‘The New Year’s Tree’ by Mikhail Zoshchenko, translated by Ross Ufberg

Mikhail Zoshchenko’s story was a childhood favourite, and, rereading it more than thirty years after I’d originally read it, I find myself surprised anew by the turns it takes. It opens with the description of a tree, decorated for the holiday with “beads, bunting, lanterns, walnuts, pastilles, and Crimean apples […] and underneath the tree were presents.” As a child, I was mesmerized by the idea of a tree decorated with edible items: that tradition had all but disappeared in the 1980s. 
Brother Minka and sister Lyolya begin eating the sweets off the tree, though knowing that they’re doing something against the house rules. Soon, their desire for sweets escalates. “If you took another bite from the apple, then I won’t stand on ceremony anymore and I’m going to eat a third pastille and in addition I’m going to take this bonbon cracker as a souvenir,” Lyolya says to her brother. The main turn of this story comes after the guests arrive and the children’s mother discovers that the gifts she had meant for the visiting children have been destroyed. The conflict escalates further, from being between children to being between parents, and the moment when the mother takes offence at her son being called “a bandit” (or “a brigand” in this translation) and lashes out at the other parent was deeply satisfying to me as a young reader. 
The mother chooses to drop the rules of polite behaviour, and sides with her children against the visiting families. Today we talk about attachment theories and unconditional love between parents and children: these ideas were far from mainstream in the Soviet Union. To me, as a small child and even as a teen, this story was the ultimate wish-fulfilment fantasy. Not only do the kids get to gorge on sweets, but also their mother supports them with unconditional love – all done with humour and merriment. Happy New Year!

Collected in A Very Russian Christmas: The Greatest Russian Holiday Stories of All Time, New Vessel Press, 2016

Chosen by Olga Zilberbourg. Olga English-language debut, Like Water and Other Stories was published in September 2019 (WTAW Press). She is the author of three Russian-language collections of stories.

‘The Story of Babushka’ retold by Arthur Scholey

I had a book of Christmas stories as a child, and the one I loved most was the story of Babushka, the Russian Father – or Mother – Christmas. (I have no idea if it’s really Russian or some retro-fitted Christian interpretation of the wooden doll character.)

In the story, Babushka is too busy cooking and cleaning to go with the three Kings to meet the infant Jesus, but later regrets the decision, and follows after the kings, carrying a basket of toys for the baby. When she reaches Bethlehem, she finds she is too late and they have already left – but she carries on searching, “for time means nothing in the search for things that are real”. And every time she passes a house with a sleeping child, and hears of “good deeds”, she leaves a toy, just in case, and carries on looking for the Christ Child. 

As a child, it just seemed like a lovely fairy tale: re-reading it as an adult, I can’t get through it without crying (it’s the same with The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant). Managing to combine Father Christmas with the Nativity, and a hint of Martha and Mary in there – the choice between domestic drudgery and the calling to something higher – makes for a very tear-jerking combination. But with a happy ending for the children because they wake up to find a toy by their bed… as long as they’ve been good. 

Published in The Lion Christmas Book, ed. Mary Batchelor, Lion Hudson, 1984

Chosen by Alison Gibbs. Alison is an English graduate turned advertising exec turned local community worker and folklore & fairy tale enthusiast.

‘The Junky’s Christmas’ by William Burroughs

I think I first came across this story in the Serpent’s Tail collection The Junky’s Christmas and other Yuletide Stories, edited by Elisa Segrave. Later I hear Burroughs himself read it, over a musical collage, on the album Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales by William S. Burroughs and Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy. It tells the story of a Junky trying to score a hit on Christmas Day, but it’s Christmas Day, and nobody wants to have to deal with a wheedling junky. I went on to record my own spoken word version, where I played the narrator and my late and much missed friend, and Sheffield legend, Mozaz played the junky. We played it out on Christmas day on Radio Sheffield, bookended by Girls Aloud and The Sugababes, as I sat in the radio studio with my kids ripping open presents on the floor, and choosing the music. It’s a bittersweet, mostly bitter, story that I always think of at Christmas.

First published in Interzone, Viking, 1989. Currently a Penguin Modern Classic, 2009.

Chosen by Dan Sumption. Dan lives in Sheffield, and his first short story collection, To Scent but not To Hold, will be published in 2020 by Polyversity Press.

‘The Sleep’ by Caitlin Horrocks

The snow came early that first year, and so heavy that when Albert Rasmussen invited the whole town over, we had to park around the corner from his unplowed street.

It starts small: one family in a hard-pressed midwestern town, declaring that there’s nothing to like once Christmas is over, chooses to sleep through the rest of winter. They save money, avoid homework, wake up slim and rested, years of worry smoothed from their faces. “‘I dreamed I was in Eden, but it was mine. My farm. I picked pineapples every day.’ Al Rasmussen had wintered in Eden, we thought. We started to feel a little like suckers.” 

The next year more families join in, then more again, starting earlier, waking later, until almost the whole community is sleeping throughout winter. Racoons move into abandoned buildings, the last hold-out dies alone in her wool coat and orthopedic shoes, TV crews film the wall of uncleared snow that hides the town, older children away at college wonder what to do with a Christmas they haven’t seen for years.

Caitlin Horrocks is a writer I admire hugely – I am always recommending her collection, This Is Not Your City, to anyone who will listen. With characters and detail that easily carry its symbolic freight, ‘The Sleep’ is both a compelling read and a subtle and lovely meditation on what-the-fuck it’s all about. When I reread it last week I was surprised to notice it’s told in the first person plural, and wondered if it had influenced me into that same choice in a recent story. If so, thank you Caitlin. 

First published as an Atlantic Fiction for Kindle download, 2010. Anthologised in Best American Short Stories 2011

Chosen by Jo Lloyd. Jo won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2019. Her short fiction has appeared in ZoetropePloughsharesSouthern Review, and the O Henry Prize Stories. She likes winter better than almost anything.

‘The Red Dress – 1946’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro was a twin god of my late grandma’s literary universe, along with William Trevor, and as a teenager I always thought of both writers dismissively as being short, quiet and a bit boring. It turns out (of course) that the pizzazz of both lies in the sort of tiny detail a teenager skates rapidly over, but that will leave a fifty-year-old woman staring out the window for a good eight minutes feeling nauseous with recognition. 
‘The Red Dress – 1946’ has an insistently dress-making mum who reminded me of my own, always trying to poke me with pins in the construction of something that wasn’t QUITE as decadent as what I really wanted from a shop. This mother hovers, and tries to make a joke along the same lines as her child’s friend, and I cringed for the mom, but also for all of us who have tried a bit too hard with a teenager. 
The dress, the narrator and her friend are off to a Christmas school dance, pictured in painful colour, and there is a real sense of the traumatic moment-by-moment potential for rejection in being a thirteen-year-old girl. I read it out loud with a weekly group I facilitate, each taking it in turns, and there were conversations about high school dances in 70s Ireland, teenage heartbreak, and the sheer shame, aged 13, of acknowledging you have a mother at all. MERRY CHRISTMAS!
First published in Montrealer Magazine, 1965, and collected in Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968. It is available online at Narrative magazine.

Chosen by Emma Townshend. Emma is a journalist and writer and runs a book Instagram @anicegreenleaf 

‘The Christmas Shopping’ by James Kelman

Like much of Kelman’s fiction ‘The Christmas Shopping’ (written in the demotic Glaswegian dialect of the author’s hometown) begins in medias res, plunging the reader if not so much into the heart of the action, then at least somewhere towards the fag-end of a rambling, apparently inconsequential anecdote: 

That obelisk thing I was talking about, it was lying stranded down the back of Argyle Street.

As observed by the story’s unnamed narrator, the obelisk thing (its description is later refined to “more like a Celtic Cross”) causes minor waves of interest in the steady stream of Christmas shoppers. A couple of men from one of the local bars give it a cursory glance before moving on (“one of them was fucking pished anyway”); a group of teenagers laugh at the object, possibly contemplating mischief (“Teenagers, you’re never quite sure,”); a businessman (“a posh cunt with bowler and brolly”) seems less annoyed at an obstacle in his path, more at the unexpected disturbance in the natural order of things; while an elderly lady is so intrigued that she decides to take a closer look, free from any hint of embarrassment (“You notice that a lot about old folk; seen it and done it”). Finally, a young woman in a red hat approaches the obelisk. Up until now the narrator has been a largely unknown quantity (though the reader will have been able to glean a pretty decent thumbnail sketch of his character from his attitude towards the various passers-by). But the arrival of the woman in the red hat moves the narrator to action, bringing the story to a close which, at first glance, is as innocuous as its beginning:

I felt like asking her if she fancied going for a coffee or a cup of tea or something but then I noticed something in her face when she sees me so I says to myself, Fuck that for a game, and I just crosses ower into Ingram Street and I carried along the way I was going. Some women are funny, I wisni taking any chances.

 At just over two pages in length, ‘The Christmas Shopping’ a beautifully succinct example of Kelman’s talent for capturing transient scraps of the quotidian; holding them up to the light for us to marvel at for a fleeing moment; before the world moves on and they’re gone forever. And while it may be tempting to read allegorical meaning into it (the fallen cross, the lone bystander, the yearning for companionship/shelter during the festive season, etc) to me it is simply, and more affectingly, a snapshot of a lonely man in a crowd; the bland irony of the title only adding to the story’s poignancy and its underlying sense of frustration and pathos.

First published in The Burn, Secker & Warburg, 1991

Chosen by W.B. Gooderham. Gooderham is a freelance writer. He blogs at http://livesinlit.com and http://bookdedications.co.uk/

‘Village Christmas’ by Laurie Lee

In this delightful recollection of a childhood Christmas in Slad, Gloucestershire, Laurie Lee describes the first 48 hours or so of what was then a 12-day festivity commencing on the evening of 23rd December. He and his fellow choir boys crunch around the snow to sing carols at the doors of the villagers and collect their modest bounty. The coins will be spent the next day in the glowing, sumptuous bazaar in town on the kind of toys now found only in advent calendar pictures behind paper windows. They are gifts for grateful siblings. 
The famous house from Cider with Rosie bursts with Christmas Eve preparations. I imagine how beautiful the kitchen must have looked when filled exclusively with natural decorations from the garden and neighbouring lands, hand-crafted by Laurie’s sisters. The Christmas feast has everything and more, in spite of the village poverty in relative terms. Readers will find an abundance of familiarity here. Uncles play the pudding trick on excited children who clutch their cutlery in anticipation. (The pudding trick is to make sure each child’s serving of pudding has its own ‘winning’ sixpence in it.) Grandpa pours brandy over the pudding for lighting. I am at this table when reading this passage, amongst all the chatter and richness of the occasion. 
I adore every part of this story. The three short paragraphs where the Christmas stocking appears by magic is Laurie at his nostalgic best. The source of all this magic he describes is Mother. She is the heartbeat and spirit of the household, at the centre of everything. The children cling to her as Christmas day draws agonisingly to a close. Whether Father Christmas exists or not, Mother is the real spirit of this occasion. I remember feeling the same when I was a child, although I’m sure I didn’t say it enough. I still feel the same now.    

Published in Village Christmas, Penguin Modern Classics, 2016

Chosen by Lloyd Gash. Lloyd is a Senior Lecturer in Law at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, with reading interests in travel writing, biographies and global affairs.

‘Snowfall’ and ‘Game of Tag’ by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, translated by Ryan C.K. Choi

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is famous for stories like ‘The Nose’, ‘Rashōmon’ and ‘In the Grove’ (the last two forming the basis of the 1950 Kurosawa film, Rashōmon). But over the past two years, Ryan C.K. Choi has been publishing translations of his short, fragmentary stories. The two stories I have selected, ‘Snowfall’ and ‘Game of Tag’, contain many of the trademarks of these later translated works: they feel surprisingly contemporary, but also somehow distilled, cleansed of certain modern preoccupations.

In ‘Snowfall’ the narrator is travelling through the west of the country by train when the sight of a snow-covered mountain range transports him back to a seemingly mundane moment from his past: a conversation between an artist friend and a model that takes in the changing seasons, the onset of winter, and (as a central metaphor for the story) the ways “that the soil is a living creature too, no different from you, no different from me.”

Where ‘Snowfall’ is hyper-specific and fleeting, ‘Game of Tag’ feels almost universal. The story is framed like something of a parable or a fable, a simple tale that carries the weight of unspecified metaphor and allegory. Its story of the relationship between a boy and a girl travels two decades in under 300 words. The story hinges on two key winter-time meetings between the boy and the girl: once as they play as children under the gas lamp’s glow and later on a “train bound for snow country,” washed by the “evocative scents of snow-sodden shoes.” It is a love story—maybe?—and a story about coincidences and entangled histories.

The two stories read well as companion pieces. In each, Akutagawa uses the wintry landscape to contrast and highlight certain aspects of the characters. Everything—landscapes, characteristics, dialogue—serves some greater object. The stories are portraits of feelings, portraits of nostalgia. A deep-dive into Akutagawa’s work is incredibly rewarding and an interested reader could consume all available translated work in a relatively short amount of time. (All of Ryan Choi’s translations can be found here.)

First published 1924. Published in these translations by Asymptote, July 2018 (‘Snowfall’) and The Yale Journal (‘Game of Tag’) –

Chosen by Stephen Mortland. Stephen is a writer living in Indiana. His stories can be found at New York TyrantEgress MagazineNOON Annual and elsewhere. You can find him online @stephenmortland.

‘The Mistletoe Bough’ by Anthony Trollope

Must a short story take the world by storm? Trollope doesn’t seem to think so: ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ is a rather gentle tale of a courtship taking an interesting turn around this festive time of year. It begins with a “very delicate” quandary, as the Garrow family wonder whether the branch of mistletoe should be “hung up on Christmas Eve in the dining-room”; they are expecting visitors, and Miss Garrow is desperately keen to avoid an embarrassment involving one of those visitors in particular. Namely, Godfrey Holmes, the young assistant manager of a bank in Liverpool, to whom she has been engaged, but is engaged no longer. 
Elizabeth’s younger brothers, unaware of the awkwardness, mock her as “my lady Fineairs” and “a Puritan” for her rejection of the mistletoe bough; the narrator concedes that she may have half a point, at least. “Kissing, I fear, is less innocent now than it used to be when our grandmothers were alive, and we have become more fastidious in our amusements.” 
Complications ensue that have little to do with Christmas. But there are some comical seasonal touches, and the whole concoction has a thoroughly, predictably Victorian charm, and (this is the personal part) offers some light respite to the reader who has been bitterly gorging on the short stories of Fleur Jaeggy, T. F. Powys and other reputable malcontents. Also: Trollope earns bonus points for deploying the term “the bump of philomartyrdom” in the incidental process of mocking the period’s phrenology craze.
First published in the Illustrated London News, Christmas Supplement, December 21, 1861. Reprinted in Tales of All Countries, second series, 1863. See also Early Short Stories, ed. John Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 1994

Chosen by Michael Caines. Michael works at the Times Literary Supplement and is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here. 

‘The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle’ by Arthur Conan Doyle

Eley Williams included this story in her personal anthology earlier this year. It also happens to be a favourite of mine, and an apt seasonal choice, so no apologies for choosing it again. Like Eley I re-read it every year, usually on December 27th, set as it is on “the second morning after Christmas”. 

A carbuncle can veer to any red gemstone, usually a ruby or garnet (and try and forget about the unglamorous medical condition of subcutaneous pus-filled boils). A blue carbuncle, doubly rare, lies at the heart of this strange tale. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with Holmes inviting Watson to speculate on the identity of the owner of a “seedy and disreputable hard-felt hat” and a plump goose, both found abandoned on a West End street corner following an altercation in the early hours of Christmas morning: “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”. The bird has already been despatched “to fulfil the ultimate destiny of a goose” but the hat remains, an object for scrutiny and speculation.

Watson, mustering all his powers of observation, gets nowhere. Then Holmes, in a tour de force of inductive reasoning, identifies the absent owner as . . . well, I shan’t spoil the celebrated scene for those of you who don’t know it already, but needless to say the arrival of the man to collect his hat (and a replacement goose) confirms that Holmes is right in every detail.

The story expands and darkens with the sudden appearance of “a brilliantly scintillating blue stone, rather smaller than a bean in size, but of such purity and radiance that it twinkled like an electric point” – a priceless jewel found in the crop of the original goose as it was being prepared for the oven. (Conan Doyle didn’t not know, or had forgotten, that geese, unlike turkeys and chickens, do not actually possess a crop). Watson takes his cue:“Not the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle!” I ejaculated. I’d love to be able to write this badly so well. Dr Watson (or, if you insist, his creator) has a keen sense of what his readers need and expect, and when best to deploy a theatrical flourish. Despite his humble expository function he is the most reliable of narrators and (more importantly) the most trustworthy. His devotion to Holmes coupled with a touching gratitude at being included in his friend’s adventures, if only as an observer and recorder, add greatly to the stories’ enduring appeal. Left to his own devices Holmes would be a cold fish; Watson has feeling enough for both of them. He is easily impressed, and constantly astonished.

The jewel has an ‘exotic’ provenance (“It was found in the banks of the [fictional] Amoy River in southern China”) and a sinister past, involving murders, “a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies”. It’s a plot-driving Macguffin like the black statue of a bird in The Maltese Falcon, something to covet and fear.

There’s so much to enjoy and admire in this story – Holmes lounging in a purple dressing gown before a crackling fire in his untidy Baker Street quarters on a frosty morning, the windows thick with ice crystals; his uncharacteristically genial mood and Watson’s mild irritation at the aforementioned tour de force, the buttoned-up ulsters on a freezing starlit night, the exchanges with the sporting poulterer Breckinridge, the unexpectedly redemptive conclusion followed by the prospect of Mrs Hudson’s late-night woodcock supper. 

One could do without the portrayal of the London proletariat as an urban bestiary – the poulterer is a ‘horsey-looking man’, the Head attendant at the Hotel Cosmopolitan “a little rat-faced fellow” – but, class condescension and snobbery aside (and Holmes is a huge snob) this is the perfect Christmas story, as rich and satisfying as a flaming plum pudding soaked in brandy.

First published in Strand Magazine in January 1892, and collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Available to read online here

Chosen by David Collard. David appears in two recent anthologies: We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Press) and Love Bites (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.