From A Christmas Carol to The Snowman, Matt Haig picks the books that will put even the most bah-humbuggiest Scrooge into a festive mood
1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The book that helped invent Christmas. Or at least, our popular view of it in modern culture. It is a story about transformation, and redemption, and as such set a precedent for so many Christmas stories since. Though a very early Dickens (he wrote it, depressingly, when he was 30) it still feels modern in its concerns about capitalism and poverty and the dehumanising effect of work and the healing power of kindness. I’m re-reading it again this year.
2. Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
This book was very much in my mind when I was writing my own Father Christmas story. The great thing about this book is that is so different to so many Christmas books. The polar opposite in fact. While most Christmas books seek to reveal the magic in the everyday, this shows us the ordinariness behind the magic, and so is wickedly subversive.
3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
This book brings me to tears. The soft-eyed memories of warm, happy childhood Christmasses is in marked contrast to a lot of what we know about Thomas’s adult life, and reminds us of the power of Christmas as a symbol of innocence and wonder. It connects us back to the child we all left behind.
4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This is one of my favourite books, and features healthy doses of both Christmas and nostalgia, so I am putting it here.
5. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
One of the funniest things in print. This is a collection of essays about Christmas. The first one, Santaland Diaries, is Sedaris’s take on working as an elf during holiday season at Macy’s department store and is painful in all the right ways. Another essay reviews the local school’s Christmas pageant with delightful mischief.
6. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
Come on. It’s The Snowman.
7. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
I utterly adored the Dark is Rising sequence as a child. A truly epic battle between good and evil, or rather between Light and Dark, and the second novel, called The Dark is Rising, is the festive one, but not in a warm, glowing sense. It is set in a freezing, snow-ravaged wintery world, far harsher than anything Narnia could offer. Will, the hero, must find the six “signs of the Light” – circles quartered by a cross in wood, bronze, iron, water, fire and stone – before twelfth night. An eternal classic.
8. Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr
My children loved Mog, and Mog’s adventures with the Christmas tree will always remind me of those early Christmases with my children. The great thing about Mog is that she is a very real cat. And this is a very real Christmas. Judith Kerr is wonderful.
9. Letters from Father Christmas by JRR Tolkien
I’m not the biggest Tolkien fan, I must admit, but I make an exception for his letters from the big man himself. These were letters Tolkien gave to his children every year, and tell wonderfully detailed little tales of life in the North Pole, about reindeer and fantastical polar bears. It’s magical.
10. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen
This is one of the most poignant stories ever told, about a poor girl selling matches in the cold and dying from hypothermia. On New Year’s Eve the girl lights matches to warm herself and in the flame sees visions of a Christmas tree and a holiday feast. The ending is devastating, even though Andersen believed it to be a happy one, as the girl ends in heaven. But it is an unforgettable tale, about the power of imagination to warm us like fire, and fits the Christmas spirit perfectly in the sense of us needing light and hope amid the dark of winter.
Matt Haig’s first children’s book, Shadow Forest, won the Nestle/Smarties Prize and the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award. His latest book is A Boy Called Christmas, illustrated by Chris Mould, and is the true story of Father Christmas. Buy A Boy Called Christmas at the Guardian bookshop.
This article was written by Matt Haig, for theguardian.com on Thursday 17th December 2015 10.55 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010