‘The Loudest Voice’ by Grace Paley

‘The Loudest Voice’ is the only story I know of about being Jewish at Christmas time. Shirley Abramowitz, growing up in a secular Jewish family in the 1930s, is called upon to narrate her school’s nativity play because her “voice is the loudest”. It’s hard to describe what a revelation the story was for me when I first read it. Like Shirley, I grew up in a secular Jewish immigrant family in New York. My parents were ambivalent about Christmas, religious identity, the mythology of America… almost everything; they sometimes approved of celebrating Christmas and sometimes didn’t. 
Every time I thought I found a book or TV show about people who didn’t celebrate Christmas (The House Without a Christmas Tree, a Hallmark Special), it turned out to be about people who stopped celebrating because of a trauma instead of because of cultural reasons, and the trauma was always addressed and the Christmas tree erected and decorated before the show was over. But Christmas in ‘The Loudest Voice’  isn’t magical or redemptive – it appears simply as one kind of cultural practice in a multicultural society.  “The teachers became happier and happier. Their heads were ringing like the bells of childhood,” Shirley observes, as the children decorate the school for a holiday many of them don’t celebrate. I recently found a recording of the story that Paley made for Vermont Public Radio in 1998. Hearing it so many years after I first read it, I was struck by how deftly and perfectly Paley conjures up a working class New York neighbourhood where it is a good thing to have the loudest voice: “There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.”

First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959 and can now be found in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, Virago Modern Classics. You can hear Grace Paley read it for Vermont Public Radio here

Chosen by Linda Mannheim. Linda is the author of three books of fiction including This Way to Departures, which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The Guardian said Departures “exposes the cracks in the facade of the American dream.” Linda’s stories have appeared in Granta, 3:AM Magazine, and Catapult Story. She divides her time between London and Berlin. You can read Linda’s full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.

‘What Are You Going to Do with 390 Photographs of Christmas Trees?’ by Richard Brautigan

It’s a rare January that doesn’t see me take Richard Brautigan’s The Tokyo-Montana Express off the shelf and turn to ‘What Are You Going to Do with 390 Photographs of Christmas Trees?’ It’s a perfect story for when Christmas and Hogmanay are past and everyone is skint and facing up to the realities of a new year. Brautigan’s “assassinated Christmas” will no doubt resonate with many this year in particular.

Much of what I love about the story typifies the best of Brautigan’s writing. His brevity, the almost visual clarity of his sentences, the perfect, offbeat simile and metaphor, and the sense of wonder alongside a keen awareness of poverty, loneliness and life’s other horrors. It is of course also very funny.

First published in The Tokyo-Montana Express, Delacorte Press, 1980

Nick Tartlon lives in Glasgow and struggles to find time to read in between working as a welfare rights adviser and looking after his 4 month old son’

‘The Christmas Dove’ by George Mackay Brown

Often referred to as the Orkney Bard, George Mackay Brown (1921 – 1996) wrote poetry, short stories and novels. His novel Beside the Ocean of Time was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Saltire Society judged it their Scottish Book of the Year for 1994. In The Christmas Dove the children of a rich merchant keep a white dove in a cage. When the door is accidentally left open the dove escapes and takes wing on adventures of its own. The story bears the nostalgia of a bygone age. There is a sense of the exotic, too. Those are its charms. The author leaves the reader to contemplate its period, though by the end of the story it becomes clear that it’s Brown’s re-telling of the biblical story of the birth of Christ.
George Mackay Brown has been my literary hero for over forty years. His writing is full of nostalgia about the past. He found himself living on the cusp between two eras – the end of the Scottish Enlightenment and the dawning of Modernism and Modernity. It was a position he was never entirely comfortable with. In an essay written shortly after the publication of his first novel, Greenvoe (1972), entitled ‘Oil and the Orcadians’, Brown railed against the changes “progress and science have bought – books, radios, education, lemonade, bakehouse bread”. It’s a feeling that, in the fast-moving world of the twenty first century I find myself being able to empathise with. The story of ‘The Christmas Dove’, then, could be said to be Brown’s defiance against capitalism and the materialism that is the modern world.  
First published in 1985 as a limited edition (150 copies) of four stories, by The Perpetua Press, titled Christmas Stories; reissued in 2020 as one of thirty stories in an anthology published by Galileo Publishing under the same title

Chosen by Carola Huttmann. Passionate about art, literature and writing, Carola draws much of her creative inspiration from the richness of landscape, stories, history and traditions of the Orkney Islands which imbue them with their vibrancy and charm. They have been her home since 1995. Find her on Twitter at @CarolaHuttmann

‘A Christmas Memory’ by Truman Capote

Although slight, this is a deft and beguiling reminiscence of Capote’s childhood Christmases in Alabama. As a boy of seven he enjoyed the kinship of his ‘friend’, a much older female cousin who relished the festive season.
“It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: ‘It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.’”
In tandem the pair revel in their own style of Christmas, recorded here with poignancy and love. 
First published in Mademoiselle, December 1956. Most recently republished in A Christmas Memory, Penguin Classics, 2020 and available to read on the Penguin website here

Chosen by Kate Levey. Kate is the daughter of Brigid Brophy and sporadically writes about her.

‘The Winter Journey’ by Georges Perec

In ‘The Winter Journey’ the narrator (a young teacher of literature) is browsing in the well-appointed  library of a French country house when he comes across a volume called The Winter Journey (Le Voyage d’hiver) edited by one Hugo Venier. 
To his astonishment he realises that the book is not, as he at first assumes, an anthology of great French poetry, but rather an unknown and hitherto unidentified source. Published in 1864, it confirms beyond any doubt that the poetic giants of the Belle Époque –  Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Verlaine, Rimbaud and many others — all plagiarised their most celebrated lines from Vernier’s compendium. 
Everything he thinks he knows about French literature is challenged, and overturned. He decides to find out more about the mysterious Hugo Venier.
But it is September 1939, and the Occupation is about to interrupt his researches. Only after the Liberation is he able to revisit the library and continue his investigations, but  . . . but that would be to let the chat out of the sac.
This exhilarating jeu d’espirit is part Derridian, part Borgesian, and entirely Perecian (and if that combination doesn’t snag your immediate attention what are you doing here?) Perec has surprisingly never before featured in A Personal Anthology and I hope that his belated appearance will prompt more readers to enjoy his most frequently re-published work. 
‘Le Voyage d’hiver’ was written for inclusion in a publisher’s catalogue and published in 1979. The author died three years later. 
In 1992, there appeared the first in a series of twenty more Journeys, prompted by Perec’s original, in which other members of the Oulipo group expanded on the original. A highlight is Jacques Jouet’s ‘Hinterreise’, about a researcher who discovers an early 18th century composer named ‘Ugo Wernier’ who appears to have produced work subsequently plagiarised by  Mozart, Bach and Schubert, a story which itself could be said to plagiarise Perec’s. 
First published in 1979. Republished in Winter Journeys, Atlas Press, 2013 in a beautiful limited edition with translations by Harry Mathews, John Sturrock and (mainly) Ian Monk. ‘A Winter’s Journey’ was also published separately as a chapbook by Penguin Classics in 1996

Chose by David Collard. David organises Carthorse Orchestra, a weekly online gathering of writers, poets, musicians, performers and other creative types. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here

‘The Leaf-Sweeper’ by Muriel Spark

The Arab Strap B-side ‘Johnny Shrapnel Buys Christmas’ tells the story of a man who wants to buy not Christmas cards or decorations, but Christmas itself, to the increasing frustration of a retail worker. The absurdity of the request is paralleled, decades earlier, in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Leaf-Sweeper’, a story that, like many of Spark’s works, is desperately amusing and sad at once. While the genre of the Christmas ghost story is familiar, few examples are as ambivalent as Spark’s: the living Johnnie Geddes, Spark’s protagonist, is banished to an asylum for his obsession with abolishing Christmas, while his ghost loves nothing more. It’s a story I return to every year because it renders cynicism and sentiment equally ridiculous. Johnnie’s diatribes against commercialisation, and his ghost’s fixation on family and tradition, are both presented by the narrator as somewhat puzzling: why should one be so invested in Christmas at all?
Reading it this year, however, I find the story more moving than I remember. The peculiarity of a living man being haunted by his own ghost, which is never explained but merely deemed ‘loathsome’, echoes our own strange out-of-timeness. If positioning ourselves in relation to a holiday is rendered absurd, the sense that we are still haunted by that decision remains. And what else can we do, except watch the falling leaves?
First published in The Observer in 1952, and collected in The Complete Short Stories, Canongate, 2011

Chosen by Timothy Baker. Timothy is Senior Lecturer in Scottish and Contemporary Literature at the University of Aberdeen. His most recent book is Writing Animals: Language, Suffering, and Animality in Twenty-First-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2019).

‘The Iceberg’ by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson’s much-loved Moomins hibernate all winter but the characters in A Winter Book, a collection of the Finnish polymath’s selected stories, are very much awake. None more so than the narrator of ‘The Iceberg’, a little girl whose family has just moved to the country, who creeps out of their house in the dark of the night to spy on her iceberg, with its oval-shaped, girl-sized grotto on one side. The iceberg had floated into the bay, all green and white and sparkling, and very early for the time of year. In just four pages, Jansson weaves a magical, miniature tale of adventure and hope and the harsh realities of life. Somehow, especially now, I feel we are all that little girl, standing on the edge of the shore, berating herself for not being brave enough to jump aboard and sail away on a floating island. 
First published in Bildhuggarens dotter (Sculptor’s Daughter), 1968. Republished in The Winter Book, Sort of Books, 2006

Chosen by Susie Mesure. Susie is a freelance journalist. She specialises in not specialising in anything at all. That, and reading quite a lot considering she should probably be doing something else. She interviews authors and writes features and columns for newspapers including the i paper, the FT, and most of the others. One day she might write a book.

‘Green Holly’ by Elizabeth Bowen

“A sad tale’s best for winter” decides Mamillius, the ill-fated child in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
To which I would add, a ghost story’s best for Christmas.
The wartime stories of Elizabeth Bowen have a schizophrenic element to them; on the one hand, they are about the psychological betrayals and breakages that are part of war’s unforgiving sweep, on the other, the literal annihilation of cities, streets, people. They are dystopian in that the present and past  seem to exist simultaneously, often as a simulacrum of the other. The year 2020 has seen much comparison with war, and with World War Two in particular – it has been suggested that the population invokes a “Blitz spirit” without ever really understanding the horrors of the  actual Blitz itself.
Elizabeth Bowen lived through the war, and the Blitz, and carried out classified and still mysterious war work. Her own home in London was mostly destroyed in a bomb blast. The supernatural stories she wrote at this time often focus on everyday objects which are strangely askew in a world out of kilter. Frequently  she uses the natural world as a symbol of menace. In ‘Green Holly’  a trio of intelligence workers – a woman and two men, both of whom the woman has previously been involved with – are awkwardly billeted together with other colleagues in a requisitioned house, once a grand mansion, over Christmas. The three seem to have dropped out of normal existence : “on the whole they had dropped out of human memory. Their reappearances in their former circles were infrequent, ghostly and unsuccessful; their friends could hardly disguise their pity, and for their own part they had not a word to say.” 
Bickering and just a touch self-pitying, it is no surprise that they become prey to the attentions of the house’s resident ghost, a young, coquettish and adulterous lady dressed up for a festive ball which had taken place a couple of centuries before, and which had ended in disaster. “The tiles of the hall floor were as pretty as ever, as cold as ever, and bore, as always on Christmas Eve, the trickling pattern of dark blood.” The ghost is bored, as she had been in life, and latches on to the nearest available man to amuse her – no matter that he is alive, and she is not. The story  is funny, in a cruel sort of way, vivid with spiky dialogue and the insistent undertow of disappointment and denial – both of the ghost and the three who must resist any contemporary re-enactment of that long ago, fatal Christmas Eve. 
First published in The Listener, November 1941. Available in the Collected Stories, Vintage, 1999

Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Catherine is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she has been a judge on prizes including the Guardian First Book Award, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and Republic of Consciousness. She is part of the team behind the Brixton Review of Books. She is writing a non-fiction book, The Stirrings, (potential subtitle: The Sobranie Years) about the dark side of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s. If there was a light side, she’d love to hear about it. Read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.

‘The Apple Tree’ by Daphne du Maurier

Not a Christmas story, and it starts in spring, but it ends in winter, as retired City financier ‘Buzz’ (we never find out his real name) finds himself the victim of a strange old apple tree in his garden orchard, that seems to have taken on the vindictive personality of his dead wife, the equally long-suffering and insufferable Midge. It’s a fine predictable ghost story of sorts, and prickly and sad about a painfully stuck marriage, but it’s the later pages, with deep snowfall and freezing temperatures, that make this a perfect curl-up-by-the-fire winter’s story – if they didn’t show up quite how historical such things are. I remember whited-out fields and knee-deep drifts in the southern England of my childhood, but my own children only really know snow as something far less bountiful, rarely producing more than a few scraped-together snowballs. They’ve tobogganed, yes, but they’ve had to pick where to steer so as not to go straight through the snow to grass. So yes, a sad story is best for winter, but the saddest story of all is the story of how winter has changed in this country, in a single lifetime. 

First collected in The Apple Tree, Gollancz, 1952, which collection is now available as a Virago Modern Classic, retitled The Birds and Other Stories

Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs. Jonathan is the author of two novels, Randall and The Large Door, and a book-length poem written under lockdown in 2020 – and modelled on Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal – called Spring Journal (CB Editions). He teaches Creative Writing at City, University of London, and curates the A Personal Anthology project. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.. 

‘Jesus Christ in Flanders’ by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac didn’t really write a Christmas story when he wrote his ‘Jesus Christ in Flanders’… but it stood in for one, once, most of a hundred years ago, when the tale itself was almost a hundred years old, for a couple hundred people on the Christmas card list of Bessie and Allen Lewis, Mary and George Grady, and Lydia and Warren Chappell. 

In 1928, Allen Lewis—an interesting artist associated with Stieglitz—made a woodcut of Balzac’s ship of storm-tossed sinners, and the three couples had the book privately printed. This wasn’t unheard of—if you watch for them, small private commemorative editions turn up. My wife has a copy of a Thomas Mann essay, ‘Sleep, Sweet Sleep’ printed for the friends of George Fleetwood Bromley in Christmas 1934. That isn’t a Christmas story, either.

Balzac’s story is simple: a group of pre-modern folks are taking the ferry back from the island of Cadzant to Ostend late in the day. The skies and sea are not propitious. They are a classic cross-section: a bishop, a soldier, a fine lady and her mother, a merchant, an old woman, a young mother, a feckless gallant, a sharp-eyed ship’s pilot who’s almost just a match for the storm that will engulf them all…as well as a stranger who boards at the last minute and disguised, but is, of course, Christ himself. The hijinks of sinners at judgment ensue…and are curiously moving, as such stories often are, whether or not we hold with the terms or cosmology of the judgments. 

It’s curious to realize that the story reads more like a Christmas tale today and in 1928 than it could’ve in 1831, as Dickens hadn’t yet rewired the Christmas tale to be a tale of worth and judgment. But that must’ve been in the minds of some or all of the members of the three couples who chose this story.

Moreover, although Balzac is temperamentally unsuited to writing about humility, he tries hard. He’s tripped up by the fact that he’s claiming for his tale a notable distinction: this is the story of the last manifestation of Christ on earth down to the present day. Why here? Why then? Why not there? Why not then? The answer is the same in any case: because Balzac.

This is not the Balzac you hear about via discussions of Benjamin and modernity, not the Balzac who is the jewel-in-the-crown of our idea of 19th century Paris, but instead the Balzac who was once as popular (in many editions) for his faux 16th century confections, his Droll Stories. We seem to have very little taste for them now. But to put them on like period clothes is to be shaped a little by them: I think of Maggie Cheung speaking about the cheongsams she wore in her incredible turn in In the Mood for Love, the way the dresses held her as part of the performance. That’s a bit of what I mean.

But wait…now my story of a story has a twist I didn’t foresee: I’ve trusted those three couples: the Lewises, the Gradys, and the Chappells to present the tale in full. They did not. Balzac wrote a tale that breaks neatly in half and they privately printed the first half, the last appearance of Christ on Earth, walking on water, rescuing the worthy and leaving footprints on a beach (footprints that were relics until, as Balzac has it, the French Revolution spilled across the border to Ostend and effaced them as just another piece of popery.)

I’ve just this minute discovered that in the full text, Balzac went on. He went into a second half of the story to have a narrator awaken in the in the light of the July Revolution of 1830. I have to stop typing this to read how the story I thought I knew… actually ends.

[Time passes. The snow outside the window remains blinding white, even in the absence of a visible sun. Our Christmas tree stands at attention. My coffee grows cold and then runs out entirely whilst I read, read a Balzac story on the screen of my phone in the strange December of 2020.]

In the second, broken-off half, the depressed narrator—depressed in the wake of the belated final fall of the Bourbon monarchy in the July Revolution of 1830—arrives at the church near Ostend, goes inside, treats us to an ekphrastic riff on church architecture and falls asleep. He dreams of an old woman who becomes a young woman: she leads him to a room in the church and delivers a stern message about the church. He responds strangely, and in kind. Then he’s back in the church, an old docent is locking up and kicks him out into the new world. He vows to defend the church in the world the Revolution, his revolution—whether he realizes it or not—has wrought.

In some ways, we have drifted into even greater shades of A Christmas Carol. Although I see no real threat from this bit of Balzac to that perpetual franchise. 

Just the same: Merry Christmas!

First published – as ‘Jésus-Christ en Flandre’ – 1831

Chosen by Drew Johnson. Drew’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Cupboard, Gulf Coast, New England Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.