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My Writing Life: The Magic of Christmas and Storytelling

For a writer, Christmas is a gift. Perhaps that’s why so many novels are set at this time of year.

My first novel, What Milo Saw, culminates on Christmas day and is part of Milo’s narrative arc: his goal is to get Gran out of the nursing home in time for the presents and the crackers and the turkey.

Indeed, to extend this theme, I wrote a special What Milo Saw at Christmas short story: a prequel which gives my readers a fun insight into Milo’s Christmas a year before the book opens.

What Milo Saw (PB)-3

Christmas and childhood:

Growing up, my experience of Christmas was gloriously varied. The first two years of my life were spent in Germany (my mother is German), and gosh do Germans know how to celebrate Christmas. People often forget that it was Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who brought Christmas trees over from Germany to England and so to the rest of the world.

christmas-tree-at-windsor-castle-from-the-illustrated-london-news-christmas-supplement1848-cropped

Windsor Castle experiences a new Christmas tradition, brought over by Prince Albert: the Christmas tree.

Germans go for the vintage, natural look rather than the sparkly lights and tinsel. So, my early childhood Christmas trees had real candles (oh the joy of pre-health and safety days); tiny red apples tied to branches with string (real apples); straw stars made by my mother and her friends; wooden figurines; small pinecones and under the tree a rustic wooden crib. And of course, in Germany, there was always snow. As a toddler, I remember snow piled up way above my head. One of my earliest memories is of my brother pulling me around our snowy garden on a wooden sled and then across a the frozen pond in front of the house.

img_1721 Tennessee Skye’s first Christmas with my nod to a natural-looking German Christmas tree.

Later, after having been looked after by a troop of Swiss au-pairs, my Christmases were spent in Heidi country. My biological family fell apart so my mother wanted me to have Christmas in a warm, loving environment. I’ve continued to spend every Christmas in Switzerland – in fact, this is the first year since I can remember that I won’t be there because of our recent move to the US.

My most enduring memory of Christmas in Switzerland is the hours – no days – I spent baking and decorating Christmas cookies with my dear, adopted grandmother, Tata. Making cookies is still my favourite thing about Christmas: the sweet dough, cutting out shooting stars and reindeers, icing.

Cookies, painted in thick white, sparkly icing are, in my opinion, the most beautiful of all Christmas decorations.

Stashed away in boxes and drawers, I have over a hundred cookie cutter shapes that I’ve collected, somewhat obsessively, over the past thirty-six years.

And now I have a little girl of my own and I can’t tell you the deep joy I experienced when cutting out cookie shapes with her for the first time.

The traditions that we inherit from our families (or adopted families) stay with us for life. More often than not, we repeat them with our own children. In a modern, fractured world, this creates the comfort of continuity.

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Tennessee Skye cutting out her first cookie shapes…there’ll be many more to come before Christmas. 

So back to my new life in America. Wonderfully, I’m writing this on the day when, in Concord, New Hampshire, we’ve experienced our first flurry of snow. The joy in Tennessee’s eyes at looking out of the window and seeing a world bedecked in white gave me goosebumps. I’m so thrilled that she gets to have a snowy childhood too. Nothing quite compares to the stillness and beauty of a white Christmas. For that alone, we should be fighting global warming.

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Tennessee Skye looking out of her window at the first flutterings of New Hampshire snow.

Christmas and family:

Coming back to where I started: stories. Christmas, I suppose like most significant human rituals, is about family. And family lies at the heart of all my stories.

However, my definition of family goes beyond the biological: it is broad and generous and all-encompassing. I believe that we create our families just as much as we are handed them through our DNA.

My novels are about mothers and daughters and fathers and children and grandparents and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins and those people who become family through love and circumstance. At Christmas, families, whether genetic or adopted, come together and so it’s a time which never fails to kick my storytelling brain into gear.

Christmas and conflict (the heart of a good story):

And, of course, if you bring large groups of people together, often in a confined space, without much chance to go outside and run off steam – people who might not see each other often; people who are thrown together by the haphazard genetics of family, rather than through choice – and add to that all those glorious idiosyncrasies by which every family makes Christmas its own – then you have all the ingredients you need for a great story.

Indeed, from a young age, making up stories has allowed me to survive the tense and tedious parts of Christmas.

Because much as we all love the festive season, we must admit that for all but the perfect family, these moments of tension and tedium form part of the package – alongside the over-eating and TV repeats and the left-overs. Christmas brings out the best in people but also the worst: it’s a time of excess, and excess breeds conflict.

And, if there’s one thing we writers agree on it’s that a good piece of fiction needs conflict.

Along with the pretty bows and the sweet-singing choirs, Christmas is often rife with trouble, or at least the potential for it.

Christmas and romance:

Back to the good bits of Christmas!

I’ve never been able to get my head around spending Christmas in a warm climate, sipping cocktails on a sun lounger whilst listening to the lapping of the waves. I know that some people absolutely love it and tinsel on the beach would make for an interesting, fictional setting. But for me, Christmas needs to be cold and candlelit and cosy.

Which is why I got married at Christmas. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful time of year in which to say, ‘I do.’ In my dream wedding, I was was brought to church on a sleigh pulled by bell-jangling reindeer. The bank balance didn’t quite stretch to that, but all the other Christmas elements were in place: holly for flowers; a white cape over my dress; a chapel lit with candles; a red velvet wedding cake; a late afternoon service and reception when it was winter-dark outside. In my world, that version of beauty trumps bright sunshine and daisies any day. Christmastime is when I feel most at home and comfortable in my own skin.

Give me a woolly hat and jumper over a bikini and flipflops any day.

What’s more, for me, there is an inherent romance to Christmas – and, as my friends and family and long-suffering husband know all too well, I’m a hopeless romantic. So, this time of year makes my soul sing.

419807_10150496119196722_174072429_nMy wedding day, 19th December 2011

Christmas and culture:

As I’ve mentioned, I recently moved to the US – to New England, a part of America known for its white, cold winters and so, for its Christmases too. There’s a Santa theme park in New Hampshire that’s open all year round – there are Christmas water rides in mid-July! So you can imagine what actual Christmas looks like.

One family we’ve recently got to know has just hired some external contractors to decorate the outside of their house. They’re spending the next four weekends decorating: a whole Christmas village; Christmas decorations in every room of their beautiful house; four Christmas trees (inside and out). I love that and admire that kind of commitment.

In the humdrum nature of everyday life, we need to be jolted, every now and then, by colour and bright lights and a joyful, decorative excess.

It’s good for our hearts and our senses. It’s good for reminding us that we’re creatures who love ritual and traditions and celebration. Every world religion, every culture, bears testimony to that.

And that too, is the point about Christmas: the way in which each family, each culture, each country, each branch of Christianity celebrates this time of year is deeply idiosyncratic and so reveals a great deal about character and community.

As writers, our job is to try and understand the world better, in all its diverse beauty: Christmas is a gift deepening this understanding.

So I can’t wait to spend my first family Christmas here in New England. My tree will have some straw stars that my grandmother made in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. Under the tree will stand the old wooden crib from my childhood. My tree will also have some decorations I bought for Tennessee’s first Christmas from England and Switzerland. And some new American ones too – I’ve already started scouting.

I know that this Christmas, in a new land, my imagination will brim over with story ideas.

Christmas and magic:

There’s something else which is intrinsic to Christmas – and to my stories, the most important ingredient of all: magic.

I don’t write magical realism on the level of Marquez or Allende, but I do believe that magic weaves through all our lives.

My husband, Hugh, is a realist. ‘Tennessee should know that her parents love her and have worked hard to earn the money to pay for the presents that they’ve lovingly chosen for her. We should get credit for the nice things, not just for the nagging,’ he argues.

He has a point. But I still go with Santa. Because whenever our little girl speaks about Father Christmas, her eyes light up. She loves the idea of this benign, bearded man with his big belly and his bushy white beard flying through the night sky, pulled by reindeer, ready to jump through chimneys.

And stories have played their role in this too. Tennessee’s favourite book is Julia Donaldsons glorious Stick Man and his quest to get back to the family tree in time for Christmas.

stick-manAs Christmas approaches, every chimney Tennessee comes across gets the Santa inspection. Is it clean enough, big enough, accessible enough for dear old Santa to push his bulk and his bag of gifts through?

The magical notion of Christmas builds her imaginative world.

So, as far as I’m concerned, she can thank us for the gifts later, when she’s been let in on the big Santa secret. For now, I want her to experience the stardust of Christmas.

Christmas is about childhood, about culture, about romance and family and magic. In other words, Christmas is about stories: the ones we share as humans beings, the ones that are stored in our memories, the ones we come back to, every year, the ones that define who we are and where we come from and whom we love.

So, wherever you are in the world and however you celebrate it, I wish you a Merry Christmas. Above all, may your festive days be filled with wonderful stories. ?

img_2363Tennessee Skye’s first Christmas in Switzerland.