It’s that time of year again, and it’s hard to think about the holidays, particularly Christmas, without thinking of fantasy. It is particularly interesting to note just how many famous fantasy novels – particularly for children – are set during the festive period. The Dark is Rising, The Snow Spider and The Children of Green Knowe are all examples that come to mind immediately, but there are many others. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whilst not set at Christmas specifically, features a suitably seasonal winter wonderland and even boasts an appearance by none other than Santa Claus himself. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) also feels like a seasonal novel, even if Christmas was quite literally the last thing on the author’s mind when he was writing it. There are also a number of more adult fantasy novels that make use of festive motifs, often inverting them in new and often anarchic ways. Examples of the latter include Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Then there are timeless classics like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which are neither entirely for adults nor completely for children, but fall into that strange twilight realm that separates the two worlds. What makes Christmas such a popular setting for children’s fantasy novels can perhaps be attributed to a number of things. The essential yuletide story of Jesus’ birth is full of fantastical elements, from the angels to the star to the three Magi. Moving to the secular (or perhaps pagan) side of things, Santa Claus is nothing but fantastical – flying reindeer, elves (which rather resemble gnomes), a fat man fitting down a chimney, and so on. Then there’s perhaps the most famous novel about Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is of course full of spirits. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Christmas continues to be explored by fantasy writers. The myths and legends of Christmas provide a rich source of inspiration for new tales, the season can be mined for its emotion and themes, and perhaps for its strange and wonderful mix of energies.
Most Christmas books on the fantasy side tend to be for children. Take, for example, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E T A Hoffman. Before Tchaikovsky adapted the story for the ballet, Hoffman’s book told the story of a young girl whose nutcracker comes alive and which involves her in a struggle between mice and dolls. L Frank Baum, of The Wizard of Oz fame, also wrote a book called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, about the origins of Santa Claus. Baum applies his typical whimsy to the tale, weaving Santa Claus’s story with demons and gnomes and faeries. Santa Claus, or at least his English counterpart, is also covered in Letters from Father Christmas. This is a series of fictional letters written (and also illustrated) by J R R Tolkien and sent to his children, eventually collected into a book in which Santa deals with polar bears as well as fighting off goblins. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg is charming without being condescending, a Christmas tale that’s less about what you believe than the power of that belief. In the early 1970s, author Susan Cooper released The Dark Is Rising Sequence, a five-book series aimed at young adults and which, much like the Narnia series, was meant as a stepping stone into heavier fantasy fare. The eponymous second book in the series takes an interesting turn in that it uses the celebration of Christmas in the real world as the main source of hope for our fantasy heroes. Usually fantasy narratives are about restoring hope to an imaginary world in order to feel better about the problems in our own but in Cooper’s series, interestingly, that trope is reversed.
Adult holiday fiction seems to be mostly confined to short stories, although several notable exceptions are mentioned below. The great Connie Willis has written many stories about Christmas, several of which are collected in one volume entitled Miracle and Other Stories. The fabulous Gene Wolfe wrote a series of holiday stories, including tales for Christmas Eve and Christmas, now collected in the book, Castle of Days, along with some essays and other material. In terms of full-length novels, however, one that has been mentioned before on this site is Mark Helprin’s literary near-classic Winter’s Tale. While this book perhaps offers readers archetypes instead of legitimate characters, it is still a beautiful, gorgeous novel that should be required reading. Helprin’s prose makes you feel that blast of winter wind, that cosy Christmas day, that welling up of goodwill that makes your insides shake with joy. The plot may sometimes make little sense, but the book is essentially Christmas bound up into words. For those looking for something completely different, there are a couple of famous horror novels that it might surprise you to hear are set at Christmas. It’s easy to forget that Stephen King’s classic horror tale Pet Sematary takes place during the festive period – ultimately, Christmas only really comes into it because King wants you to know that safety is an illusion, and Christmas is possibly the safest life event around. Then there is Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, in which poor bullied Oskar learns about the dark events that turned his new friend Eli into a vampire centuries ago. The backdrop of snowfall and twinkling lights – the setting of Christmas, a time of family and forgiveness – is even more disturbing contrasted with the cycle of death that surrounds Oskar and Eli’s friendship.
For his 20th Discworld novel, Pratchett turned his satire to Old Saint Nick, except in the Discworld universe he’s known as the Hogfather. When the Assassin’s Guild puts a hit out on this mythical, gift-giving figure, Death must attempt to take up his figurative and literal reins. But when Death starts taking children’s wishes too literally, his granddaughter Susan must step in, battle bogeymen that are invading children’s dreams, and set everything right. Just as the holidays can be equal parts depressing and joyous, Pratchett’s deconstruction of the Santa myth finds its humour in light and dark places. Appropriately, Hogfather is both naughty and nice in offering readers a complete viewpoint on Christmas – and indeed you would expect nothing less from Discworld and the late, great Terry Pratchett. Bringing us right up to date while using an ancient myth is Krampus: the Yule Lord by Brom. The mythological figure of Krampus lives to bring pain upon the naughty (and nice things to those who are truly nice, but most of the people he finds aren’t nice, so…) and artist/writer Brom visualizes and expands his mythology with a terrifying exactness. Krampus is chilling, fascinating and, dare I say it, thrilling – a worthy addition to an interesting sub-genre of fantasy that remains as vigorous today as the festive season that birthed it.