Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Depictions of winter celebrations in literature

With the festive season finally upon us, it is not simply the Christian holiday of Christmas that is so beautifully depicted in literature, but winter holidays from all faiths. It is time to reminisce over the nostalgic depictions of winter celebrations in much-loved literary works.

No such list would be complete without a mention of Harry Potter – in particular, the first two books. The lavish descriptions of the Great Hall piled high with turkey legs and cranberry sauce as the suspended candle sticks cast a warm glow over the heaving tables below helped to shape many-a-Christmas experience for those who were raised on J.K Rowling’s classic series. The metaphorical magic of Christmas is made all the more exciting by Rowling’s descriptions of the true magic of Hogwarts whilst Harry’s delight at having received a gift in the first book – albeit a hideous Molly-Weasley-woollen-creation – is a tear-jerking scene no matter how many times you have re-read the books to get yourself into the Christmas spirit.

However, when thinking about a holiday so steeped in history and tradition, it is important that we do not skim over the true classics. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a festive staple and provides something for everyone. The beautiful, snow-covered backdrop of London appeals to the Christmas fanatic, whilst Scrooge’s ‘Scrooge-like’ behaviour provides a point of reference for the holiday cynic.

 The novel touches on poverty and struggle, reminding us that although Christmas is often presented as a time to be thankful

Although the tale does not simply use Christmas as a pretty milieu, it allows for us to see the less savoury side of the festive period. The novel touches on poverty and struggle, reminding us that although Christmas is often presented as a time to be thankful, it must be remembered that it is also a time for giving and offering a hand to someone who might need it.

Depictions of Christmas in literature do not always carry such a heavy message, with a firm favourite of mine being A Prayer for Owen Meany. Having been recommended this novel by my favourite teacher, it soon became one of my most-loved books, with the scene whereby Owen Meany – a slight, profound young boy – takes on the role of the baby Jesus in the Christmas nativity. Despite having attended a Catholic primary school and witnessed more nativity plays than I have had Christmas dinners, the comic nature of this scene is unparalleled by any other I have witnessed before.

Hanukkah is presented in Emma Lazarus’ poem ‘The Feast of Light’. She recounts the traditional, historic story that the holiday centres around using such beautiful language as she writes of “the mystic lights of emblem”, “the dance, the feast” and chanting “hymns of victory till the heart take fire”.

The coming-of-age holiday romance trope allows the book a certain relatability to readers from all walks of life

A novel that also explores the holiday of Hanukkah is Lighting the Flames by Sarah Wendell. The novel follows Genieveve and Jeremy who stay at a Jewish overnight camp and later go on to work at the same camp together. Having drifted apart, the pair are drawn back together to work at the camp during Hanukkah, allowing readers to witness how the holidays help to bring old (and new) friends together once again. The coming-of-age holiday romance trope allows the book a certain relatability to readers from all walks of life and is a particularly poignant tale at this time of the year.

Diwali is another winter festival celebrated by millions of Hindus across the world. An interesting depiction of the holiday can be seen through Shyam Phatak’s poem ‘Deepavali Delights’. The importance of light transcends across the religious holidays from the Christian advent candles at Christmas, to the Jewish Menorah at Hanukkah, to the ‘crackers and sparklers that light up the sky’ in Phatak’s poem.  

These varying depictions of winter in literature allow readers to both indulge in the festivities of the period alongside considering the meaning of the holiday and the experiences of others from different backgrounds and parts of the world.

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