Christmas and Snow Reading: George Mackay Brown & More

I’ve never had a Christmas Day without my immediate family or in-laws before, but when West Berkshire leapt into the Tier 4 (highest) COVID-19 risk category on Saturday it was clear that even our modest plans to spend 48 hours at my parents-in-law’s home by the coast would be dashed. How we’d looked forward to seeing other people and going somewhere else! Nothing dramatic; just a change of scene and an excuse to pack an overnight bag and a giant tote full of books. The bright side, if there is one, is that we can choose exactly how to spend the holidays, and my husband – a fantastic cook – will have total control over the feast.

To keep our spirits up, we’ve done more Christmas decorating than usual. Our lounge is dominated by the biggest tree we’ve had yet, there’s holly all over, and we strung colored fairy lights across one wall. After Saturday’s bad news, we brought forward our annual viewing of Elf. And of course, I have a stack of seasonally appropriate books at the ready.

Here’s the first two I managed to read for review:


Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown

Many of these 30 short stories originally appeared in publications like the Scotsman, Tablet and Glasgow Herald between the 1940s and 1990s, with some also reprinted in previous Mackay Brown story volumes. This posthumous collection of seasonal tales by Orkney’s best-known writer runs the gamut from historical fiction to timeless fable, and travels from the Holy Land to Scotland’s islands. Often, Orkney is contrasted with Edinburgh, as in one of my favorites, “A Christmas Exile,” in which a boy is sent off to Granny’s house in Orkney one winter while his mother is in hospital and longs to make it home in time for Christmas.

Although the main characters are usually crofters, fishermen and lairds, they take on other roles in Nativity and Christmas Carol-like setups. For instance, a skipper, a miller, and a shepherd play the part of the Three Kings, while a greedy general merchant who won’t close his shop for Christmas Day is like Ebenezer Scrooge. Biblical and Dickensian figures merge in “An Epiphany Tale,” in which a deaf-blind-mute boy is visited by three strangers who give him back each of his senses, in turn, for one magical day. Characters get visions of the past or glimpses of how the other half live (“The Poor Man in His Castle”). Children are disabused of the idea of Santa Claus, but the unexplained still fuels a sense of wonder, as in Jeanette Winterson’s holiday stories. Even the poor have small gifts and pleasures to look forward to.

As editor William S. Peterson notes in his introduction, Calvinism had erased much of the joy from Christmas in Scotland, but in Mackay Brown’s lifetime he saw Yule traditions returning and was keen to emphasize that Christmas was not just about one day of celebration but was a whole season running from Advent through to Epiphany. The story “I Saw Three Ships…” remembers an oppressed past, though: set at the end of the Civil War, after King Charles I was beheaded, it is set at a time when the government declared “‘There will be no more Christmas. Christmas is abolished and forbid in the islands here, as it has been put down everywhere in this commonwealth. We will have no more of such ancient mummery.’ … Men reckoned that that was the longest coldest dreichest winter ever known in Orkney.” Those words might feel gloomily appropriate, but let’s celebrate all the more in defiance.

With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.


Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell

Words for snow exist in most of the world’s languages – even those spoken in countries where it rarely, if ever, snows. For instance, Thai has “hima” at the ready even though there were only once claims of a snow flurry in Thailand, in 1955. Campbell meanders through history, legend, and science in these one- to five-page essays. I was most taken by the pieces on German “kunstschnee” (the fake snow used on movie sets), Icelandic “hundslappadrifa” (snowflakes big as a dog’s paw, a phrase used as a track title on one of Jónsi’s albums – an excuse for discussing the amazing Sigur Rós), and Estonian “jäätee” (the terrifying ice road that runs between the mainland and the island of Hiiumaa – only when the ice is 22 cm thick, and with cars traveling 2 minutes apart and maintaining a speed of 25–40 km/hour).

The white and blue tendrils of the naked hardback’s cover creep over onto the endpapers, each essay is headed by a Wilson Bentley photograph of a snowflake, and the type is in a subtle dark blue ink rather than black. Too many of the essays are thin or dull, such that the contents don’t live up to the gorgeous physical object they fill. Still, I imagine you have a snow-loving relative who would appreciate a copy as a seasonal coffee table book.

With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.


And a bonus:

“The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather (1896)

This Renard Press pamphlet supporting the Three Peas charity (in aid of Europe’s refugees) was sent to me as a Christmas card alternative by Annabel/Shiny New Books. A young man wanders the slushy streets of Chicago one Christmas Eve. On this, his 24th birthday, he laments how low he has sunk that he has to rob the rich in order to get money to eat. But in this take on the Prodigal Son story, there is a second chance at forgiveness and a good life. I was reminded of the high society atmosphere of Edith Wharton’s work and the moral fables of O. Henry. The lovely little story has a William Morris design on the cover. I’ll keep it with my small collection of Christmas books and bring it out to reread in future years.


Are you reading any Christmas or wintry books?

What are your plans for the holidays?

25 responses

  1. Having sent out all my Cather pamphlets, I was glad to receive one too from Karen! Such a wonderful idea. Glad you liked it, it’s certainly something to go into the Christmas box to bring out each year.

    I am surprised to see a Jo Nesbo in your wintery pile, given that I know you don’t like crime much. This one is very gruesome, but his detective Harry Hole is interesting! I’d thoroughly recommend the Sedgwick ‘Snow’ – it has more depth than the Campbell by the sound of it, as well as published by Little Toller.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never tried any Nesbo; this one turned up in the Little Free Library over the summer and I thought, why not? I read a Mankell this autumn and I expect my reaction will be similarly lukewarm. If I’m not enjoying after 30 pages or so, I’ll pass it on elsewhere.

      I’m very much looking forward to Sedgwick’s Snow. It was part of a Little Toller binge order earlier this year.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Isn’t the Cather lovely! Such a beautiful object and supporting a good cause – perfect. As for Nesbo, I’m not a fan. I read a *lot* of Scandi crim pre blog and I rate the Martin Beck stories highly, the Wallanders pretty highly (although they are quite dark and sometimes lose focus). But the violence against women in the Nesbo I read was just too extreme for me, and I’ve moved away from most modern crime writing because of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting to hear. Mankell and Nesbo are my father-in-law’s favourites, but the closest I’ve previously come to Scandi noir is with Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow! I don’t generally have a problem with gore, but I’m very ready to ditch this one after a few dozen pages if I’m not enjoying.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I loved Miss Smilla… I’d like to re-read it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. A fantastic read. One of my favourite random “snow” ones of recent years.


  3. I tend not to read seasonally, but Fifty Words for Snow looks worth dipping into, though not buying. I can’t read many of the book spines you display, but happy to see the Patrick Gale there. Highly recommended. Happy Somewhat Diminished Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One to dip into, certainly. I read my first by Gale early this year, Notes from an Exhibition, and it was a big hit with my book club. Most of the rest have “Snow” in the title, with a small stack of Christmas-themed books from the library standing up to the left.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sorry that your Christmas has been scuppered but I hope you have a lovely time anyway. It sounds as if you’ll eat well, and the weather looks good for a walk or two.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Walks, feasting, reading … that’s about normal for me 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I hope you enjoy a wonderful Christmas despite the change in your plans. I have the Cather story, sent to me by Karen, such a delightful alternative to a card. Fifty Words for Snow looks excellent too. I have just reviewed A Surprise for Christmas from the British Library, but this year haven’t been reading as many Christmas themed books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy Christmas, Ali! I haven’t felt much like reading the Christmas books I got out from the library, but I might sit down with them this evening and see how I get on.


  6. I’m so sorry for your change of Christmas plans! So frustrating. Well, if your husband’s cooking, hopefully that means you will get to do a lot of reading, while admiring your decorations. I’m not reading about snow but writing about it a little–my WIP is partly set during Finland’s Winter War of 39-40, one of their most brutal winters on record. Haven’t looked up the Finnish word or words for snow yet–will do now. Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s got a chapter on “Tykky” — “thick snow and frost that accumulates on tree branches and other structures”. (Reminds me of the Tove Jansson character Too-ticky.) Also one on the Sami word for granulated snow.

      Indeed, I am very lucky to have a partner who is good at and enjoys cooking. All the more reading time for me!

      I hope you enjoy the holidays with your family. I haven’t heard yet whether my mom and sister will be able to spend Christmas together (in MD).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I love it! Of course, I would imagine there must be plenty of Sami words for snow.

        Happy Holidays, and best wishes for a brighter new year ahead filled with all the books!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m so sorry to hear that your plans have had to change, Rebecca, but hope you have the loveliest time regardless. I’m so pleased to see Nancy Campbell’s book on your list; I read it recently, and found it delightfully calming. Looking forward to your thoughts on it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It helps to know that so many people, not just in my town but throughout the southeast, are in the same boat.

      My review of the Campbell is above. I found it mediocre, but enjoyed some of the essays.


      1. Yes, we’re in Tier 4 too. We had planned a quiet Christmas this year anyway, given everything going on, so at least we haven’t had to change plans.

        Oh, sorry!


  8. Do you know Kate Bush’s song/poem Fifty Words for Snow? It’s wonderful! At least, I think so. When our children were small, we used to travel back to England from the Netherlands (or Germany, when we lived there) to visit the grandparents every year. It made our children very fond of visiting England, because they were always showered with presents and attention. Then I couldn’t travel one year because I had an operation planned and our stuck-at-home Christmas was so much less stressful than packing everyone and everything up to cross the channel. We could eat what we wanted, when we wanted, watch whatever we wanted on the TV and go to bed and get up whenever we pleased. It also meant we could start our own family traditions rather than do what our own parents had done. We haven’t been back at Christmas since. So much more relaxed! I realise it’s not quite the same when it’s being enforced from on high, but I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know any Kate Bush! But I imagine it must be what Campbell and her publisher had in mind when conceiving and marketing this book. In fact, the Bush album has just been mentioned in another nonfiction book I’m reading now, Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.

      You’re right, it’s a perfect opportunity for making some holiday traditions of our own. We’ll watch a couple more Christmas movies, and we’re going to do a homemade pizza night on Christmas Eve with alternative toppings like shredded Brussels sprouts. It’s just my husband and me and the cat, who will be lavished with the attention he knows he deserves 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m sorry you had a change of plans: we’re “only” tier 3 here but had lots of to-do about whether my husband was going to go across the city, collected by his brother, to see his parents. I thought I was going to be alone on Christmas Day as a result so it was nice to be together, and he cooked a lovely lunch. I had some reading time but haven’t been keen on all four light novels based at Christmas I bought for myself, so have read two and will set two aside for next year. I’m sorry you found some of 50 Words a bit dull – some of them were thin but I really liked the collection as a whole, though I did race through it. Such a pretty object, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been difficult for so many this year to decide what they could or should do to celebrate the holidays. And there’s been plenty of rule-breaking here in Tier 4, alas: we’ve seen neighbours have visits from grandchildren and others in their homes, and even heard a birthday party going on through the wall. (I’m not inclined to report anyone, as we then have to continue living peaceably beside them for potentially some years to come…) I’m glad you had company on Christmas Day. We enjoyed our quiet day of 2 + cat. I think we’ll have to post the presents we’d had ready for family, and save the food parcel gifts for another time.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Your reading is just perfect! I’m glad you were determined to enjoy your holiday, no matter if it was quieter or not. All of this is a reminder to enjoy what we do have, isn’t it. I’ve been rereading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising during this holiday week, but am about to finish the second volume and may soon past the snow into warmer temperatures in the later volumes before long.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lot of people read that over the holidays. I think it was sparked by a Robert Macfarlane readalong a couple of years ago — C participated in that and got the book out from the uni library.


  11. […] Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for Snow shares an interest in languages and naming. I noted that the Icelandic “hundslappadrifa” refers […]


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