Cathy Rentzenbrink’s favourite Christmas reads

It’s a wonderful treat to curl up next to the fire with a few Christmas books over the festive period. Here Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of Dear Reader, shares her favourite books to read at Christmas.  

Over the festive season when it’s cold and frosty outside, there’s no better place to be than curled up beside the tree or next to the fireplace with a good book and a mug of something comforting. Here Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of Dear Reader, a moving, funny and joyous exploration of how books can change the course of your life, shares her favourite books to read at Christmas. These Christmas books are sure to get you in the festive mood, and also make wonderful gifts for book lovers. 

If you're in need of more gift inspiration for the book lovers in your life, don't miss our Christmas gift guide. 

In my many years of being a barmaid and then a bookseller, I didn’t get much festive time to myself. Once, at Waterstones Oxford Street, I worked the late shift on the 24th, had the 25th off, and then was back in the saddle early on Boxing Day. My first customer was grumpy and wanted a refund. As I checked her receipt, I saw that it was me who had served her just before we shut on Christmas Eve. Neither of us had taken much of a break from retailing. Because my work involved noise and crowds and cheer – some of it forced – when I did have time off, I wanted to relax and restore with a book. 

Reading, my favourite thing to do at any time of the year, comes even more into its own at Christmas. I no longer work in hospitality or retail but still find it essential to turn off my phone, set an ‘out of office,’ and take some precious time to go inwards. My brain deserves a break from the clamour of modern life. Sometimes I set myself a reading project that involves new books, but more often I go back to old favourites. So here is my Christmas shelf for your pleasure and delectation, dear reader. There is a good range, and I’m amused at the notion of hopping from the wholesome Little Women to the scurrilous delights of Twas the Nightshift before Christmas and on to the spiritual invitation of Amazing Peace. That’s what books do, ultimately: offer limitless scope for adventure and exploration.

And, as we approach what Maya Angelou calls ‘the glad season,’ may I gently suggest that a worthy and important festive good deed is to always be courteous and pleasant to anyone who is serving you anything. It will be much appreciated, I promise you.

Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott

Book cover for Little Women

‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.’ Oh Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, how I have loved you all my life, and imagine I will keep rereading you until the end of it. This story of four sisters is a perfect antidote to the excesses of festive consumption as the hard-up girls spend all their money on a gift for their mother, and then agree to give up their Christmas breakfast to a local poor family. I sob buckets of tears over it – I love a cathartic cry – and finish feeling glad and grateful to be safe and warm, with no one I love being away at war or catching scarlet fever. 

The Green Road

by Anne Enright

Book cover for The Green Road

Enright’s skewers many festive absurdities in this tale of grown-up offspring coming back to Ireland for a family Christmas. Here is Constance at the supermarket: ‘Sausage and sage for the stuffing, an experimental bag of chestnuts… She got wine, sherry, whiskey, fresh nuts, salted nuts, crisps, bags and bags of apples, two mangoes, a melon, dark cherries for the fruit salad, root ginger, fresh mint, a wooden crate of satsumas, the fruit cold and promising sweet, each one with its own sprig of green, dark leaves… She went back for more sausages because she had forgotten about breakfast. Tomatoes. Bacon. Eggs… She searched high and low for string to keep the cloth on the pudding, stopped at the delicatessen counter for pesto, chicken liver pate, tubs of olives.’ Out in the car park, Constance realises she has forgotten sprouts. And brandy butter. And honey to glaze the ham: ‘It was as though she had thrown the whole shop in the trolley and bought nothing.’

Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas

by Adam Kay

Book cover for Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas

This volume of festive diaries from the author of the hugely bestselling This is Going to Hurt shows hardworking healthcare professionals coping with champagne cork injuries, turkey bones stuck in the trachea, and finger amputations due to enthusiastic parsnip chopping. The urology department is busy too as ‘egged on by egg nog, there is a definite uptick in objects that have found themselves in orifices and are struggling with the return journey.’ Kay suggests that if we want to help the NHS and all who sail in her we could send thank you cards, give blood and register as organ donors. At the very least we could, ‘Stop sticking root vegetables, remote controls, chocolate wrappers, fairy lights… up your internal cavities for one day a year. It’s only 24 hours, guys, and you’ll make all their Christmasses come at once.’

An Almost Perfect Christmas

by Nina Stibbe

Book cover for An Almost Perfect Christmas

‘My mother is not a foodie. She would prefer that all meals be taken in pill form but once a year, every year, she becomes possessed of a deep and profound need to serve up a roast turkey. It’s some kind of grim personal quest.’ This joyous collection of essays, stories and tips from the author of Love, Nina includes a guffaw-inducing celebration of the round robin and a useful guide to present buying: ‘Don’t start a funeral plan for anyone or buy them a carpet shampooer. Death and hard work are un-Christmassy and upsetting.’ Time and hassle-saving strategies include agreeing as a family to go ‘book only,’ which is an excellent idea. And I like this advice re sprouts: ‘Ignore Nigel Slater, just boil, do not roast or fry or add anything. You’ve got enough to do.’

The Christmas Truce

by Carol Ann Duffy

Book cover for The Christmas Truce

On Christmas Day 1914 a series of unofficial ceasefires took place on the Western Front. The soldiers stopped shooting at each other and instead showed each other photographs, swapped souvenirs and played football. I loved this story as a child and it only becomes more resonant as I age. It feels very pertinent now when I feel we are being encouraged to hate and feel suspicious of other people: we should always remember that more unites us than divides us. Carol Ann Duffy made the wartime truce the subject of her Christmas poem in 2011, part of her series of tiny beautifully illustrated books that warm the heart. 

Amazing Peace

by Maya Angelou

Book cover for Amazing Peace

One of my all-time favourite books is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and I am always soothed by the wisdom and generosity of Maya Angelou. Both are in abundance here in this poem she wrote for the 2005 tree-lighting ceremony in the White House. She talks about our hunger for peace, not only the absence of war and hostility but ‘A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies/Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.’ She offers a vision that Christmas is a ‘glad season’ and ‘a halting of hate time.’ She invites all religions, ‘Angels and mortals, believers and non-believers’ to offer peace to each other, ‘without shyness or apology or hesitation.’ And so I do to you, dear reader, whoever you are and wherever you are. Peace, my brother, my sister, my soul. 

Dear Reader

Book cover for Dear Reader

Cathy Rentzenbrink has always been a reader, from a childhood spent with a nose in a book to taking comfort in reading in times of tragedy. Her love of reading led her first to a career as a bookseller and then as a writer, and no matter what the future holds, reading will always help. This moving and joyful exploration of the impact books can have on our lives is packed with recommendations from one reader to another.