect Christmas gifts in delightful village shops and lots of housecleaning (which always sounds so much more fun in her books than it really is) and fabulous food.
Here’s a delectable sample: “Going down the long hall thinking about this, she paused, and then, on an impulse, opened the door of the desolate and disused dining-room. It was dark and gloomy and in dire need of a good dust and polish, but in her imagination she saw it lit by firelight and candles and groaning with delicious foods. Things like crystallized fruits and a pudding aflame with brandy. And goblets of wine, and the glow of china and gleaming silver dishes filled with nuts and chocolates.”
So Christmas does come, and there’s a sense of hope and new beginnings, and really, what more could you want from a Christmas novel?
I’ve written before about my deep love for the Brother Cadfael mystery series by Ellis Peters, so I won’t spend much time on it here. I just want to note that my Christmas favorite (if it can be called that) is The Virgin in the Ice. It’s definitely a darker Christmas tale. There are no crystallized fruits or flaming puddings here—rather “lawless men” taking advantage of the chaos caused by the ongoing civil war, and a brother and sister of noble birth accompanied by a nun gone missing in the first deep snow of winter. The sense of bone-chilling cold—and menace—is real throughout; a reminder that, as Cadfael says, “There never was, for all I could ever learn, a time when living was easy and peaceful.” But it ends well, with peace restored—for the moment—and a heartwarming and important meeting between Brother Cadfael and an unusual young man.
If there were nominations for a Queen of comical, lighthearted Christmas fiction, I’d pick Scottish writer Jenny Colgan. She takes on writing about Christmas with a light hand and always manages to find the magic in it in a way that’s fresh and fun. I indulged in Christmas at the Little Beach Street Bakery earlier this month, and I’m halfway through her latest, The Christmas Bookshop. Christmas on the Island and Christmas at the Island Hotel are also great fun. These last three are all set in Scotland, which makes me wonder, what is it with Scotland and Christmas? (Hmm—this may require further research!)
But with The Christmas Bookshop, I keep startling my husband by laughing out loud when I’m reading in bed at night. Carmen moves to Edinburgh to live with her sister, Sofia, her three perfect children, and her yoga-obsessed nanny, and takes a job trying to revitalize a rundown bookstore, leading to hilarious encounters with a famous (and egocentric) self-help author. Since I haven’t finished it, I can’t comment on the ending, but here’s an example of Colgan’s delightful writing:
“But it wore you down, the magic [of Edinburgh]. Even now . . . when night fell so early it felt like every street was beating back the dark every way it knew how: early trees appearing, glowing gold from inside the smart New Town apartments . . . lights garlanding every road and stretching across the wide bank of George Street, with its expensive shops and bars wreathed in holly and more lights . . . the Ivy restaurant transforming its doorway into the wardrobe doors of Narnia that took you into a snowy scene. Up on the Royal Mile was a cathedral built entirely from light that you could stroll through and hear the carol singers. From every tiny coffee shop in every nook and cranny came the enchanting smells of gingerbread and cinnamon, and over at the Christmas market, the smell of mulled wine hung in the air.”
Okay, next flight to Scotland—who’s with me??
I raise my glass of mulled wine to you and hope you enjoy these suggestions. And please do let me know about your own favorite Christmas books!
I wish you all the festive joys and comforts of the season, and a very happy new year—and I’ll see you in 2022!