A coldly comforting Christmas with Stella Gibbons
Here’s a holiday sentiment that you definitely won’t find on a greeting card:
Be gay, spawn! Laugh, stuff yourselves, gorge and forget,
you rat-heaps! Rot you all!
Did Ebenezer Scrooge say this? No. These wrathful words are uttered by Grandmother Ada Doom -- known to all as “Grummer” -- in the title story of “Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons, a collection newly reissued by Penguin with an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith. Scrooge is a pussycat next to old Ada.
This book of tales was first published by Gibbons in 1940, and the standout is its title story, which takes us back to a wretched farm where lives one of the most ridiculously sullen casts of characters in English literature. It's the perfect quick read during one of those odd little pockets of time that occur on Christmas Day or New Year’s -- you know, before the big meal, after the big meal, on the drive to/from the relatives.
You might already have your holiday reading list done -- Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Gogol’s “The Night Before Christmas” (just reissued by New Directions) or some other perennial story -- but you might also dip into this book for a good chuckle as the benighted Starkadders celebrate a bleary Christmas Day. This tale, mind you, takes place well before young Flora Poste’s arrival in the 1932 novel “Cold Comfort Farm” (don’t forget the 1995 film, featuring Kate Beckinsale in her pre-“Underworld” days as Flora).
Nothing could be further from the “Christmas Carol” merriment of Fezziwig’s joyous party than the Starkadder meal, which seems to provide more insults and fights than good food. And don't forget the grim dish known as Year’s Luck pudding. Baked into the pudding are several surprises, including a broken mirror and a coffin nail. Each item foretells bad news for the person who receives it, and here’s the thing: All of the objects are bad -- no gold coins or sweet pieces of chocolate here! The odds are steeply stacked against the eater of this pudding.
This holiday, if you find yourself trapped in a long, unbearable family meal that feels more like a prison sentence, think of the Year's Luck pudding and be merry. Then, console yourself with another simple thought: I'm in far better shape than those poor Starkadders.
-- Nick Owchar
Photo: Kate Beckinsale in the 1995 movie "Cold Comfort Farm." Credit: Chris Capstick/Gramercy Pictures