Christmas is coming, with all its frippery and solemnity, its tinsel and hymns. Just in time for the celebration, British novelist Jeanette Winterson has presented us with unexpected holiday cheer in her new book “Christmas Days.” The book contains a dozen short stories — and a dozen recipes — in honor of the 12 days of the season. It’s an odd little collection, perfect for stuffing the stockings of your eccentric relatives.
Winterson is best known for “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” a richly comic bildungsroman about a young woman from a fearfully religious family who comes out as a lesbian. Since that auspicious debut, she has written equally daring novels with elements of myth, fable and the fantastic, such as “Sexing the Cherry” and “The Passion.” Four years ago, she published a candid and devastating memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” Fans of her autobiographical work will recognize the singular voice in “Christmas Days.” To those unfamiliar with Winterson’s life story, be prepared for the dint of her personality.
The collection begins with a brilliant and quick introductory essay on the fusing of pagan and early Christian origins of the Nativity scene; the evolution of Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus; the customs of Christmas trees, cards and carols; the Victorian ghost story and Charles Dickens; and much more. You will learn when and why Christmas became a federal holiday and may pause to consider the contribution that American Jews have made to Christmas songs and movies, from the Grinch to “White Christmas.”
The 12 tales that follow are a frothy mix of fable and ghost stories, all told in a register appropriate to the season. The magical tales are all exuberant and slightly playful, shading toward goodwill, happy endings and lessons learned. Almost anything can — and does — happen.
“Spirit of Christmas,” for example, features an actual spirit, in the form of a child trapped in a department-store window, who teaches an overwhelmed couple the true meaning of the season. Snowmen and -women literally come to life in “The SnowMama.” Frogs save an orphanage. A dog gets stuck in a giant cracker — the British exploding kind — and changes a poor boy’s life. A Christmas fairy with an iPad grants an unusual wish to an Irish girl lonesome in London. Whimsical and occasionally twee, some are not going to be everyone’s cup of eggnog.
A handful of classical ghost stories might be more to one’s taste, though they, too, share a similar key. A Christmastime newlywed discovers her husband’s deceit in “The Mistletoe Bride” and extracts her revenge. “Dark Christmas” takes place in a lonesome haunted house with an old-fashioned Nativity set that first appears in the attic. The truly creepy “The Second-Best Bed” has an icy mystery at its core, and “A Ghost Story” features a secret room and an encounter with an old-fashioned explorer in a ski-resort hotel in the Swiss Alps. Near the end things get cold: “The room was slowly petrifying. Whitening. The warm tones of polished wood had bleached, like a bone in the sun, like a body left on a mountainside.” Throw another yule log on the fire. You will be rewarded with two quiet and tender romances, “Christmas in New York” and “The Glow-Heart,” that capture the particular loneliness of the heartbroken. They are gentle and touching stories, hopeful without sentimentality.
After each of the tales, Winterson provides a recipe for some seasonal delight, also accompanied by a personal story. Traditional fare such as mince pies, custard, sherry trifle and Twelfth Night fish cakes will please any aficionado of British cuisine. In true Winterson style, salmon and champagne, Chinese dumplings and turkey biryani are offered as well. The instructions for preparing these delights are suitably vague and eclectic: “If this is your first time, like all first times, keep tasting till you like it.” Good advice for this delightful little book.
As a coda, Winterson adds her Christmas Greetings, explaining how through all the heartache of her severe childhood and the tumult of adult life, she maintains her love for the holiday. Remembering her often horrible mother (always given the title “Mrs.”), she hears Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the radio and remembers “how Mrs W had played that song on the piano. It was one of those moments we all know, of sadness and sweetness mixed together.”
Keith Donohue is the author of five novels, including “The Motion of Puppets.”
By Jeanette Winterson
Grove. 292 pp. $24