Festive Reads: Holiday Writing from Around the World

The Christmas season can be oppressive in everything from familial expectation to brow-beating advertising to relentless good cheer.

For many of us, Christmas is a time for gathering with family, giving gifts, and singing carols. For others, however, the holiday isn’t a snowy Love Actually postcard scene; in some parts of the world, it features tropical weather and end-of-year department store sales, while in others, it’s a just a regular day. You’ve read the blog’s Summer Ennui reading recommendations, and now we’re back with a list of our favorite Christmastime reads from Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, Communications Manager Alexander Dickow, and Editors-at-Large Alice Inggs and Barbara Halla.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa

Picture this: it’s December 25 in South Africa and there is drought somewhere in the country. Farmers pray for rain, sink boreholes, shoot dying sheep. The acacia in the bushveld to the north is bone-white and the grass invites fire. The heat is a white heat and cattle bones glare in the sun. The paint on Father Christmas statues outside shopping centres begins to melt and pine cuttings out of water droop. Tempers crackle and flare. The roads are too busy and the accident death toll climbs. White-robed umnazaretha worshipping in the open veld stand out against the brown-grey earth. It is hot and bleak and houses are full because all the family came to visit.

“It is a dry, white season” begins South African Black Consciousness writer Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “For Don M. — Banned.” It was written in the early 1970s for Don Mattera, a Xhosa-Italian poet and friend of Serote’s who had been banned by the apartheid government. The first line of Serote’s poem was later borrowed by Afrikaner André Brink for his 1979 novel ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season). The book was banned too, as well as a subsequent film adaptation starring Zakes Mokae and Donald Sutherland. It’s been two and a half decades since those laws were repealed and the cultural whitewash acknowledged, but that line—“It is a dry, white season”—still echoes through summer in South Africa, the season in which Christmas falls; a reminder of the oppressive atmosphere that back then was not limited to the months when the temperature climbed.

Christmas is about remembrance, so we could pause here with Brink, Serote, Mattera and the past; or we could look forward, because Christmas is also about new beginnings. There is an echo of Serote’s poem in “Love Back,” a multilingual short story (English, isiXhosa) by Julie Nxadi, published in the Johannesburg Review of Books:

Kwathi kaloku ngantsomi, there were clouds too lazy to bring a storm. Sagging, low and grey, they writhed over thorn bushes.

There was a horizon, that whispered and waved long, khaki-coloured, dry grass (just a shade lighter than the clay roads that had been bleached and hardened by months of unrelenting sun).

There is uLoli, nine years old, walking angrily home.

The Christmas season can be oppressive in everything from familial expectation to brow-beating advertising to relentless good cheer. And memory is a funny thing—it can be used to exorcise ghosts or to reawaken them. In Nxadi’s story, as the anger in uLoli reaches breaking point, it begins to rain. She takes off her muddied stockings and the “many layers of her white Christmas dress,” which are in any case ruined, and disposes of them.

 A calm takes her by the hand and leads her gently out of the house back into the rain.

Find a way to remember the past this Christmas, but find a way to escape it, too.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large for Albania

In Albania, we have sort of a relaxed history with religion, which is why the only big winter celebration is New Year’s Eve. Our Christmas trees are actually known as “New Year’s Trees,” and Santa Claus is nicknamed “New Year’s Grandpa.” I am using this preamble, this ode to my pagan winter holidays, to perhaps justify my rather bleak “festive read” recommendation.

I first read Through a Glass, Darkly by Jostein Gaarder (translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan) the winter of my sophomore year in college. I had to get through it quickly, as I had picked it up from the library the same day as my flight home. It’s a good thing I could not stop reading until I was done. The story is about little Cecilia’s last Christmas on Earth. Sick with cancer and confined by her ailments in her room, she is unable to appreciate or join in the efforts her family is making to ensure this Christmas is extra special for her.

But while the premise is bleak, Jostein Gaarder is an essentially optimistic writer. In the restless nights before Christmas, Cecilia is visited by an angel. Together, again in a very traditional Gaarder style, they discuss death and life and what could possibly be the meaning of life, if we know we are doomed from the start, and in Cecilia’s case, when we know that the ending is particularly near. The book is less about celebrating Christmas than about learning to celebrate life and look at it through a slightly less dark lens. Bring tissues and don’t read this on an actual holiday, unless what you’re going for at the dinner table is a puffy-eyed look.

Alexander Dickow, Communications Manager

Julien Gracq’s Balcony in the Forest tells the tale of Lieutenant Grange’s wait for impending doom, making it an apparently unlikely choice for holiday reading. Balcony in the Forest is considered Gracq’s most “realist” novel, and it might seem to lack the scope and ambition of The Opposing Shore, widely considered Gracq’s masterpiece. Yet amidst the bustle of family, friends, travel, and celebration, I find Balcony’s quiet humility and discreet lyricism more compelling than The Opposing Shore, however astonishing the latter. The book is set during the Phony War: nine months of weird calm in 1939, before the German attack and subsequent collapse of French defences; Lieutenant Grange spends this peaceful but eerie interregnum in a blockhouse on the Meuse river, in Northern France. Ultimately, the miracle of Balcony in the Forest is finding a true quiet in an atmosphere of imminent disaster. Grange reflects that “The world around him was troubled and uncertain, but there was this sleep as well”—and the whole of Balcony lies in that but, in that rest that resists the oncoming rush of history. Balcony is the story of a locus amoenus, a fragment of paradise, as Grange remarks when he discovers Mona, with whom he has a strange affair: “You’re a paradise!” he exclaims. And Gracq’s preternaturally lush style submerges the reader in the Edenic echoes of this high forest of the Ardennes. While future doom always returns to haunt us, the moments of forgetting are most precious, they are as close to a pure present as we can hope for: Balcony, of course, tells the tale of a few brief moments before we die, and Grange’s tale is our own.

I first read Balcony in 2002, in French, and recommend Richard Howard’s 1959 translation, republished in 2017 by New York Review Books, most highly—for any time of year, but especially during the holidays, when the quiet of Grange’s universe may seem for a moment more resonant than the menace of death.

Rachael Pennington, Assistant Managing Editor

For Quim Monzó, rather than being a time of tradition, Christmastime represents, above all, repetition. In his book Tres Nadals (Three Christmases), Monzó takes those all-too-familiar festive stories, scenes, conversations, and preparations and sprinkles them with an abundance of jovial wit.

In Blanca Navidad (White Christmas), the first of his trio of short stories, we encounter Mary and Joseph squabbling over the name they will give unto their sons—yes, sons. In this version of the Nativity, despite the Angel Gabriel only proclaiming one holy name, on December 25th the Virgin gives birth to two saviours. The frivolous ending brings the tale to the modern day while adding in a touch of Catalan tradition and riding on the author’s jocularity.

La cerillera (The Match Girl) casts a light to the sadistic side of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic. This little match girl is sick and tired of reliving the same harrowing story, Christmas after Christmas. A slave to the whims of her creator, she fantasises about breaking the cycle—perhaps not for the first time—and dares to take a match to the house of the happy family she observes from outside the window.

The final story, La comisión (The Committee), is a merry satire of political correctness in a small Catalan town. With Christmas just around the corner, the annual committee meeting is held to decide which members will be granted the honour of being The Three Wise Men, the bearers of the gifts, in the parade on the eve of the Epiphany. What follows is a debate that borders on the absurd. Who will represent the town this year: the immigrants, the homosexuals, or the diabetics?

A criticism of our comfort in recurrence, a parody of custom, Monzó unwraps what we thought we knew about Christmas, subverts it, and then takes it to its limits. Readers of Catalan and Spanish can discover the result: three alternative Christmas stories that are surprisingly spirited, brimming with mirth, and that ring closer to home than we may ever want to admit.


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