Fairy tales are not something immediately associated with Christmas. At least, not anymore. Once, families used to sit beside the fire and read stories together, but this seems to have dissolved in the face of modern entertainment. Which is all the more reason to give it a go! One of the best things about the Christmas season is that it’s an excuse to get the family together. You might not have an open fire, but there’s no reason not to grab your parents/siblings/children/grandparents/cat and have a bit of old-fashioned festive fun.
Forgetting its roots in the Pagan Winter Solstice, Christmas is primarily a religious holiday. It doesn’t deal with witches, goblins, or creepy things in the woods. But neither do all fairy tales. Here are five Christmas-y ones to get you in the storytelling mood.
1. The Snow Child
This folktale character, known as ‘Snegurochka’ in her native country of Russia, appears in many folktales. Sometimes she is presented as the granddaughter of Ded Moroz, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. One of the most common stories involving a snow child is about an elderly couple who long for a child. They then come across a pale little girl out in the snow and care for her, only for her to melt once Spring arrives. Variants of this include the wife swallowing a snowflake and becoming pregnant, the couple building a snowman and it turning into a child, the girl jumping over a fire and melting or the girl growing up and finding a lover, but being unable to stay with him because she must stay away from heat. Two notable adaptations of this story are ‘Snowflake’ in Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book and the novel entitled The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.
2. The Fir-Tree
Read it here.
Ever wondered what a Christmas tree thinks of its job? Hans Christian Andersen did, and he wrote this story about it. The Fir-Tree starts off as a sapling in the forest, watching the taller trees being taken away and wondering where they go. When a group of swallows tell him they get beautifully decorated and displayed in people’s homes, he is excited and dreams of the day when he too will leave the forest and get a new life. He doesn’t see the beauty in the nature around him. Soon he is big enough, and gets chopped down and becomes a Christmas tree. But he finds that he misses the forest, and wishes he had appreciated it more. His branches shrivel and are taken out into the yard where they are burnt. Not the cheeriest of endings, but this is a nice little story nonetheless. It has a valuable underlying message about growing up and thinking that everyone has something better than you do, but realising once you join them that what you had initially was best. Learn from the Fir-Tree – the other man’s needles aren’t always greener!
3. The Little Match Girl
Read it here.
This story could almost be an advert for a help the homeless campaign. Another of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, and another with a not too happy ending. On New Year’s Eve, a little girl sits in the snow shivering with cold. She clutches a bunch of matches which she tries to sell, but ends up striking them so she can use them for warmth. With each match she lights she has a vision of something she craves: a house, food, a Christmas tree and company. The final vision is of her deceased grandmother, whom she begs to stay. She strikes all the remaining matches in desperation to keep her grandmother with her, and sees the two of them floating into the light and happily seeing the new year arrive together. The next morning, her frozen body is found lying on the street, still holding the burnt out matches. All of the bleakness! But still poignant, in a dark way. Real children like the Match Girl exist and desire all the things which most of us take for granted. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of that once in awhile, and spare a thought or donation for them. Disney and Pixar made this pretty animated short film of ‘The Little Match Girl’ which was included on the bonus disc of the special edition of ‘The Little Mermaid.’
4. The Nutcracker
The Nutcracker and Mouse King is a novel written by the German author E. T. A. Hoffman and published in 1816. It has been adapted into various forms, most notably ballet. So it’s not strictly a fairy tale, but it’s certainly a good Christmas story with lots of fairy tale-esque elements. It’s about a girl called Marie (or Clara in the ballet), whose godfather gives her a Nutcracker in the shape of a man on Christmas Eve. Her brother breaks him, and once everyone has gone to bed Marie creeps downstairs and tries to fix him. But then the clock strikes midnight, and he grows to human size and comes alive, along with all the other toys on the tree. Mice enter the room, led by the fearsome Mouse King, and a battle ensues. The Mouse King is defeated and Marie saves the Nutcracker. There is a celebration, and in the ballet they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and dance the iconic Waltz of the Flowers. At the end, Marie marries the Nutcracker and goes to live with him in the Kingdom of Dolls. Theatres frequently have productions of The Nutcracker during the Christmas period, and there are also film versions and also this beautiful Christmas Classics reprint published by Penguin. Whatever version you encounter, it’s a charming story that can be enjoyed by all the family.
5. The Star Money
Read it here.
This is the ultimate tale of generosity, collected by the Grimm Brothers. An orphaned, poor little girl who has nothing in the world but a crust of bread and and the tattered clothes she is wearing goes walking through the country. Although her life is hard, she wants to be good and kind to people. She encounters others who are in as great a need as herself, and gives each of them something of hers. First the bread, then pieces of her clothing until she is left naked and cold in the forest. Then she looks at the sky, and the stars fall down upon her and clothe her in fine linen and turn into coins which she collects. Being selfless and helping others led to her being rewarded and ending up in a much better situation than she was previously. Christmas is a time of giving, and it’s always the thought which counts not the actual gift. It’s a way of showing you care about someone.
So there you go. Put down your phones, turn off the TV. Grab some blankets and settle in on one of these chilly evenings. Fairy tales are for all seasons, but you only get to read the Christmas ones once a year. Make the most of it! And if you can’t remember any of these stories to tell, there’s nothing stopping you from making up your own! Happy holidays everyone!