This was the last book that I read in 2019. It was something that I’d been dipping in and out of for most of the month along with The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories. I knew I’d never get all the way through the Penguin collection so I made the choice to focus on this instead. Anyone who had read my review of Emma Thompson’s film Last Christmas will know that I didn’t like it. Really didn’t like it. However, I was all in favour of the accompanying book. I thought that it was a really fun idea and the fact that it was helping to raise money was an added bonus. I had to buy this book because so many great people were involved. I’m a fickle person after all. Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Richard Ayoade, Olivia Colman, Billy Bailey, Meryl Streep: all people I adore. I was genuinely excited to see what they had written. We all like getting a glimpse at the private lives of people we see in the media and this was like being invited to their house on Christmas day. Who wouldn’t say yet to that?
Christmas can mean different things for different people. We normally associate the festive period with joy and merriment. It’s a time during which we want to be with the people we love. We’re so used to Christmas as a time when we feel safe, loved, and happy. But, for many, Christmas is a difficult time. This collection of writing gives us a look at a variety of different Christmas experiences. Emma Thomspon and Greg Wise have brought together a group of people from all walks of life to discuss their connection with Christmas. These include famous names, refugees, and people associated with Crisis at Christmas. It’s a delightful read that is perfect for dipping into throughout the festive period.
The greatest thing about Last Christmas is the range of people who were involved. You get people from all over the world and who have had very different experiences growing up. It’s a real snapshot of how Christmas is celebrated or not. And there is a real difference in approach to the writing. Many take a more casual and humorous approach to their tale. They relive childhood celebrations and remember the magic they once felt. They talk about their loved ones and how the season brings them together. Others reflect on how Christmas has changed for them as an adult. How the commercialisation threatens to take away the real meaning of the day. It’s all stuff we’ve heard thousands of times before but the majority of the essays are well-written and engaging.
As a counter to the good cheer, there are plenty of stories of negative experiences. We see the families forcing themselves to come together and people who look back on their difficult childhoods. I think that it was necessary to have this perspective. People like the image of Christmas as a magical and joyful time but that’s not the reality. Not included these stories in the book would be like putting your head in the sand. After all, this is a book that is raising money for people without homes. It would be incredibly hypocritical to pretend that Christmas is all about happiness.
Finally, there are stories of people who help others at Christmas. The people who work with Crisis at Christmas and want to give back. These are the most interesting stories. Hearing from those involved with charity work or the people who have experienced Christmas on the streets really gives you a sense of perspective. If I’m honest, I could have done without the brief and forgettable input from Meryl Streep in favour of more of these real-world stories. This book comes to life through the stories of refugees, people who have struggled, and people who have relied on the help of other people. Hearing the first-hand experiences of people who don’t get the luxury of a Christmas like you do is far more interesting than hearing even Stephen Fry, a man who I would listen to on any subject, discuss the history of the holiday.
I understand that the famous names were included to draw people in but the majority of these stories don’t stand out. It’s not that they are not well-written, it’s just that they don’t offer anything unusual. And, on a personal note, I have to question why Richard Ayoade included an entire chapter from his book Ayoade on Top. It’s a fun chapter but it doesn’t seem to make sense from a publishing point of view considering it only came out recently. Also, the final line really doesn’t make sense out of context so whoever edited this book didn’t do a great job. Last Christmas had the potential to be a really charming and lovely book. For the most part, it relied too heavily on the famous names and didn’t really care about the content. You can tell that Thompson and Wise wanted to focus more on the “real” people but maybe somebody suggested that it wouldn’t sell? This isn’t the worst thing you could ask to read over the festive period but you might find yourself dreaming of the book it could have been.