Book Review: "Christmas Days" by Jeanette Winterson

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Published:
December 23, 2022

 


“Christmas was banned by the Puritans in the UK and the USA,” Jeanette Winterson reflects, “because it is such a gaudy ragbag of a festival, with something borrowed from everywhere—pagans, Romans, Norsemen, Celts, Turks—and because its celebratory free spirit, its gift-giving, topsy-turvy misrule, made it anti-authority and anti-work. It was a holiday—holy day—of the best kind, where devotion has joy in it. Life should be joyful.”

Winterson’s description of Christmas—a gaudy ragbag, topsy-turvy and eccentric in its offerings—could just as easily apply to her 2016 collection Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. The book contains 12 short stories set on and around Christmas as well as 12 holiday recipes. Though the recipes and stories vary wildly in content and tone, there are a few motifs that appear throughout: hauntings, both literal and figurative; the holidays as a time of holy mischief and misrule; and the persistence, despite cynicism and saccharine commercialism, of real, sincere, simple love.

Winterson is perhaps most famous for her autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and though a knowledge of that book is by no means necessary for understanding Christmas Days, it provides fascinating context. In it, Winterson relates her eccentric upbringing as the adopted child of a fanatical Pentecostal woman living in 1960s England. The novel, which focuses on Winterson’s childhood faith and developing lesbianism, is bitingly funny, heartbreaking, and strange in turns, freely incorporating biblical intertext and magical realism into its coming-of-age story.

Winterson’s more straightforward memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011), covers the same questions of faith, trauma, and family but without the fractured fairy tales and supernatural moments found in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The styles and content of both books are reflected in Christmas Days.

For me, the 12 short stories in Christmas Days are a mixed bag, featuring fairy tales and fables, more realistic stories merely touched with the possibility of magic, and a surprising number of ghost stories. Winterson takes a cue from that most famous of Christmas stories, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, forcing her characters to confront the past again and again: to heal from loss, address societal injustices, or repair their existing relationships. “The past is always returning and repeating,” she muses in the book’s conclusion. “Memory, as a creative act, allows us to reawaken the dead, or sometimes to lay them to rest, as at last we understand our past” (290).

Sometimes, as in “Spirit of Christmas,” Winterson’s point feels a little too obvious and precious; other times, as in “The Glow-Heart,” which depicts a man haunted by a lover who has recently died of AIDS, the use of ghosts and hauntings is deeply poignant. Other entries, such as “The SnowMama” and “Christmas Cracker,” will likely fail or succeed for you based on your tolerance for the twee and fanciful. Personally, I am most partial to “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me,” a sweet story narrated by the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem, in which he reflects on the incarnation and its exultation of the humble things of this world.

In my opinion, the 12 recipes and accompanying essays are the highlight of the book, and I would encourage you to pick it up and read them even if you aren’t a big fan of short stories. The recipes themselves are not particularly precise and are full of lots of meat and alcohol that might turn the average Adventist reader off. That isn’t the point, though. The point is the memories, the people and places the food connects Winterson to, whether it’s Christmas trifle made entirely from shelf-stable items in the freezing cold kitchen of her childhood home, or the champagne and smoked salmon on toast that she eats today while listening to the Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols service on the BBC.

For Winterson, food is about creating ritual—“a way of altering time . . . a way of pausing the endless intrusion of busy life.” It’s a way of helping her understand her past, such as when she recreates her now-estranged mother’s mincemeat pies, as well as a reflection of the diversity and vibrance of her current life: her Jewish partner’s gravlax, a Pakistani friend’s turkey biryani. “My feeling is that we could do with more stability in our outward-facing lives so that we could risk disruption to our inner lives; our thinking, feeling, imaginative lives.”

The entire book brims with Winterson’s full-hearted love and affection, and a generosity toward the faith and family that have caused her so much pain throughout the years. Despite her queerness and deconstruction, her stories full of ghosts and fairies, by the end of the text, Winterson rests on the image of Jesus: the Jesus who will grow up to eat with lepers, overturn moneychangers’ tables, and herald the end of earthly empire. “The birth of the Christ Child,” she reminds us, “heralds the death of an existing order.”

 


Melodie Roschman is an English PhD graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder. Her dissertation examines memoir, community, and resistance in the progressive Christian community surrounding the late Rachel Held Evans. An excerpt of it, "I Will Not Let You Go Unless You Bless Me," was published in the most recent issue of the journal. 

Cover art courtesy of Grove Atlantic.

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