‘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.

‘New Year’s Eve’ by Mavis Gallant

Whatever happens on New Year’s Eve “happens every day for a year”. That is a scary thought. Especially for the unhappy bereaved Plummers and unhappy almost-orphan Amabel, who spend a squirmingly uncomfortable last night of the year in Moscow enduring the wrong opera in the wrong language with the wrong people.

It’s not a long story and there’s not much plot, just Amabel’s delusions and the Plummers’ dark innards scalpeled open. But every sentence of Gallant’s exact and flowing prose brings a little ping of surprise – oh, she’s going to do that now! Hey, I wasn’t expecting that! Gallant’s characters are frequently outspoken but rarely understand each other. (And when they do, they pretend not to.) Here, Cyrillic script and minds disorderly with time and loss add further division. Nothing, it seems, will rescue the Plummers from their lonely cells, but, at the end, there is a hint that Amabel’s incapacity for deep thought may save her – and that is also typical of Gallant, where intelligence is so often a bar to any conventional form of happiness.

‘New Year’s Eve’ is both heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, and if the evening’s events will indeed repeat themselves throughout 2019, we could all do worse than indulge in some Gallant before the fireworks start.

First published in The New Yorker, 10 Jan 1970. Available in various Gallant collections, including The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury

Chosen by Jo Lloyd. Jo is from South Wales, where she enjoys naming the elements. Her short fiction has appeared in Zoetrope, Ploughshares, Southern Review, Best British Short Stories, and the 2018 O Henry Prize Stories.

‘Mr Salary’ by Sally Rooney

Earlier this year, in an interview with the TLS, novelist Bret Easton Ellis ruminated on why there isn’t a “Great Millennial Novelist or a Great Millennial Short Story Writer.” He’s wrong: there is a Great Millennial Novelist and a Great Millennial Short Story Writer, and they are one and the same: Sally Rooney, author of Conversations with Friends and the Booker-shortlisted Normal People.

‘Mr Salary’ was published by Granta in 2016, shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in 2017 and will be published as a stand-alone volume by Faber & Faber in 2019. It features four things that I think of as intrinsic to Rooney’s work: Ireland, a relationship in limbo, a young woman who doesn’t quite know how to get what she wants, and characters that feel real enough to buy you a pint.

I read ‘Mr Salary’ in bed one Sunday morning, deep in my hangover, and I suggest you do the same. It introduces 24-year-old Sukie as she returns home to Dublin from university in Boston. She’s met by a family friend, Nathan, who she has lived with on and off since she was 19. Sukie has a hole in her leggings, unwashed hair and a suitcase that’s so naff, Nathan asks if it’s “a joke suitcase”. The unlikely nature of this pseudo-platonic pairing carries the story from Dublin airport to a hospital bed, dipping its toes into Sukie’s past just frequently enough to contextualise the present. ‘Mr Salary’ is really quite an incredible read and the perfect intro to Sally Rooney’s work.

First published in Granta 135: New Irish Writing, April 2016. Available online here to subscribers, and also for free here. Also published as a standalone Faber Story January 2019.

Chosen by Alice Slater. Alice is a writer from London. She’s co-host of literary podcast What Page Are You On? and writes about short stories for Mslexia.

‘A Christmas Story’ by Sarban

I will tell you a Christmas story. I will tell it as Alexander Andreievitch Masseyev told it me in his little house outside the walls of Jedda years ago one hot, damp Christmas Eve.

A traditional story within a story then, thawed from the mind of a weary Russian diplomat in the desert. Thawed by a bottle of vodka which, due to its catalytic branding, propels the story onward in a particular direction through the frozen Siberian Taiga where images of starvation and salvation morph in and out of step with those of Good King Wenceslas. What is eventually revealed in this story remains partially hidden, half-glimpsed, a mysterious symbol and a paradox as repulsive and as welcome as Christmas Day itself.

It was a large piece of meat, purplish, like beef, you understand, but there was a piece of skin on it, and on the skin some hair, and that hair was long and woolly and reddish in colour…

Sarban (which means “Caravan-driver” in Persian) was the pen name of the Yorkshire writer John William Wall, himself a diplomat based in the Near East for many years. He remains as little known today as he was in his own lifetime but his works are worthy of exploration. Written in 1947, A Christmas story was one of the author’s earliest literary ventures and by 1951 Sarban seems to have ceased writing altogether.

More can be found out about Sarban here and all of his most significant writings have been kept alive by Tartarus Press.

First published in ‘Ringstones and Other Curious Tales’ – Peter Davis, London, 1951. Now available in hardback and ebook editions from Tartarus Press

Chosen by Kevin Sommerville. Kevin is a British writer living in New York. His 2001 poetry chapbook ’The Living Hinge’ was greeted with mixed reviews. He is currently writing a novel.

‘The Tailor of Gloucester’, by Beatrix Potter

But it is in the old story that all the beasts can talk, in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning ….

I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of Beatrix Potter’s tales – Mrs Tiggywinkle scares me (especially as Theresa May seems increasingly to be morphing into her), Peter Rabbit had much to be fearful of in Mr McGregor’s garden,  and let’s not dwell on the fate of Tom Kitten for too long… but her beautiful Christmas story, the 18th century-set ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’, which appeared in my Christmas stocking (ok, then pillowcase: I was a greedy child) in the year 197-, has always brought a lump to my cynical throat.

The Tailor (a patron saint for freelancers everywhere), tired, poor and under pressure to complete an important commission for Christmas Day – a sumptuous cherry-red waistcoat to be worn by the Mayor of Gloucester on his wedding morning – is laid low by illness and the mendaciousness of his bad cat, Simpkin, who hides the last piece, or twist, of silk thread required to complete the tailor’s task. “No More Twist,” which the Tailor mutters repeatedly in his delirious sleep, is a phrase I find myself coming out with when I feel at a low ebb, or when I think about the consequences of a No Deal Brexit.

The Tailor is saved by a flurry of mice, who strive – secretly, magnificently – to complete the task, and the relenting of Simpkin, who turns out not to be so bad after all. It’s snowy, magical and IT WILL WARM THE COCKLES OF YOUR HEART, as my beloved mum used to say.

First published by Frederick Warne & Co, 1903

Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Catherine is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she is writing a memoir of Sheffield, is part of the team behind the new Brixton Review of Books, a judge on the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses and co-host of its monthly podcast.

You can read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology here

‘Quare Name for a Boy’ by Claire Keegan

Christmas is an excellent way of testing a character. The in-built structure of Christmas, with its romantic and familial expectations, its association with heavy drinking and the anti-climax and nostalgia many readers will remember from childhood, means it is a festival that serves the short story well. Claire Keegan’s first collection Antarctica makes strong use of Christmas and New Year in the stories ‘Quare Name for a Boy’, ‘Men and Women’ and ‘Love in the Tall Grass’. Her writing is very precise and takes the reader right inside a way of life, right to the heart of a character and their particular seasonal agony.

‘Quare Name for a Boy’ is a post-Christmas story, a memory of an unconventional Christmas during which a couple had a six-day fling “to break the boredom of the holidays”. The story takes place when the woman, who lives in England, returns to Ireland to meet the man in a pub and tell him that she is pregnant. Her memories of their time together at his mother’s house are wonderfully atmospheric:

I wore nothing but your mandarin-collared shirts that came down to my knees, your thick brown-heeled football socks.

She sits up in the night and listens to cars passing through the slush. The story carries an entire country’s history of sexual relations inside it: “Irish girls should stay home, stuff the chicken and snip the parsley,” but the narrator is unwilling to snare the man like a fox and live with him “that way”. She doesn’t want to look into his eyes “years from now and discover a man whose worst regret is six furtive nights spent in his mother’s bed with a woman from a Christmas do.”

The tension builds as the “green wood hisses in the grate” and the man carries their drinks “like a man carrying the first two bucketfuls of water to put out a blaze in his own stable”. This is a story about Ireland’s future, too – the narrator doesn’t want to be the woman “who shelters her man same as he’s a boy. That part of my people ends with me.” Equally, (spoiler alert) there will be “no boat trip, no roll of twenty-pound notes, no bleachy white waiting room with women’s dog-eared magazines.” Published in 1999, it is especially moving to read this story in 2018 – a year in which Irish people voted to repeal the eighth.

First broadcast on RTE. First published in Antarctica, Faber 1999

Chosen by Hannah Vincent. Hannah is a novelist and playwright. Her first novel, Alarm Girl, was published by Myriad in 2014 and her second, The Weaning, was published by Salt in 2018. She teaches Creative Writing on the Open University’s MA and life writing on the Autobiography and Life Writing programme at New Writing South.