Another Christmas short story collection, though very different from Dalziel and Pascoe Hunt the Christmas Killer! This collection of short stories from the British Library Women Writers’ series is their first Christmas offering. Unlike the majority of the series (which focuses on women in the early 20th century), this book draws on authors from the UK, the US, and Canada, as well as covering a period up to and including the 1990s. It’s structured chronologically, not by year of publication but by period of the Christmas season – so that we start before the Christmas season even truly begins, with turkey gutters and pluckers on a farm somewhere in Canada, and slowly run through to the making of New Year’s Resolution. I really enjoyed the way this was organised – if I read this again in the future, which I suspect I will, perhaps I’ll read it in that way too. This time, though, I read it in almost a single sitting.

I loved the majority of these stories. Some more than others, of course, but there were only two I really disliked (Snow, a nauseatingly sweet Christmas romance, and The Little Christmas Tree, a story that seems to have the underlying moral ‘every childless spinster who is happy and contented is Wrong and what she wants for Christmas is a husband and kids, actually’). Here are a few of the highlights:

The Christmas Pageant (Barbara Robinson) – A lovely entry, not least because it actually has the Christmas story in it. It’s told from the perspective of an unnamed child whose church’s normal Christmas nativity play gets disrupted when the roughest kids in the village decide they want to get involved – and, without ever becoming saccharine, it manages to shed new perspective on a story that is very familiar to those of us who have grown up with it.

Christmas Bread (Kathleen Norris) – Quite unexpectedly, this story made me cry. It was unique among the collection – and fairly rare among fiction generally – because instead of focusing on romantic love, or parent-child relationships, it looks at a fractured relationship between brother and sister. I thought I was going to hate this to start with. Initially it seems like it is going to blame widowed surgeon and single mother Dr Madison for having to work Christmas Day – but it takes a very different direction from what I was expecting. I don’t think a short story has ever made me cry before!

Pantomime (Stella Margetson) – This is a sweet albeit gutwrenching story of a lonely, neglected teenage boy experiencing his first romantic love – unrequited and unsuitable, as first adolescent loves tend to be – set against the backdrop of a Christmas panto. I really enjoyed this, which manages to be sweet but not cloying, and sad but not bleak. It made me extremely grateful that I never have to be a teenager again.

On Leavin’ Notes! (Alice Childress) – Very different in tone to the majority of stories in the collection, which focus on the doings of middle- and upper-middle class women, mostly British; this story by Alice Childress is from the perspective of an African American woman in service in New York City, who has decided to make a New Year’s Resolution. Only a couple of pages, but really impactful.

A lovely collection to put you in the festive mood (especially if Christmas crime isn’t your thing). I think it does tip over into too sweet a couple of times, but most of the stories manage to balance the light and dark in a way that seems appropriate for the season. This is proving to be a great Christmas for seasonal reading so far!