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It is customary, in certain enlightened circles in the U.S., to find our holidays embarrassing or worse. Halloween: a time for tooth decay and racist costumes. Thanksgiving: a bad-faith papering-over of colonialist oppression. And Christmas? A consumeristic nightmare, filling the airwaves with treacle and littering the snow with tinseled trash. Grit your teeth and get through it, or, if you have the option, just opt out.
Fair enough. But what do you do if the old symbols still tug at you—if beneath the tacky wrapping you find an impulse toward mystery and community worth preserving?
Perhaps you write a book like Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. For years, Winterson has written a new story every year at Christmastime, and here she collects them for the first time. The result is a book for cold, clear nights and roaring fireplaces. It is also a cookbook, creating a hodgepodge form that suits Winterson’s love of the holiday’s motley, improbable spirit.
Why love Christmas? Winterson lays out her thesis in two essays that bookend the collection. The appeal is part personal history. As she famously related in her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, teenage Winterson followed in her adoptive mother’s footsteps by becoming a leader in the Pentecostal church—until that church caught wind of her lesbian relationships.
Today she’s anti-Puritan but pro-Mary, bearing the conviction that “life should be joyful” atop a fundamental talent for devotion. Her Christmas is a “gaudy ragbag of a festival with something borrowed from everywhere.” She recalls that “in a house that was generally unhappy, Christmas was a happy time for me growing up. We don’t lose these associations; the past comes with us, with luck we reinvent it, which is what I am suggesting we do with Christmas.”
There is plenty of tradition lingering in Winterson’s reinvention. The lessons these stories have to teach are sometimes commonplace: time with loved ones is more important than worldly success; it is better to give than to receive. “Spirit of Christmas,” the first story in the collection, is comically overstuffed with Christmas conventions: a harried couple meets a ghostly child out of Dickens, a wandering mother and infant, and Santa Claus himself with all his reindeer.
In Winterson’s hands, this is enormously affecting. You may, at points, be startled to find yourself teary-eyed, and the shock is partly surprise that there is still so much life left in these old themes.
It’s impossible to get too comfortable inside these stories. They can skate from acid humor to corniness to raw emotion in the space of a few pages—take “The SnowMama,” a tale that makes room for the difficulty of inter-class friendships, the loneliness of childhood, and a surfeit of terrible snow puns.
And then there are the recipes. Winterson’s “feasts” include everything from her mother’s mincemeat to “Kathy Acker’s New York Custard.” Admittedly no chef, she is a wonderful food writer. She peppers her recipes with delectable instructions—one should fill pie crusts “generously, but not idiotically”—and more than a pinch of pride in the privations of her childhood in 1960s Northern England. “Modern homes are too warm for good pastry,” she sniffs. You may have no interest in making fishcakes or what amounts to Jello mold with heavy cream and “old cake.” Read the recipes anyway.
Christmas Days is marked by the unevenness you’d expect from a book written casually across a dozen years. But the high points are thrilling—including a quartet of top-notch ghost stories awakening the terror that lurks inside the darkest season. In “Second Best Bed,” a woman who may be suppressing a longing for her married best friend becomes a portal to a sinister past involving a great-aunt punished for taking a female lover. “Dark Christmas” strands its narrator in an empty country house with a mysterious history and a haunted nativity scene, to nail-biting effect.
The spirit of the season can be benevolent or not, but for Winterson it is always revelatory. She urges us to seize its power to transform. In the epilogue, she writes:
Epiphany is an inspired reversal of power structures and hierarchies, of class systems and the status quo, a reminder that the way we live is propositional: we made it this way—we could remake it a different way.
The Kings kneel before something bigger than authority—they are kneeling before a possible future, one based on love, not fear; one where there is abundance and not lack.
Christmas Days models this hopeful abundance throughout. Even those who great the season with ambivalence should find some treats to savor in its pages.
Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days
By Jeanette Winterson
Hardcover, 9780802125835, 295 pp.