December 22, 2018

Christmas Reading for The Folklore Fan

Amid all the holiday festivities sometimes it is nice to just sit quietly and read a good book. Here is some suggested reading to get you in the Yuletide holiday spirit, particularly if you like folklore and strange Christmas stories.

The Dark Is Rising
Susan Cooper

Illustration by Alan Cober for the 1974 edition. 
This novel is aimed at young readers and I loved it when it came out way back in the 1970s. Many other people have loved it since. The Dark Is Rising tells the story of an eleven-year old boy who becomes involved in a battle between the ancient forces of light and darkness during the Christmas season. I’ve re-read the book as an adult, and the first chapters still wonderfully evoke the excitement of the holiday season and the uncanny dread of the oncoming darkness. The Dark Is Rising is set in England and full of British folklore, but author Susan Cooper has lived in Massachusetts for many years and was partially inspired to write the book by the marshy landscapes of the South Shore.

The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday
Stephen Nissenbaum

Ever wonder why Americans celebrate Christmas the way we do? Nissenbaum’s book traces the development of our modern child-focused and gift-focused holiday from the raucous holidays of the past. Several chapters in The Battle for Christmas focus specifically on early New England – why the Puritans hated Christmas, who people celebrated Christmas despite it being banned, and how capitalism shaped the holiday. Christmas used to be a multi-week drunken orgy when the lower classes extorted food and liquor from the wealthy. Nissenbaum explains how it became a holiday where we sit around Christmas trees and exchange presents.

A Visit from St. Nicholas
Clement Clarke Moore

Do you exchange presents at Christmas time? Do you incorporate Santa Claus into you celebrations? Do you spend the holiday with your family? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can thank Clement Clarke Moore. Moore was a prominent New York City clergyman who was annoyed at the drunken Christmas celebrations that kept disrupting his family’s peaceful home. Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas’ in 1823 to encourage a gentler, sober and more familial holiday. And it worked! Moore’s poem permanently shaped the way Americans and much of the world celebrate Christmas.

The Festival
H.P. Lovecraft


A man returns to his family’s ancestral Massachusetts home for their traditional Yuletide festivities. Since this is an H.P. Lovecraft story, tradition doesn’t mean candy canes and stockings hung by the fire. Moldering grave yards, strange subterranean realms, and sinister cultists all play a role in the festivities, as does that famous book of forbidden knowledge The Necronomicon. If you think your family has a weird holiday you need to read “The Festival.” Although the story is set in Kingsport, a seaside town “maggoty” with subterraneous evil, Lovecraft based the setting on Marblehead, a town whose Colonial-era architecture he loved. 

Christmas in New England
Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Although McGuiggan’s book touches on Christmas’s troubled history in Puritan New England, it’s real focus is on how people have celebrated the holiday here for the last two centuries. Christmas in New England touches on all the region’s Yuletide greats: the many carols composed here, how lighthouse keepers marked the holiday, and the guy from Maine who invented earmuffs. A book to read when you want to feel good about the world.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Late 14th Century

There’s zero connection to New England in this 14th century poem, but it’s still fantastic reading for the holiday season. Sir Gawain beheads a gigantic Green Knight who has interrupted King Arthur's New Year’s party. The Green Knight picks up his severed head and exits the hall, telling Sir Gawain to come visit him in one year so he can in turn chop off Gawain’s head. Yikes. Being an honorable knight, Gawain departs Camelot the following year to find the unkillable Green Knight’s distant abode, but gets delayed at the castle of Sir Bertilak and his lovely young wife, where a multi-day Christmas celebration is happening. The Bertilaks play strange and erotic mind-games with Gawain, and a twist ending changes our perception of the entire poem.

Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Stories: Icelandic Folk Tales
J.M. Bedell

Again, no connection to New England, but lots of dark folk stories from Iceland. Many of them are set at Christmas time. The elves in these tales are not cute and whimsical, but instead are strange, dangerous, and often murderous. As are the trolls, witches, and lustful ghosts with shattered skulls who appear. Merry Christmas? This book is holiday reading for those of you who wish every holiday was like Halloween.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Some good suggestions there! I may just check out some of them in ebook. The Nissenbzum sounds especially good. I reread The Dark Is Rising every year at this time. (Do yourself a favour and DON’T watch the film!) Last year there was a mass reread and discussion on Twitter, tag #TheDarkIsReading,

I love Gawain And The Green Knight! I read it in the original Middle English at university and now own the Tolkien translation as well. It does connect with Christmas, really, though not New England, because it happens during the twelve days celebrations. There was a film of that too, not very good, but worth the price of admission to see Sean Connery as the Green Knight, arriving with his axe looking like a gift-wrapped Christmas present! And believe it or not, Rosemary Sutcliff’s name appears in the credits. In the film, though, Bertilak and the Green Knight were not the same person, which kind of misses the point.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue!

I've never watched that film version of the Green Knight because it had such bad reviews. It could be such a great movie in the right hands. I just read that a new hip director is planning to make a version of it: I saw his previous film A GHOST STORY which I really enjoyed. Maybe this Green Knight will be good? It really is such a weird and magical story.

The Nissenbaum book is very good, but it is focused almost exclusively on America in the 17th - 19th centuries. If you like that sort of thing you should definitely read it!

Have a great holiday!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Peter, will check out that link. And I am interested in American folklore, yes. That’s why I’m following this blog! 🙂

Sword Of The Valiant is not very good, but worth watching with friends while you’re in a silly mood. And I do mean silly! Imagine Morgan Le Fay as a crimson frog... As long as you don’t take it too seriously, you can enjoy it. And as a woman, I couldn’t resist ogling Sean Connery.