The Forgotten Christmas Authors

Books

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The yuletide season must already be upon us because the Christmas decorations have been up in Oxford Street for ages. It’s a season full of lost pleasures. John Grossman is the owner of one of the world’s largest collections of Victorian and Edwardian artifacts and ephemera, and wrote ‘Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas’ with the intention of reminding us about what we’ve forgotten.

Some of the old yuletide imagery conjured in songs and stories and on cards is best left behind, especially with its uncomfortable ethnic connotations. Devils armed with whips and demons dragging off naughty children formed the basis of common yuletide stories in Northern Europe, while the Krampus, a horned creature In Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, was a monstrous green-tinted figure who punished misbehaving children. Coal-eyed  imps scampered about terrorizing children in much Pre-Saint Nicholas literature. The Jólakötturinn was an Icelandic cannibalistic Christmas cat, and while Germany had the most frightening collection of anti-Santas, France had Père Fouettard, or ‘Father Whipper’, the child-chopping mad butcher.

The modern Santa’s red and white outfit probably mimicked the vestments of the original Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in the 4th Century, but the American image we adopted was cemented into place by a Coca-Cola illustrator who added the fat suit, white trims and big fluffy beard, basing the look on Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (which begins ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’).

A number of Dickens’ Christmas stories have now vanished, including ‘A Christmas Tree’ and the eerie ‘Haunted’, a magical tale about a seasonal gift passed on with tragic consequences. Many fine Christmas ghost tales designed to be annually told around a fire have been lost. In these, trains are marooned in snowdrifts, cottages and castles become places of imprisonment for gathered guests, while ghosts visit with dire warnings and children rarely feature at all.

In these tales Christmas is a time for introspection and the examination of one’s life, a time for regrets and recriminations, and never moreso than in ‘A Christmas Carol’. In the Victorian era children were made to be quite clear about the consequences of leading an immoral life and were treated like small adults, whereas now even adults behave like children.

The young had Christmas shows to look forward to, but much has been trimmed from these for modern tastes. More popular than ‘Peter Pan’ was the extraordinarily creepy ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’, which began at the Savoy in 1911 and continued for decades – you’ll find the full story about that in ‘The Book Of Forgotten Authors‘.

While modern Christmas pantomimes have gaudy costumes, pop hits and double-entendres, Christmas at London’s two surviving music halls, Wilton’s and the Hackney Empire, can see veterans like Roy Hudd unearthing forgotten music hall routines with elaborate wordplay, taken from unauthored Victorian scripts. Filled with topical jokes, such entertainments were written at great speed and were never meant to be preserved for posterity. There were always writers who did not seek fame with novels, but who were happy to provide ephemeral amusement. The early panto routines involved a lot of verbal and physical dexterity, as well as a high tolerance for screaming anklebiters.

Almost every writer employed by a newspaper or magazine has at one time or another been required to ‘do something for the Christmas issue’, whether short fiction or a heartwarming seasonal feature. Such work is usually evanescent and quickly buried, but trying typing in ’20 Famous Christmas Stories’ and you’ll be confronted with a selection of tales from authors as diverse as Tolstoy and Wilde, as well as memorable stories from less remembered authors. There’s also a book out at the moment collecting PD James’s best commissioned Christmas stories, now with a foreword by the always excellent Val McDermid. Martin Edwards has also edited a volume of Golden Age Christmas crimes for the British Library.

A couple of years back I produced what was effectively a Christmas book with ‘Bryant & May: London’s Glory’, and as it went down rather well with readers I’ll be doing a follow-up to be called ‘Bryant & May: England’s Finest’ – both are phrases taken from old Bryant & May matchboxes.

LONDON'S GLORY_PBB_MECH_LO

 

 

15 comments on “The Forgotten Christmas Authors”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    I detest Christmas. Even as a kid, I found it tedious. Yes, you got the new Gerry Anderson/Action Man/Major Matt Mason/Aurora Monster kits, or whatever the thing was that year, but putting up decorations, and the poxy tree, and a huge lunch you didn’t really want. Why? My family were, and still are, staunchly Atheist. Then there’s School, and the sickly Nativity play that all the tinies were forced to do. Acting so wooden, it seemed that the stage was full of Queen Anne furniture: JOSEPH (Picking his nose furiously. He is kicked into action by the INNKEEPER): (mumbles inaudibly) ….
    INNKEEPER:(Shouts) WHAT?
    JOSEPH: (Shouts) IS. THERE. ANY. ROOM. IN. THE. INN?
    INNKEEPER: (No reply; he’s waving at his mum and dad)
    JOSEPH: (BELLOWS) IS. THERE. ANY. ROOM. AT. THE.INN?
    INNKEEPER: Look, my daddy’s there (points)
    JOSEPH: (Waving) Hello, Mister Thompson!
    THERE IS A SICKENING THUD
    MARY: (Also waving) The donkey felled over!
    THE DONKEY STANDS UP
    DONKEY: (Muffled) Sorry.
    THE DONKEY WALKS ROUND IN SMALL CIRCLES, AND IS SUDDENLY VIOLENTLY SICK ON STAGE

    CURTAIN.

    Some of that actually happened. I was a Shepherd, and spent most of the performance sat with my friend punching each other in the arms. Christmas would usually end with an argument, instigated by gran, with all the adults shouting at each other. I’d usually take my books that I’d got that day, and go to bed. Dad hated Christmas, as it always ended up when he was a kid with his family pissed up, and arguing, and Mum hated it because her egregious termagent of a mother always, always managed to ruin it by starting an argument, or complaining about the food, or saying that my brother and I were spoilt, even though she brought vast swathes of stuff for us. She always talked through whatever big film was on Christmas day, always, and would even get up and turn it over, and then pretend to watch whatever pipdribble was on the other side. Woe betide anyone who went to turn it back. That’s why I hate Christmas. It’s childish, and it’s reason to exist is something with no relevance to my life. I always work over Christmas, and it’s bliss. No decorations, no Christmas food, no TV. The only little tradition I have is nipping up to the local garage shop, and buying a Cadbury’s Creme Egg on Boxing Day.

  2. chazza says:

    The only good thing about Christmas is that it ends up with a good crop of homicides because a lot of families can’t stand each other when forced into close proximity ….

  3. Roger says:

    “The Jólakötturinn was an Icelandic cannibalistic Christmas cat”

    Man-eating, surely.

    Your nativity play sounds much better than most of what’s on in London, Ian.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    Nativity: I was The Star.

    That is, I was the one standing on a chair with a star cut out of silver foil safety-pinned to his pullover. Although I managed not to fall off the chair, my performance in a non-speaking, non-moving role was such a great success that it was my first and last ever appearance.

    What is good about Christmas? The lights, why don’t we have them all the year? And books, not Christmas books, but books as gifts, giving and receiving, specially the ones to and from LOML. We know what the other wants!

  5. Brooke says:

    For US readers, “Wild Chamber” is released here in early December–in time for holiday gift giving and personal reading.

    I downloaded “The Secret Santa” on December 25, 2015 as a personal treat/reward for completing exams(due at midnight; what sadistic faculty set the schedule!). And what a treat–in a vengeful sort of way. Fortunately, a UK-based client gave me “London’s Glory,” as I have never seen it in US bookstores.

    Dare we hope that your agent and publishers will not abandon the US market? I know– Trump, KKK, gun-toting. But we buy books and even read some.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Peter Tromans – your recollection of being a celestial object, reminded me of a video I saw on TV of a Nativity, where some of the poor little kids were playing rocks and sacks, and a tree. I know that the thing today is ‘inclusivity’, but, really. “Which one is your Thomas?” “Third boulder from the left.” “Did boulders have Buzz Lightyear on them in biblical times?” “No, only it was the only fabric I had handy at the time.”

  7. admin says:

    Good point Brooke; my baker’s dozen of Bryant & May lost cases has not been published in the USA, but I’m coming to New York next month and meeting with my publishers – we’ll see what they say!

  8. Vivienne says:

    I was a shepherd’s wife and had to kiss my shepherd husband off to work in our nativity play. Don’t know whether he or I hated it most. But otherwise I love Christmas. We were always atheist but it’s solstice isn’t it? A good feast in the darkest days makes sense and the darkest days are over. What can be wrong with giving stuff to people you like and having a day or two round a fire? I always get books too, so – perfection!

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    Christmas is a time for spending money you don’t really have, giving things they don’t really want, to people you don’t really like. Uncle George would drink a bottle of brandy and pass out under the tree. The rest of us played five famous Belgians until the day passed and sanity resumed.

  10. David Ronaldson says:

    Christmas is for sitting by the fire with horror short stories and a large brandy. My favourite is Horror for Christmas, edited by Richard Dalby, which includes the gloriously deranged “Christmas Eve” by Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Martin Tolley – ‘Five Famous Belgians’, eh?
    (1) Eddy Merckx
    (2) Adolphe Sax
    (3) Audrey Hepburn
    (4) Hergé (Georges Remi)
    (5) Jean Claude Van Damme
    That’s my pub argument stopping quintet. I had to use those, as some of the names i suggested first were from late 1980’s ‘Nieuw Beat’ records, which some of the people had never heard of, and were probably pseudonyms anyway.

  12. Martin Tolley says:

    Thanks Ian. Now you’ve taken away the best part of the day I guess I’ll just have to stay abed with a good book instead.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Oops! Sorry.

  14. Martin Tolley says:

    Forgiven.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    I played Mary one year and had a charming fellow student tell me I’d only been chosen because I had long hair. I had trouble learning how to “project”. Funny, I have no problem now.
    With one son, no cousins in the area, no grandchildren, only one sibling Christmas is more than quiet for us but when I was a child and we all met at my paternal grandparents’ it was rather fun and still fun when the house was sold and we met at my aunt’s much more modern home. I remember reciting King John’s Christmas for the delectation of all when I was about 7 or 8. Hmm, perhaps I should go over it for this year.

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