‘Christmas Not Just Once a Year’, by Heinrich Böll

This is my favourite festive story, a satire on post-war hypocrisies, and one of Heinrich Böll’s more absurd fictions, an illustration of the weird and dysfunctional ways in which families operate at Christmas- (or any) time.

It concerns a family much disturbed by the psychological breakdown of their wife and mother, the narrator’s Aunt Milla. Each year, this well-do-do, middle-class family prepares for Christmas in the usual fashion, except with the onset of peace and economic recovery they can celebrate as they did in the pre-war years: lavish tree decorations, candies and the familiar, familial singing of carols by the tree.

But that this year, on Candlemas Eve, when Milla’s son attempts to take the decorations down, she begins to scream: an impossible caterwauling without cease, one that can only be pacified if the family leaves the decorations up and by the ludicrous repetition of the Christmas traditions, every single evening, which includes the unseasonal spectacle of the recitation of the lyrics, “O Christmas Tree!” and “…in winter too, when snowflakes fall…” in the middle of June.

Aunt Milla is cocooned within the delusion that every day is Christmas Eve and her family are forced to collude in the delusion. Seasonal treats are prepared and eaten daily. Christmas trees are gone through at an alarming rate. Doctors and psychologists are of no use. The entire family, along with the local priest, are press-ganged into maintaining the façade to the detriment of their personal and moral degradation. At one point, paid actors are brought in to stand in for individuals members of the family who have bowed out.

It’s not the most heart-warming or traditional of Christmas fictions, but in a field of necessary, well-meaning tales offering cheer, optimism and good-will to et cetera… it stands out: a story that is comical and sad, about a clan so consumed by their aunt’s well-being they forfeit their own, and the hellish prospect of a family Christmas that never ends. If nothing else it may put some readers’ own and personal family horrors into perspective.

First broadcast – as ‘Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit’ in 1951 – and published in a collection with the same title in 1952.

Chosen by JL Bogenschneider, who is a writer of short fiction, with recent work published in The Island ReviewEllipsis ZineBurning House Press and theYork Literary Review.

‘Christians Singing’ by William Saroyan

“Boy, I’ve got plenty to say. You should have heard those Christians singing.” William Saroyan infiltrated my bookshelves via an anthology I’d purchased because it included work by another now-neglected author. Oh, the unexpected rewards of completism. Leafing through the book, I found ‘Christians Singing’: four wondrous pages, narrated in the voice quoted above. The story is not explicitly set at Christmas time; maybe it’s not, maybe it doesn’t matter. The unabashedly sentimental point is that the singers in question are out making their annual attempt to raise donations, singing songs about walking with Jesus and the like. “I don’t want to convert anybody to anything,” the narrator assures you. “Boy,” though, he sure feels bad for lying to the Christian girl who comes to his door about being broke. “I had seventy-eight cents on the table upstairs in my room.” Scrooge in miniature. Saroyan’s gift to you.

First published in Inhale and Exhale, Random House, 1936. Collected in Best Stories of William Saroyan, Faber & Faber, 1945

Chosen by Michael Caines. Michael works at the Times Literary Supplement and is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. He is also the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the editor of a TLS bicentennial celebration of Jane Austen.

You can read Michael’s own Personal Anthology here

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas

As rich and filling as a thick slice of plum pudding, ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ reminds me of all the Christmases I never had as a child (my parents had no time for that sort of thing), and of all the other Christmases I’ve missed as a grown-up through work or travel or simply being alone, by choice or necessity. I first read it as a teenager at a time when I had a particular passion for Thomas’s prose. Most of his poetry left me cold back then, and still does, but I loved Under Milk Wood, the short stories, the unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade and the letters. Everyone should read the letters.

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ is hardly a story at all, more a shrewdly calculated exercise in nostalgia. A cynic may dislike the author’s ingratiating approach, but I’m no cynic and find it irresistible. There’s a boozy sentimentality underlying it all, and what could be more appropriate at this time of the year? Whenever I read it to myself, or read it to others (avoiding any attempt at a Welsh accent), I am always reminded of those densely-populated Giles cartoons in the Daily Express (once a great newspaper) showing a crowded family kitchen at Christmas time, full of steaming saucepans and bickering kiddywinks, with Mum serenely rolling pastry and Dad asleep with a newspaper spread over his face, the terrifying Grandma tippling sherry in her armchair, the dog chasing the cat under the table, the snow falling outside. An image of warm familial contentment – tolerant, cluttered, secure and chaotic. Christmases were never like this, but it’s a consolation to imagine that they could have been, at least for the Thomases of Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea.

The paragraphs are jam-packed with vividly-rendered upper-cased Presents: the Useful (home-knitted clothes mostly but including, in a favourite phrase, “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why”) and the Useless (“Bags of moist and many-coloured jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult”). The house is likewise packed with significant upper-cased Uncles and Aunts (“Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush”). There’s plenty of Just William-style mischief as the young Dylan and his pals Jim and Dan and Jack roam the town and the beach with their sweet cigarettes and dog-whistles. A snow-covered Swansea plays host to a surreal menagerie of creatures: cats, dogs, reindeers, wolves, bears, sloths, camels, a zebra, hippos and a clock-work mouse (which frightens Aunt Bessie, twice). There are also trolls and ghosts and, in a terrifying moment, “a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door”.

Perhaps you have no appetite for plum pudding and I’ll admit that, for the rest of the year, my own tastes incline to the austere. But this, believe me, is a quarter of an hour well spent and a perfect accompaniment to egg-nog. I expect you’ll enjoy it.

PS I have a theory that when writing the dialogue in the story Thomas was influenced by the Robert Graves poem ‘Welsh Incident’ (1929). Here’s a recording of Thomas reading it very badly, and here’s Richard Burton reading it brilliantly. See what you make of them both.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1950, including material from a radio broadcast written for the BBC in 1945, and a 1947 essay for Picture Post. Currently published by Orion, 2006. Available online here

Chosen by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His most recent book is About a Girl (CB editions). He contributes to the forthcoming anthology We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books, March 2019) and is currently working on a group biography of London writers in the 1970s.

Read David’s previous contributions to A Personal Anthology here

‘Bath Time’ by Jenny Diski

Written in Diski’s imitable style, ‘Bath Time’ offsets realism and desire. The story is a lesson in reduction, distilling human existence into a single dream, a woman’s longing for the perfect bath. ‘Bath Time’ scratches at the edge of absurdity whilst staying close to gritty, visceral details: Imperial Leather, greyish vinyl tiles, a “slow stream of immersion heated water.” A life is told through time in encapsulated hot water: embryonic baths, Dettol disinfectant childhood baths, a kaleidoscope bath tripping on LSD… Finally, the story leads us to a much-awaited Christmas Eve and the prospect of a present on the 25th, the ultimate, empyrean bath, the fulfillment the woman’s “greatest ambition.”

When I first read ‘Bath Time’, as a twenty-year old Drama student, I loved the story so much it inspired my final degree show. My play about women, bathrooms, and metamorphosing bodies was a reflection of Diski’s world. When the lights went up, three women occupied a real pink bathroom suite: a pale rose toilet, curved sink, and a bath filled to the brim with tiny, bright white polystyrene balls. As the main character lay in the ‘water’, describing scrubbing raw her teenage skin, the tiny balls poured over the edge of the bath in mounds, which became waves, spilling across the stage floor. The little white bubbles, perfect spheres, dropped off the brink of the stage in a curtain like a waterfall, falling into the orchestra pit.

First published in Sacred Space, edited by Marsha Lowe, Serpent’s Tail, 1992. Collected in The Vanishing Princess, Ecco reissued 2017

Chosen by Susanna Crossman. Susanna is an Anglo-French writer and co-author of the French novel, L’Hôpital, Le dessous des Cartes(LEH, 2015). Her fiction has been short-listed for the Bristol Prize and Glimmertrain. More at: https://susanna-crossman.squarespace.com @crossmansusanna

‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O Henry

I first heard this story when I was about eight and a teacher read it during an assembly, and I’ve often thought of it since, maybe because I’m slightly obsessed with the psychology of presents. Why we give them, how we choose them, and how best to receive them, for better and worse… the whole thing is a fascinating minefield, especially since a present usually says much more about the giver’s perception than the receiver’s desires. This story is no different, and while the hook is the tragedy of the ironic resolution, it is at the same time infused with a huge expression of mutual love – surely the ultimate point of all gifts anyway.

First published in The New York Sunday World, December 1905. Widely republished, including here online

Chosen by Alice Furse. Alice works at Four Communications and is the author of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

‘The Christmas Tree and the Wedding’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky

If you come to this story in search of Christmas cheer and cosiness, I am afraid I must, in the spirit of Lemony Snicket, urge you to turn away now and never look back. Here will be all the trimmings of Christmas – presents, sweets and Christmas trees – but all through the lens of the great master of misery, Dostoevsky.

The occasion is a Christmas party, and our narrator is a thoroughly Dostoevskian outsider who perceives with clear eye the macabre mechanisms of society. (How easily this could be Crime and Punishment’s Rodion Raskolnikov, forced to attend a party he has no wish to be at, and which he will pass talking to children and then hiding in a side room, not neglecting to commit social faux pas by laugh in the face of the most important man present.)

Our narrator watches, unperceived, as two children at opposite ends of the social spectrum – the prettiest, richest little girl at the party, and a governess’s son – play with their Christmas toys, only to be disturbed by the sinister figure of the wealthy, corpulent, Mastakovitch who has be calculating what the girl’s dowry will be when she comes of age –and it is a sum that makes him almost dance with glee. The result is a savage pairing of childhood innocence and adult avarice that cannot fail to evoke a shudder.

First published in 1848. Available online here

Chosen by Joanna Harker Shaw. Joanna is a writer and performer of poetry shortlisted for the Outspoken poetry prize. She is currently completing a Creative Writing PhD at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and also teaches and runs creative writing workshops for all ages.

‘Master and Man’ by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Ronald Wilks and Paul Foote

Even in this, the cossetted age in which we find ourselves, snow is one of the seasons’ few natural phenomena capable of transforming the country, blanketing and blotting out the familiar, imperilling the living and stalling society.

Leo Tolstoy, at the time of my writing, has never made an appearance in A Personal Anthology. On the one hand, this isn’t surprising. The author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace is always going to be remembered as a novelist. But even if those books had somehow gone unwritten it’s still likely, imho, that Tolstoy would enjoy a reputation for greatness purely on the basis of his short fiction, tales which wrestle with hefty themes in an unpretentious and eminently readable manner: ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, ‘Alyosha the Pot’, ‘The Forged Coupon’, and this, a seemingly simple tale of what can happen to man when besieged by snow.

Vasily Andreevich, an affluent landowner, enlists a deferential peasant in his pay to accompany him on short sleigh ride to a neighbouring rival in order to close a business deal. They find themselves beset by a snowstorm, one through which the master insists they must travel. As they do so, the blizzard grows more extreme, and the three of them (Mukhorty, their horse, is a character in his own right) soon discover they have strayed from the road and are now hopelessly and hazardously lost. Stripped, quite literally, of life’s cosy certainties, Andreevich – not unlike Scrooge – experiences a true Yuletide revelation, one that upends his self-conception and forces him to appraise his fellow man anew.

The spare structure of ‘Master and Man’ has the feel of a parable (and at times a ghost story) but it’s Tolstoy’s signature nuance and care when it comes to his character – their interplay with others in particular and society in general – which transmute this story into one of the most affecting and essential pieces of winter writing we have.

First published 1895. Collected in Master and Man and Other Stories, Penguin, 1977. Read it online here

Chosen by Richard V. Hirst. Richard is the editor of We Were Strangers, an anthology of new stories inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Confingo Press, 2018.