As Christmas approaches, one starts to hear sleigh bells in the distance – and book lovers start looking for books that remind them of the festive season: the misty-eyed memories of holidays past; the joyous spirit of givingl and, of course, the difficulties that sometimes go hand-in-hand with family get-togethers and dinners.

Here, we revel in the books, classic and new, that capture the spirit of Christmas both as it's meant to be and as it really is, as we get in the mood for the most wonderful time of year. 

Classics heaped with snow

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843) 

Nothing quite says ‘Christmas’ like Dickens’ mean old miser who hates everything associated with the cursed day. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghostly visitations is as synonymous with the season as turkey, Santa and raisin-addled puddings. And with most editions just under 100 pages, it is the perfect book to curl up with alongside a glass of mulled wine.

Village Christmas by Laurie Lee (2016) 

From the author of Cider With Rosie, this is a lyrical portrait of England which, as with much of Lee’s writing, focuses on his childhood home in The Cotswolds. The essays explore the traditions, landscapes and stories of the area and include Lee’s memory of Churchill’s icy January funeral, and of carol-singing in the snow. A moving glimpse into a vanished world.
 

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories by Various (2019) 

If all you want for Christmas is more time to curl up with a book, then this collection of short stories might just be the thing for you. From enchanted forests in Sweden to midnight mass in Rio, this collection takes you around the world – and even to outer space – with tales of ghosts, Santas, trolls and unexpected guests from the greatest short story writers of all time including Shirley Jackson, Dylan Thomas and Anton Chekhov.

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1940) 

A must-read for fans of Gibbons’ much loved 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm, this is a collection of 16 short stories, including the title tale which heralds the return of the formidable Starkadder family as they take their places for Christmas dinner and tuck into a rather unfortunate Christmas pudding. Full of Gibbons’ trademark wit and gentle satire, there’s also plenty of period details to make for a very nostalgic Christmas.

Touching and beautiful tales

The Twelve Birds of Christmas by Stephen Moss (2019) 

If your idea of a perfect Christmas involves frosted walks in the garden and hikes across snowy hills, then this is the book for you. From the naturalist who brought us biographies of Britain’s two favourite feathery friends – The Robin and The Wren – comes a new book about 12 festive birds using the classic song The Twelve Days of Christmas as a jumping-off point. Expect the history, culture and folklore of swans (a-swimming) and the singular partridge (in a pear tree) and, erm, a woodpecker. We’ll leave it to Moss to explain how that one fits in.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (trans. Jamie Lee Searle, 2020)

There are few stranger times of year than just after Christmas, when offices are closed, the festivities are mostly over, but the new year has yet to begin in earnest. That time is captured beautifully in this gorgeous, thoughtful novella, translated from the original German version published in 2018. In Twelve Nights, Manfred walks alone through the snowy Black Forest in Europe, heading towards his childhood home and contemplating the reasons he and his brother are now estranged. But there is hope here – making it a perfect read for that ponderous, liminal space at the end of the year.

V&A: The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by Liz Catchpole (2019) 

Continuing with the theme of The Twelve Days of Christmas, this beautiful book combines patterns from the V&A’s William Morris archive – and additional illustrations from the pen of Liz Catchpole – to bring the words of the classic song to life. This one makes a wonderful gift, even if it’s just for yourself.

The Gritterman by Orlando Weeks (2018)

A picture book for adults and a touching story that will remind you of all those unsung heroes who work over the holidays. As the rest of the world sleeps, the Gritterman goes out to work. But soon, he will have to retire, and what is a life without gritting? This is gorgeously illustrated by the author, too.

The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Sanna Annukka (2017) 

Everyone knows the ballet, of course, but the original fairy tale is just as enchanting – particularly when it’s illustrated by Finnish artist Sanna Annukka (who created the artwork for Keane’s album, Under the Iron Sea, fact fans) in this gorgeous clothbound edition. Rediscover Marie’s adventures as her nutcracker doll transports her to a world of sugar plum fairies, chocolate kings and other tasty-sounding characters.

Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson (2018)

This curious book by prize-winning author Jeannette Winterson takes the reader through 12 stories inspired by the festive season (with matching recipes, no less), including the retelling of the nativity from the donkey’s point of view. This is as bold, inventive and funny as you’d expect from Winterson – and also, importantly, very Christmassy indeed.

Chilling and sinister tales with a festive twist

Daddy by Emma Cline (2020)

Known for her acute eye for detail, author Emma Cline is arguably at her best when she writes short stories – and her debut collection of them, Daddy, proves it. Among these stories, which shine a light into the dark crevices of human experiences, sits ‘What Can You Do with a General’, in which a family sit down to dinner with their troubled father. Here, Cline explores the meaning of anger and explores, from the father’s perspective, a loss of power and the complexity of nostalgia. It’s a thought-provoking tale that will strike a resonant tone for anyone who’s sat through family Christmas dinner.

Death Comes at Christmas by Gladys Mitchell (2019) 

If you’ve ever had your Christmas spoiled by an overcooked turkey, spare a thought for the protagonist of this clever whodunnit novel who, having escaped London for a relaxing visit to the Oxfordshire countryside, discovers a dead body by a snowy river bank and enters into a race against time to uncover the murderer. First published in 1936, Death Comes at Christmas is a book that fans of Agatha Christie will enjoy.

A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon (2018)

If you’re unfamiliar with the classic fictional detective Jules Maigret, here’s the perfect opportunity to get acquainted. And what could be more festive than a set of mysteries in snow-covered Paris? This is a wonderful introduction to Simenon’s writing, which focuses on cases around Maigret’s own neighbourhood, including a little girl who insists she’s met Father Christmas and a boy who leaves an ingenious trail for him to follow in pursuit of a criminal.

Murder Most Festive by Ada Moncrieff (2020)

Billed as ‘Downton Abbey meets Poirot’, this festive whodunnit is set at the fictional Westbury Manor on Christmas Eve, 1938, where the Westbury family and their gathered friends are deep into another of their famous Christmas parties. But in the morning, their guest David Campbell-Scott is found dead in the snow outside, a pistol and a single set of footprints next to him. Amateur sleuth High Gaveston, the protagonist of this witty, charming Christmas mystery, begins investigating – but suicide doesn’t seem very plausible…

Ghost Stories by M. R. James (1931)

James created most of his ghost stories just to amuse his friends one Christmas Eve, and ended up transforming the entire genre. If you would like to carry on his chilling festive tradition then this collection is for you; selected and introduced by crime queen Ruth Rendell, it shows the mastery of James’ storytelling and his peerless ability to imbue ordinary things with terror. 

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (1996)

Leave it to the master Terry Pratchett to include, in his famous Discworld series, perhaps the strangest Christmas novel of all. In Hogfather, there is no “jolly fat man” – instead, Death himself is creeping down the chimneys of the world’s children. After all, somebody has to, or they’ll stop believing. But with time turning, Santa – ahem, “the real man in the red suit” must be found, otherwise the next day may never come.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)

Widely considered to be among the very first mystery novels, this Victorian classic follows Walter Hartright, who gets a job as a drawing teacher for a beautiful young woman and is quickly pulled into far more sinister goings-on. Using multiple narrators and drawing on Collins’ legal background, it’s a story full of suspense, jealousy and murder, and was an instant success when it was originally published in 40 weekly instalments. These days you can own it in a beautiful one-volume edition.

Books for escapism

Festive Spirits by Kate Atkinson (2019) 

The bestselling author of Big Sky and Life After Life returns with a little Christmas present for her legion of fans and those yet to discover her, with three short but extremely sweet stories. Guaranteed to make you laugh, cry and smile – perhaps all at the same time – the stories explore themes of loneliness, secrets and that one person who is always reluctant to join in the festivities. 

One More Christmas at the Castle by Trisha Ashley (2021)

For those looking for an uplifting holiday read, there are few better books to turn to than this brand new, feel-good novel by Trisha Ashley. This might be elderly widow Sabine’s very last year at her long-time home, Mitras Castle, so to make it special she hires a professional, Dido Jones, to help ensure things are perfect. But when Dido feels something of a sentimental pull towards the castle – and when Sabine’s family arrives, including a significant someone from her past – the future suddenly looks very different for the castle, Dido, and Sabine.

An Almost Perfect Christmas by Nina Stibbe (2017) 

Christmas is a magical time, but it can also be a time of mishaps and misunderstandings. Stibbe’s hilarious non-fiction book is an ode to realistic Christmases, the kinds that feature dry turkeys and dodgy gifts. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the pressure to make Christmas perfect, An Almost Perfect Christmas will make you laugh, and remind you of the true meaning of the festive season.

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932)

If you are looking for escapism this Christmas, take shelter in Mitford’s classic novel about the formidable fox-hunter Lady Bobbin, who is hosting what she hopes will be the perfect Christmas party. Guests include her rebellious daughter, a pompous suitor, a dejected writer and a beautiful ex-courtesan. This is a funny novel that will probably make you a little more appreciative of the people at your own Christmas table. 

The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (2018)

In 1917, war rages across Europe but The Emporium is a place of hope, love and – best of all – toys. In this fairy tale for adults, Cathy Wray, running from a shameful past, finds shelter at The Emporium but soon discovers that the shop has secrets of its own.

Gathering the family together

Cook, Eat, Repeat by Nigella Lawson (2020)

Culled from her latest hit series on the BBC, Cook, Eat Repeat: Ingredients, recipes and stories is chock full of recipes “for all seasons and tastes”, from her flavourful Fish Finger Bhorta recipe, which went viral upon its airing, to her Burnt Basque Cheesecake to – you guessed it – recipes to rejuvenate your festive meal. If you’ve been looking for new ideas for the Christmas season, there are few better people to consult than Nigella. Cook, Eat, Repeat will help you prepare for Christmas, and all meals beyond.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2021)

Whether you’ve already read the novel that established Jonathan Franzen as among the best of his time or you’re approaching it for the first time, hearing The Corrections on audio is a must. Here, a full cast dramatizes Franzen’s story of an elderly Midwestern American couple and their three adult children as they navigate the evolving climate of 20th Century America, bringing new life and passion to the printed story. Of course, it all culminates in a famous final scene of social fireworks over Christmas dinner, where the Lambert family are faced with a choice: adapt or fall apart. It might be just the prep you need for the coming holidays.

More books for Christmas

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