THE comedy writer Paul Kerensa is enthusiastic about Christmas in all its aspects. Each winter, he tours his unique show Comedians and Carols. This book is a further expression of Kerensa’s obsession with the season-to-be-jolly.
Initially, I struggled to decide how to approach reading Hark! Was it written as a wisecracking sleigh-ride through the story of our worldwide winter festival? Or is it a serious history book with jokes attached? The breezy tone of Hark! invites comparison with Horrible Histories — “Fantastic Festivities”, perhaps? — and the narrative is full of chirpy one-liners.
It becomes clear, however, that, like all the best comedy, this is the assiduously researched work of a serious thinker. He is honest, too: he admits that he is no historian. He is a student of story. “I’m here to tell some stories, I’m a storian.”
This Christmas tale embraces the ancient Norse Yule, the nativity narratives, and the band Slade in relaying millennia of festive culture. For each chronological period, Kerensa employs a device, “The Twelve Dates of Christmas”: snapshots of influential moments in the shaping of modern Christmas.
His ninth date of Christmas is 19 December 1843, wherein Charles Dickens walks the snow-free streets of London (it was the tenth mildest December on record), pleasurably watching people buy copies of his latest work, A Christmas Carol.
Tolstoy described Dickens as “that great Christian writer”, but Kerensa wonders whether Dickensian “Christmas charity . . . has maybe taken the place of Christianity at Christmas”.
Today, “‘The true meaning of Christmas’ often seems to mean either the importance of family or the joy of giving.” In the book’s “Pro logos” — “before the Word” — Kerensa makes a bid for the centrality of “God meeting man in a Bethlehem shack”.
This is a delightful, engaging book, deserving to be considered as much more than a mere stocking-filler.
The Revd John Davies is Rector of the Cam Vale Benefice, in the diocese of Bath & Wells.
Hark! The biography of Christmas
Church Times Bookshop £7.20