Jeanette Winterson—best known for her award winning queer books including Written on the Body and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—has collected a set of twelve stories, paired with twelve anecdotes and recipes, inspired by the Christmas season. Christmas Days is attractive and color-printed, a blue and silver treat, and reflects the holiday spirit quite admirably.
It isn’t often one sees a Christmas book of this sort from someone other than, for example, a cooking television celebrity. It’s somehow immensely weird and pleasant to pick up one that is about queer families, aging, and making home from the exact same sort of genre but obviously quite different—given our narrator.
Truly, this is the sort of book that lends itself to a personal approach—but, to be quite honest, I suspect I’m a decade too soon or too late for most of it. The strange mélange of recipes, anecdotes, and seasonal short stories that makes up Christmas Days is cute and soft and a bit silly. It’s Winterson at rest, or at play, rather than Winterson making the reader chew their fingernails with dread and humor. It isn’t substantial. It is, however, amusing.
The through-line in the stories is a gentle magic: there are Snow People whose souls reincarnate on the regular through the hands of the children who craft and believe in them; there is the donkey from the Nativity whose nose is touched by an angel and turns gold; there are lost children and found children. Creatures speak, ghosts visit, and memories are made. The stories are also child-like in themselves, for the most part: the prose is strangely direct, stripped down, and almost resembles the oral traditions or fables that Winterson discusses in her introduction.
I’m certain this is intentional, given that introduction’s exploration of the history of the Christmas holiday from its pagan roots. Winterson acknowledges the visual and oral arts, though she is writing in text, as the home of story that makes sense over this season for the people who embrace it. As a part of that, all of the tales in this collection feel meant to be read aloud. It makes for a quick and light read, even in the stories that are a bit darker than the rest.
The best of the bunch, for me, was the final story: “The Glow-Heart.” Marty is spending his first Christmas Eve by himself without his long-term partner, David, who died two years previous; David’s spirit visits him, and the pair have a final moment before he’s able to let go. The plot, as with the other tales in this collection, is as straightforward as can be—to the point of oversimplification. However, the emotional core is delicate and powerful. The observations Winterson works in about their lives—how David maintained his own apartment and kept occasional casual lovers, how Marty was the skeptic but appreciated his partner’s mysticism—give it a real punch.
I admit it: I cried.
There are also, of course, the person anecdotes and the recipes collected from Winterson’s friends and family. It makes the stories feel, perhaps, more homely and welcoming—and, as someone who cooks quite a bit and does read recipe books often, it was also homely and welcoming how the recipes were constructed. They’re given as I’ve seen them given between friends: inexact, reliant on eyeballing amounts and taste as much as measurement on occasion, and written less as scientific instructions, more as guidelines. It’s charming; I haven’t tried any of them, but perhaps soon.
The personal anecdotes, which lead in and around the recipes, tie together the themes of seasonal celebration, charm, and choosing or appreciating relationships. “Time is a boomerang, not an arrow,” Winterson says in her closing note to the reader. In this book, she revisits stories about her abusive and controlling mother; she also explores the significance of Christmas for their family, dysfunctional as it was, in a fashion that makes the reader able to understand the complexity of those familial relations. As she’s grown older and more settled in her own life, with a wife and friends to have holiday parties and so forth, her approach has changed though the factual truth of what happened hasn’t.
It’s an odd feeling, being extremely aware of one’s own age while reading a collection. I’m under thirty; to be frankly honest, my life is a mess most of the time. So there’s something soothing about the schmaltz in this book, because of that, even if Christmas stories are so not my thing: this is a queer woman who has made it to a sort of comfort and success that appears unavailable to people like us, sometimes. She’s gotten older and happier and more settled. In between all the recipes and fables, that comes through—and that’s the sort of thing that makes it an interesting project. The stories themselves aren’t doing a thing for me, for the most part, but there’s something leaking through in the implications of the book itself that I find compelling nonetheless.
Christmas Days is available now from Grove Atlantic.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.