Christmas is a time for comforting and uplifting stories, with their hope and unwavering faith in human nature.
No-one is too old or too busy for stories at Christmas. From the Nativity, the one from which it all began, to Cinderella, Swan Lake or the fable of Scrooge, they permit us to be temporarily transported from mundanity, a comfort to reach for when things are fraught, a welcome hiatus at a time of heightened pressure and emotion.
The 19th-century pastor Edmund Sears, who hailed from Massachusetts in the US, wrote the poem It Came Upon the Midnight Clear in the aftermath of a breakdown; he sums up the universal longing for distraction from ‘the woes of sin and strife’ with the beautiful words: ‘The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.’
Our theme for the annual Advent-calendar cover was the fantastical story of The Nutcracker, an early-19th-century tale conceived by the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. It was later adapted — and made less sinister — by the French author Alexandre Dumas, and set to music by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky for a ballet choreographed by a French-born dancer, Marius Petipa, ballet master of the Mariinsky in Russia.
From the start, The Nutcracker was intended as a ‘holiday ballet’ and was first performed on December 18, 1892, in St Petersburg. Ever since, reality has been annually suspended as we accept that a wooden nutcracker can come alive, transform into a handsome young man, defeat the dastardly Mouse King and whisk his young owner off to the Land of Sweets, where a Sugar Plum Fairy will dance for them.
At Christmas time, a rubicund, bearded gentleman whizzes around the world on a sleigh packed with presents and pulled by gravity-defying reindeer, with or without red noses. A put-upon drudge may go to the ball and meet a prince. An impoverished shoemaker finds that, overnight, perfect shoes have been created by generous elves, thus ensuring that his business keeps going.
A tailor in Gloucester is too unwell to finish a waistcoat for the mayor’s wedding on Christmas morning, but when he wakes, he finds the work has been completed by a troop of mice grateful at being saved from the cat. A miserly old man, ‘solitary as an oyster’, will be frightened by ghosts into embracing the festive spirit and being generous to an employee with a sick son. And a snowman will walk through the air.
No amount of these simple, yet comforting and uplifting stories, with their hope and unwavering faith in human nature, can mask the suffering in Afghanistan, nor the unrest on the Ukrainian border, nor sickness, terrorism and disaster — and nor should they — but they do serve to make the world a better place.