CHRISTMAS WITH THE ENGLISH NOVELISTS

Dickens' A Christmas Carol is practically a blueprint for a traditional celebration, despite the fact it doesn't feature plastic toys, Quality Street, turkey or squabbles over the Christmas TV programmes. Anyone harking back to a simpler, less consumerist festival should consult one of three literary anthologies, published by Sutton at pounds 9.99: Dickens' Christmas, ed John Hudson, The Brontes' Christmas, ed Maria Hubert, and Thomas Hardy's Christmas, ed John Chandler (all Sutton pounds 9.99).

The books are uniform at around 120 pages, but some compilers' tasks are easier than others. Dickens never shut up about Christmas. In fact, John Hudson doesn't even need to make much reference to A Christmas Carol. There are extracts from Little Folks magazine, including a fascinating article on home-made presents and activities, which, as Hudson points out: "tells us much about the Victorians' expectations of patience and skill in their children". "A Christmas post-office is a merry-making idea in which all can join," says Dickens, who also extols the delights of cotton-wool snow on the tree and "a snake cut out of a round piece of cardboard, and gilded, when the heat of a candles will make it revolve". Clearly Charles Dickens was the fons et origo of all that sticky-backed plastic in Blue Peter.

Maria Hubert has a much harder time with the Bronte siblings, who although they made an effort each year to come back to the parsonage, rather disgracefully failed to record any specifically Christmassy events in their diaries and letters. All three anthologies are bolstered by interesting contemporary additions describing typical local Christmases in that era. Hubert falls on Robert Southey's sublime poem "The Holly Tree" whose first stanza runs: "O Reader! Hast thou ever stood to see the holly tree? / The eye that contemplates it well perceives / Its glossy leaves, / Ordered by an intelligence so wise, / As might confound the atheist's sophistries."

Hubert also places much reliance upon Mrs Gaskell, whose writings, as Hubert gratefully notes: "depict much of the Christmas of the time, in real early Victorian Dickensian style!" There is a well-chosen selection of black and white prints and line drawings.

Reproduced in Thomas Hardy's Christmas is a selection of the Hardys' annual Christmas cards ("All good wishes for Christmas and the New Year from Mr and Mrs Thomas Hardy"), often incorporating a poem. There are film stills and illustrations, verses and extracts from Hardy novels and a little-known story for children, "The Thieves Who Couldn't Stop Sneezing", written in 1877.

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