There’s been no dearth of Christmas romances this season. New York publishing houses, small presses, e-publishers, and self-publishers have offered something for every taste from stories as wholesome as Mommy kissing Santa to those steamy enough to wilt not just the mistletoe, but all the holiday greenery.
Despite the variety, I still miss the Signet Christmas anthologies. From 1989 through 2005, these anthologies were the highlight of my December reading. I could count on novellas by my favorite historical authors that would give me not Christmas as a painted backdrop, but rather Christmas as an integral part of the story. I have the complete set, and each Christmas I reread these favorites:
1. “The Three Kings” by Carla Kelly (A Regency Christmas II, 1990; reprinted in Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection, 2011)
Carla Kelly excels at writing Christmas stories that include the spiritual dimensions of the holiday without being sectarian or preachy. “The Three Kings” is a rarity in that it is set in Spain. Lady Sarah Comstock is stranded in that country after her brother, a scholar rather than a soldier, is accidentally killed by the French. She ends up with a Spanish colonel as a traveling companion. Like so many of Kelly’s characters, this pair does not so much fall in love as they grow into it as they spend time together. There’s great poignancy in their meetings with those suffering from war and celebrating the season as best they can.
2. “Sunshine for Christmas” by Mary Jo Putney (A Regency Christmas II, 1990; reprinted in Christmas Revels, 2002)
Lord Randolph Lennox, whom some will recognize as Alys Weston’s penitent former fiancé from The Rake, is now a widower. Depressed by a dreary London winter, he sets out for Italy where he hopes to find sunshine. In Naples, he is rescued from an awkward situation by Elizabeth Walker, an English governess who agrees to serve as his guide to the city. Of course, they fall in love. The maturity of these characters and the details of the Neapolitan setting, including Christmas traditions, make this an unusually and wholly delightful story.
3. “The Best Gift” by Mary Balogh (A Regency Christmas IV, 1992; reprinted in Under the Mistletoe, 2003)
In this story, the heroine Jane Craggs, a Jane Eyre type, is asked to escort one of her pupils to her uncle’s home for Christmas and is thus given the opportunity to teach her student a more important lesson than any learned in a classroom. She unites a cynic with his illegitimate daughter and achieves her own Christmas dream and fairy tale ending. Balogh has written more than a dozen Christmas novellas; “The Best Gift” is the one I reread most often.
4. “The Black Beast of Belleterre” by Mary Jo Putney (A Victorian Christmas,1992; reprinted in Christmas Revels, 2002)
Putney offers a version of Beauty and the Beast in this story of James Markland, Baron Falconer, a scarred recluse born ugly and rendered uglier by a gas explosion. He is content with his estate, his books, and his ugly, maimed animals until he sees the beautiful Ariel, “a creature of air and sunshine.” When he discovers Ariel is about to be forced to marry a lecherous man who has buried three wives, he proposes. Ariel soon discovers the noble spirit of the man she has married, but only when she leaves him does she realize she loves him and return to him in time to celebrate Christmas at Belleterre.
5. “The Bond Street Carolers” by Mary Balogh (A Regency Christmas Carol, 1997)
Lord Heath is an arrogant aristocrat who dislikes children and Christmas, but when he hears a boy with the voice of an angel singing with a group of carolers on Bond Street, he is determined that the boy sing at his annual concert. Soon he finds himself falling in love with the boy’s mother, a lovely, lonely window and looking forward to building a family with her and her two children, the boy soprano and a little girl who wants a papa for Christmas. Mary Balogh likes children in her Christmas stories, and she gives them integral roles. It is Katie’s Christmas prayer and her brother’s astounding voice that propel this story.
6. “Christmas Canvas” by Elisabeth Fairchild (Regency Christmas Present, 1999)
Dorothea Savage is a beautiful innocent betrothed to a wealthy, much older man. Although she is not in love with him, she is touched by his kindness and relieved to be escaping her father and brother who are brutes without honor. Artist Maitland Gregory is commissioned to paint her portrait as a Christmas gift for her fiancé. Complications ensue when Maitland and Dorothea fall in love because the fiancé is also the artist’s uncle. Traditional Regencies are sometimes thought to be lacking in passion, but Fairchild demonstrates here how skillfully the best in the subgenre used sexual tension.
7. “Little Miracles” by Barbara Metzger (A Regency Christmas Eve, 2000)
Metzger frequently uses animals in her stories, but this may be the only Christmas romance in which church mice play a significant role. St. Cecilia’s in the Trees is so poor that the church may soon have to close its doors, a fact that troubles its poor vicar almost as much as his hopeless love for the lovely and virtuous Alice Prescott, daughter of the local squire, who wants a title for his daughter. The surviving members of the family of mice who have occupied St. Cecilia’s for centuries are also concerned with the possibility of losing their home, but they know the secret of the church’s treasure. Their knowledge and Alice’s surprising backbone may be enough to bring about an HEA for everyone. This story has the humor one expects with Metzger, and it has a unique charm as well.
8. “No Room at the Inn” by Carla Kelly (A Regency Christmas, 2002)
Carla Kelly presents another atypical assortment of characters in “No Room at the Inn.” Reared as the adopted daughter of an earl and his lady wife, Mary McIntyre has recently learned she is the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress. She is journeying to the farm of her newly discovered grandmother in the company of the Shepards, a staid solicitor, his wife, and children. Winter weather forces the company to seek shelter at the home of Mr. Shepard’s brother Joe, a childhood friend of Mary’s. Mary and Joe’s names foretell the conclusion to the story, but Kelly again gives us ordinary people confronting challenges that change and enrich them.
9. “Best Wishes” by Edith Layton (Regency Christmas Wishes, 2003)
The late Edith Layton’s novellas are staples in these anthologies. Janet Webb included my favorite Layton story, “The Rake’s Christmas” (A Regency Christmas VI, 1995) in her post “It’s Christmastime Somewhere: Beat the Heat with a Christmas Regency.” But it’s no hardship to select another of Layton’s novellas. I like “Best Wishes” almost as much.
It is unusual in that the hero and heroine are already married. Jonathon, Viscount Rexford and his wife Pamela have their first argument about where to spend their first Christmas as man and wife. He accepts an invitation for them to attend a house part at the home of a former mistress who has remained a friend. She is horrified and hurt by his plan. She assumed they would spend the holiday with her closely knit family, whom her husband finds overwhelming. The two agree on a compromise and their split Christmas teaches them things about themselves and about marriage. This is a sweet story with an unexpected touch of realism.
10. “Christmas with Dora Davenport” by Nancy Butler (Regency Christmas Courtship, 2005)
Nancy Butler’s delightful “Christmas with Dora Davenport” is a Regency version of the classic film Christmas in Connecticut. Elnora Nesbitt, financial mainstay for her family, writes popular articles in praise of rural life under the pen name Dora Davenport, but Elnora loves London. Complicating the matter is Elnora’s noble suitor, Lord Kittridge, whose mother loves the Dora Davenport articles. Expected by the Kittridges to produce an old-fashioned country Christmas, “Dora” comes to rely on Gowan Merwyther, an astonishingly capable man wished upon Elnora by her cousin August. Gowan steals the reader’s heart and, of course, Elnora’s as well.
Do you have a favorite Christmas novella?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.