For many of us, December is the month of trotting out old classics: traditions, recipes, that one silver plate that’s been in the family for generations. Of course, it’s a time of classic holiday reading, too, so if you’re both the bookish and the celebratory type, A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! are likely to be laying about, cookie crumbs mashed into the creases of your favorite pages, hot chocolate rings on the back. But what about the holiday books that don’t get quite as much love? This year, if you find you’ve gone over The Night Before Christmas one too many times, try swapping in one of these excellent and under-appreciated choices, which we bet only the jolliest among you will have read.
The Box of Delights, John Masefield
This witty and wonderful children’s novel by the onetime Poet Laureate of the UK is widely beloved on the other side of the pond, but lesser known here. A travesty, that, since it’s a magic box in itself: a magical adventure that begins with a boy on his way home for Christmas, stopped by a man who implores him, “And now, Master Harker, of Seekings, now that the Wolves are Running, as you will have seen, perhaps you would do something to stop their Bite?” Enter wizards and witches, mice, Roman soldiers, the toughest little girl you’ll ever meet, and Christmas just might be saved after all.
Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford
In this under-appreciated novel, Mitford’s second, a hilariously odd assortment of characters (including a writer dismayed at the fact that his bitter, serious novel is hailed as a triumph of the comic and a beautiful, bored young woman named Philadelphia) are gathered together at a country house for Yuletide celebrations. Romance, shenanigans, foot-and-mouth disease, and many bizarre little encounters ensue.
Big Bob and the Winter Holiday Potato, Daniel Pinkwater
You can always count on Daniel Pinkwater for some genius weirdness. If you’ve ever thought about how truly terrifying Santa Claus is, and/or wished to replace him with a potato, this is the book for you. Even if not, this is the book for you.
The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, John Updike and Edward Gorey
This delicious little book, filled with wry, tongue-in-cheek observations about our hallowed holiday traditions, is the perfect gift for your inner Scrooge. Or that cynical, sarcastic aunt you love so very much. After all, “There is something ghastly about a tree — its look of many-limbed paralysis, its shaggy and conscience-less aplomb — encountered in the open, let alone in the living room.”
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Pearl Poet
Though certainly not unknown, at least to English literature majors, the story of Sir Gawain is not often given the pride of place it deserves this time of year. After all, it is King Arthur’s New Year’s party which the Green Knight interrupts, wanting to play a fun little “Christmas game”: someone may strike him with an axe so long as he can return the favor in a year’s time. Girdles, harts, and hearts aplenty, and much 14th-century cheer.
The Fir Tree, Sanna Annukka
Perhaps this one is a bit of a cheat, since this gorgeous little number only came out last year, but for our money, this interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fable should already be a classic of its own.
The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, Lemony Snicket
Another relatively recent one. Snicket’s take on the holiday tale follows a potato latke on the run from the frying pan and constantly having to educate Christmas icons about Hanukkah. Delightful in its sheer irreverence.
Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
The Discworld faithful will know this one, no doubt. But anyone who wants to giggle and reflect on the strength of belief this Hogswatchnight (that’d be December 32), should give it a try.
The Jolly Christmas Postman, Janet & Allan Ahlberg
Pull-out puzzles, cards, letters, and books are all jammed into this delightful romp for the reader — not to mention the postman, who must deliver the above to old friends like Mister Wolf, R. Hood, and Mr. H. Dumpty. This one could never be an ebook.
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Eric Kimmel
“No Hanukkah? How can that be?” “It’s because of the goblins.”
So obviously, this is one of the best holiday books of all time.