Since her spellbinding, genre-splicing first novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” Jeanette Winterson has consistently beguiled and bemused readers with bold, imaginative fiction. The best of her work finds her impishly tinkering with fairy tales, legends and myths, whether looking at them from skewed angles or coating them with a postmodern polish. It therefore seems fitting that for her new book Winterson should turn to Christmas, a celebration steeped in folklore and aglow with wonder.
For the most part, “Christmas Days” is a collection of yuletide-themed tales. However, it is subtitled “12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days,” for interlarding each story is a festive recipe. The arrangement works well and the overall result is something special: an author inspired by, and writing infused with, the magic and mystery of Christmas.
Before launching into her first story or feast, Winterson gets us in the mood with an enlightening introduction about the history of Christmas as a celebration and the origins of attendant words, symbols and traditions. At one point she bemoans the fact that Christmas has become “a cynical retail hijack.” It is up to us, she writes, “individually and collectively, to object to that.”
Her book enables us to do so. Throughout it, she alerts us to the true meaning and message of Christmas — subtly, not by way of strident preaching or saccharine storytelling. In her opening tale, a couple come across a lost child who proclaims herself the Spirit of Christmas and a Santa Claus who, instead of leaving presents, takes away excessive belongings. “Why,” we are asked at the end, “are the real things, the important things so easily mislaid underneath the things that hardly matter at all?”
A sharp examiner of gender difference and imbalance, Winterson enchants in a wry story in which a “SnowMama” comes to life. Charles Dickens’ influence is felt on several occasions: A man who hates Christmas has his frozen heart melted by a series of goodwill gestures, and a fantasy features the grotesque Mrs. Reckitt and her Establishment for Orphans. Winterson also serves up a restyled Nativity, a redrawn wedding night and, in “Dark Christmas,” a delightfully spooky ghost story.
Like “A Christmas Carol,” Winterson blends soft edges with hard reality — lonely souls, broken hearts, children without parents and death by mistletoe berry. There is more cheer in her recipes, which range from mulled wine (“more of a spell than a recipe”) to mince pies to turkey biryani. Along with her instructions, tips and rituals (wear an apron, put on Bing Crosby, light candles) are touching anecdotes: her friendship with Ruth Rendell, her relationship with her partner, her reconciliation with her father.
Winterson’s trove of 12 stories and 12 feasts feels like a literary advent calendar, a series of surprise treats to savor slowly. It is a joyous collection, one we should read this Christmas, and in Christmases to come.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Jeanette Winterson
Publisher: Grove Press, 292 pages, $24.