Every century has its own take on Christmas. Probably every generation does. When I was asked to compile a new anthology for the British Library picking out some of the most memorable stories and poetry about Christmas through the ages - A Literary Christmas [The British Library] - it did not take long to discover how diverse the material would be.
The 16th century left us deeply religious poems. The 18th-century fashion was for convivial social gatherings. The 19th century gave us plum pudding and Christmas trees (thank you, Dickens!). Nearer our own time authors have tended to take a more jaundiced view that sees the religious festival more an outlet for greedy shopkeepers.
The brief was to make the selection entertaining. And it also had to be suitable as a book and an audiobook (the actors Juliet Stevenson and Simon Callow were our readers - both brilliant). Family-friendly? Yes. Religious? Some, obviously. Lightweight? Not too much, as this needs to appeal to an educated audience. Varied? Yes, as much as possible. Everybody wants the well-known items - Clement Clarke Moore's 'The Night Before Christmas - but there have to be rarer gems, too.
Listen to a portion of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol
Listen to a portion of Robert Louis Stevenson's Christmas at Sea
I started with the disadvantage of not much liking Dickens. (Too much force-feeding of Oliver Twist at school.) Dickens virtually invented Christmas as far as the British are concerned. But then I see New York has four stage productions of A Christmas Carol running this winter, so clearly we are not the only ones.
In the end I chose three short extracts. Two scenes come from A Christmas Carol - Mrs. Cratchit serving the Christmas lunch, and Fezziwig's Christmas Eve ball, which is tremendously uplifting. Even better, to my mind (more witty) is the story of My Pickwick going skating from The Pickwick Papers. I love the "punch" line at the end. After Mr. Pickwick has fallen in the lake, his friend Bob Sawyer recommends a glass of punch: and "if ever hot punch did fail to act as a preventive, it was merely because the patient fell into the vulgar error of not taking enough of it."
Jane Austen can be relied upon to inject some tartness to offset Dickens's effusive embrace. In Emma, she sends her characters out on a bitterly cold winter afternoon to a party that one of them - Mr. John Knightley - clearly does not want to attend.
Surprisingly, perhaps, D.H. Lawrence is almost as sentimental as Dickens, when he brings William Morel home for Christmas in Sons and Lovers. ("He looked round, at the evergreens and the kissing bunch, and the little tarts that lay in their tins on the hearth. 'By jove! mother, it's not different!' he said.")
Anthony Trollope has a wonderfully detailed, long chapter set on Christmas Day in Orley Farm. He starts with a walk to the church in the morning, which gives everybody a chance to air their thoughts on what Christmas means. One of the characters says he is oppressed by its "roast-beefiness." He goes on: "I believe that the ceremony, as kept by us, is perpetuated by the butchers and beersellers, with a helping hand from the grocers. It is essentially a material festival." That is from a book written in 1861. And we thought materialism was a 21st-century complaint.
One of most touching is an episode from Henry James's "English Hours" (not the usual piece of James from Essays in London about walking round the London shops at Christmas). He tells how he went to spend Christmas at a country house in the North of England. His host takes him to an orphanage and he says that the dismal scene as the children receive their presents is a picture he would never forget - "with its curious mixture of poetry and sordid prose."
Among Christmas short stories I think the most entertaining is Bertie's Christmas Eve by Saki (who reads Saki now?). A family is locked in a barn on Christmas Eve waiting to see if the old Russian tradition is true that the cows will speak at midnight. Saki has a sharp tongue. His descriptions crackle with satirical edge, as he sends up this well-to-do family with their pomposity and social climbing.
Jane Austen would probably have enjoyed that story, if she had been alive in the early 1900s. Perhaps Nancy Mitford read it, if the similarity in tone with her early book, Christmas Pudding, is anything to go by. How many Christmases did she spend with aristocratic families as ghastly as Lord Leamington Spa's? Quite a few, one imagines, to judge from the riotous goings-on. (According to her sister, Mitford wrote the book at top speed, "giggling helplessly by the drawing-room fire.")
When I came to put this into the anthology, I was delighted to find that one of her characters mentions the old tradition of reciting The Mistletoe Bough at Christmas. I placed the poem, by Thomas Haynes Bayly, as the item before.
P.G. Wodehouse's Another Christmas Carol is in a similar vein, though more elegantly (dare one say 'magisterially'?) written. This is one of his Mr. Mulliner short stories - a slender tale, only three characters, and with a denouement that you can possibly see coming. But Wodehouse's skill is to fill it out with a stream of delightful detail and affection for his characters.
Among the 50 or so items, including quite a few poems, do I have a favourite? Yes. George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, is remembered mostly for his poetry, written in the Orkney Islands off the West coast of Scotland. Think poems steeped in legend and the bleak beauty of his home there.
His short Christmas story, "The Lost Boy," is a winner. This is set in the Orkneys, too, and you can almost feel the biting wind blowing off the Atlantic. It is a very short story, but it has everything a great Christmas tale has always needed - an eye for human behaviour, a sense of wonder, and an ending that will bring a tear to anybody's eye. Happy Christmas!