Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson review – cruelty, comfort and joy

Difficult childhood memories transmute into forgiveness in a mix of seasonal stories, recipes, animal fables and fairytales

In her 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson recalled: “Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa Claus at Christmas time … I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

That memoir was the hilarious, if harrowing, account of Winterson’s attempt to escape the tyranny of her adoptive mother, a manic depressive who kept a revolver in her duster drawer, believed the activity of mice to be evidence of ectoplasm and built a short-wave radio to beam Pentecostal messages to the unconverted. She seemingly thought nothing of shutting her daughter in the coalhole overnight. Yet despite her dour outlook, Mrs Winterson loved Christmas. “It was the one time of the year she went out into the world looking as if the world was more than a vale of tears,” Winterson writes. “She was an unhappy woman and so this happy time in our house was precious. I am sure I love Christmas because she did.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that Winterson should produce a volume of short stories inspired by the season, given that her own experience reads like a grim parody of the miracle birth. The constant refrain throughout her autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was her mother’s assertion that “the Devil led us to the wrong crib”; and these feelings are sublimated into Winterson’s Christmas tale “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me”. The story is a retelling of the nativity from the donkey’s point of view, in which the ass receives a snout of gold, having nuzzled against the foot of an angel perched on the stable roof. In her memoir, Winterson made it clear what this signified: “I was the runty little donkey. I needed a golden nose.”

“The Lion, the Unicorn and Me” was originally published as an illustrated children’s book in 2009; and is reprinted here as part of a curious Christmas fiction/cookery hybrid, in which a dozen stories are interspersed with seasonal recipes from Winterson’s celebrity friends. In addition to various ghost stories, animal fables and urban fairytales, there are instructions on how to prepare Susie Orbach’s Christmas Eve gravlax; New York custard à la Kathy Acker (“Kathy could not cook – she could not even stir”); and a piquant red cabbage recipe perfected by Ruth Rendell, with whom Winterson used to spend part of the Christmas period until Rendell’s death last year.

An Illustration from Christmas Days.
An Illustration from Christmas Days. Photograph: Katie Scott

The touching chapter in memory of Rendell carries the delightful revelation that the queen of crime was quite partial to country music. According to Winterson, “she’d sing a bit, usually country and western, sometimes Handel … ‘Jolene’ medley’d with hits from Messiah”. But it also becomes clear that Rendell provided Winterson with a haven of unconditional support she had never experienced at home: “I wrote my second novel, The Passion, in her house. She had been the Good Mother – never judging, quietly supporting, letting me talk, letting me be me.”

Winterson’s winter tales unfailingly succeed in their endeavour to leave you aglow. In some, the magic turns out to be explicable, such as the generous apparition of a Christmas tree in a cold New York apartment; in others, the magic is simply magical. Here, for example, is the explanation of why certain snow-people lack animation: “He’s not a Snowman, he’s just snow. A grownup made him, didn’t believe in him and didn’t love him. So he didn’t live.”

But for all the tidings of comfort and joy, it’s remarkable how often Winterson’s fundamental narrative resurfaces in a succession of tales featuring young children locked out of doors, abandoned in department stores, trapped inside chests or condemned to die in 18th-century ice houses. Chief among these is a faux-Dickensian story set in Mrs Reckitt’s Academy for Orphans, Foundlings and Minors in Need of Temporary Office. The archetype behind this is not difficult to discern: “‘The carol singers of Soot Town!’ cried Mrs Reckitt, who, like all unfeeling people, was sentimental. ‘I must welcome them in for hot punch and melted jelly babies.’”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that even the best Christmas offerings should include a certain amount of stocking-filler, and Winterson liberally recycles her earlier work where necessary. Seasonal anecdotes from Why Be Happy? are reprinted almost word for word, though there is one potentially telling exception. In the memoir, Winterson records that having fled Accrington for Oxford University, she wrote to her mother, asking if it would be possible to come back for Christmas. The same recollection reappears in the present volume with a revealingly different slant: “During my first term at Oxford I received a postcard – in her immaculate copperplate handwriting was the message: ‘Are you coming home this Christmas? Love Mother.’”

Does it matter who actually tendered this seasonal olive branch, given that the visit was a disaster in any case? Yet the inconsistency feels significant, because this book is as much about healing and forgiveness as it is about fairytale cruelty to children. Winterson’s chapter for New Year’s Eve considers Christmas as a time of reflection – there’s a recipe for cheese crispies to aid the process – in which she notes: “Memory isn’t an archive. Even a simple memory is a cluster … our memories change as we do.”

Would it be too much to read Winterson’s Christmas collection as an attempt, finally, to make peace and come to terms with her past? The evidence is there in the inclusion of the recipe for her father’s favourite trifle, which she made out of tinned fruit and Bristol Cream sherry only a few days before he died. “I am glad of that last Christmas with my dad,” she writes, “not because it rewrote the past but because it rewrote our ending. The story, for all its pain and sometimes horror, did not end tragically; it ended with forgiveness.”

• Christmas Days is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £12.29 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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