Among the many traditions surrounding Christmas, literary traditions can often be overlooked in favour of the comfort of festive foods, the ease of watching a Christmas classic on TV or the glamour of extravagant decorations. Bookish Christmas traditions still hold a place in our Christmas ritual, even if they sometimes go unnoticed.
I consider Christmas literary traditions to include anything to do with reading and writing. Children often write letters to Santa asking for whichever present we most wanted that year and wishing him a safe journey on. Some parents, inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas, will write to their children as Santa Claus. Many people use family recipes to cook mince pies, roast dinners and Christmas puddings. Sometimes we perform in or watch school plays, pantomimes and pieces of theatre.
These practices are so ingrained in Christmas customs that they can easily go unacknowledged as bookish traditions. I think it’s important to value our literary traditions at all times, and this includes at Christmas. Once we acknowledge the bookish traditions we already enjoy at Christmas, we can start sharing them between ourselves and adding to them.
If exploring a new author or literary genre isn’t for them, people often re-read their favourite books during the Christmas period
A particularly charming Icelandic bookish tradition is to exchange books on Christmas Eve, then read together late in to the night. This is so ingrained in the culture that bookshops enjoy their largest sales from September to December in what is known as ‘jolabokaflod’ – meaning Christmas book flood – as people buy books to gift on Christmas Eve. This seems to be a special way to pass what can be the most exciting evening of the whole year for those of us who love Christmas.
Some libraries and bookshops in the UK have a similar tradition based on book exchange, where shoppers can buy a pre-wrapped book, so they don’t know what they’ve got until the open their parcel. This kind of book exchange could be a success for those who need to buy a small gift as part of a ‘Secret Santa’ or who want to try reading something new during their Christmas break.
If exploring a new author or literary genre isn’t for them, people often re-read their favourite books during the Christmas period. Wuthering Heights is a classic for the run-up to Christmas, although I prefer Pride and Prejudice as my annual comfort read – but that’s a debate for another time. These are of course books which lack a festive theme despite their association to Christmas.
It used to be commonplace to find families gathered around listening to stories being read aloud
If you’re looking to find literary representations of Christmas, these can of course be found in many books since it plays such a significant role in this country’s culture. From the classic depictions of Christmas in Little Women and A Christmas Carol to the more modern Christmasses of the Harry Potter series or Bridget Jones’ Diary, there are plenty of festive depictions to be found in books.
For those who aren’t keen on reading for leisure, especially when they’ve spent a whole term reading through articles and books, perhaps it’s time to see a revival of the aural tradition. It used to be commonplace to find families gathered around listening to stories being read aloud. If you need a break from the constant stream of re-runs of Die Hard on TV this Christmas, perhaps you could host a reading of A Night Before Christmas or even read When the Grinch stole Christmas to younger family members.
Every family approaches their Christmas traditions differently. I will look forward to my family’s tradition of gifting at least one book as a stocking filler. Every year I enjoy spending my Christmas morning reading the book I’ve been gifted and looking over the books everyone else has got.