Having written a Christmas story one and half times before, I’m declaring it a Christmas tradition.
To begin this year's writing process, I’m feeding Gonzo, my creative brain, with festive possibilities, so she can bring future me an idea at an inopportune moment.
She’s resistant. I think I know why. It’s because Christmas stories have rules. They go something like this:
If there’s no snow, there’d better be a good reason for it.
Christmas happens in the past.
If it’s not heart-warming, then it must be a ghost story (ideally it's both).
If it doesn’t have any actual magic in it, then it must include an everyday miracle, like falling in love or childbirth or suddenly improved personality.
Cynical characters will be convinced.
Nobody ends up alone; surrogate or imaginary families are acceptable.
If we don’t follow these rules, we can write a story set at Christmas, but it won’t be a Christmas Story. Unfortunately, Gonzo doesn't like rules. She’s muttering about a Christmas massacre in space.
So here I am, setting out my case to Gonzo: this is why we want to write a Christmas Story.
Keeping Christmas well
As you know full well, Christmas is all about retelling old stories. My favourites are:
A Christmas Carol (with or without muppets), The Snowman, The Christmas Mystery, Twas The Night before and The Nightmare before. And I mustn’t forget It’s a Wonderful Life.
One option is to look at these sideways, or dive into a scene, or change a consequence, give a minor character their fairylit moment.
Here's an idea: if we hung out with the Three Kings for a while I’d have the chance to write their beautiful names over and again: Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. Could we do that, Gonzo, could we?
I’ll take that as a maybe.
Dodging the Christmas avatars
We don’t have to tell a story about Santa. Or a snowman. The same goes for stars, reindeer, fir trees, and elves (the miniature kind with bobble hats).
Please, give me someone odd or uncanny.
We could hook back up with Krampus – the Austrian demonic who takes naughty kids away in his sack. I like him.
But there are also plenty of new characters we can meet. Catalonia’s defecating log, or maybe not him. The Caracans roller-skating to church. The Ukrainian spider decorating a tree with its web (what words might she spin). The Japanese visitor who associates red with death.
You like that last one, I can tell.
Scratching off the wrapping
Our story need not be all about the Victorian trimmings. Push aside the brussel sprouts, peep beneath the tinsel, you'll find pagan Midwinter. The hibernal solstice. It's when witches return home from their All Hallows banishment. It's when the dead dine at our tables. Yalda, the night of bolted doors and poetry. Saturnalia, the time of the upside down, of roles reversed: male and female, young and old, rich and poor. Midwinter is the time for prophesy too, of catching sight of the Wild Hunt chasing overhead. The invincible sun god is reborn. So is the great horned hunter god.
Now you're paying attention.
Finding the quirk
People are not quite themselves at Christmas.
They go for a swim in the sea – the only time all year they’d consider it.
They eat foodstuffs they refuse the rest of the year.
They exchange objects they’re not sure are wanted.
They’re tetchy about living relatives while missing the dead ones.
They put on paper hats.
They’re nostalgic for experiences they’ve never had.
Mostly, they suspend disbelief.
In short, they are even more interesting to write about than normally.
Into the darkness
Looking away from the Christmas lights into the long nights is not against the rules. The best Christmas stories go right into the dark.
The Christmas we write would be the best of all times of the year for some of our possible characters, but it might be the worst for others. At least, at the beginning of the story.
You can start however you like. You always do.
So, Gonzo, what's it to be?