British author Jeanette Winterson’s collection of stories, “Christmas Days,” collects the melancholy and the festive, with a dollop of the supernatural in the mix.
‘Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days’
by Jeanette Winterson
Grove Press, 295 pp., $24
Fables, reminiscences, ghost stories, recipes — Jeanette Winterson’s collection of holiday-themed fiction and essays has a little of everything.
As such, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge. But there are some gems in it, along with some rueful reflection. British author Winterson — author of “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” and “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” — has some hard-won wisdom to share, and she shares it candidly.
The tales of hauntings are the most unexpected element in “Christmas Days,” and they tend to follow a pattern. A female narrator, either staying with friends at Christmastime or about to join them, finds herself alone in an unnerving way. The temperature in a guest bedroom becomes lethally cold (“The Second Best Bed”). A spectral mother and daughter appear outside an isolated country house (“Dark Christmas”). A guest finds herself conversing with an oddly dressed gentleman in a wing of a Swiss hotel that no one else seems to know about (“A Ghost Story”).
These stories are well-turned, and Winterson unashamedly embraces tried-and-true ghost-story formulas, as eerie occult occurrences are explained by tragic events from the past.
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Other tales, “The SnowMama” (featuring a talking snow woman) and “Christmas Cracker” (featuring a talking dog), could easily be packaged as children’s stories. They’re sweet, fanciful — and a little cloying. Winterson is in better fabulist form with “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me,” re-imagining the story of the Nativity from the point of view of the donkey that Mary rode into Bethlehem.
Winterson in essayistic mode, especially when sharing her Christmas research findings, is an undiluted treat. In “Christmas Tide,” she explains why Mary had to be a virgin: “Jewish lineage is through the mother, not the father, so the emphasis in Judaism on the purity and sexual abstinence of women is a predictable way of trying to control who’s who. If Mary is a virgin then the divine parentage of Jesus isn’t in doubt.”
Another startling factoid: St. Nicholas used to be commonly pictured wearing green (“his colour as a pre-Christian fertility god”) until a 1931 Coca-Cola ad campaign depicted him in red. Winterson overstates the case when she says Coca-Cola initiated the change of colors — but the soft-drink company did popularize it.
Holiday memories of mystery-writer Ruth Rendell (“a big Country and Western fan”) and self-proclaimed “sexual outlaw” Kathy Acker (“she could not cook — she could not even stir”) are shared. New York City has a prominent place in the book, too, thanks to Winterson’s recent marriage to American writer-psychoanalyst Susie Orbach.
Winterson also reflects on her girlhood. “Mrs. Winterson,” as she calls her adoptive mother, was a religious fanatic given to saying, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” If “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” was Winterson’s wildly exuberant fictional account of breaking free from her Pentecostal background, “Christmas Days” shows her spirit to be more broken and subdued in the long-term.
“I don’t make New Year resolutions,” she says. “Instead I have a psychic clear-out. What would I prefer not to repeat?”
Balancing out the melancholy are holiday-fare recipes (“cheese crispier,” anyone?), most of them with fond personal anecdotes accompanying them.