Few historical romance authors can equal Mary Balogh’s record in writing Christmas stories. Her first Christmas novella, “The Star of Bethlehem,” appeared in the very first Signet Regency Christmas collection, A Regency Christmas (1989). In fact, a Balogh story was included in the Signet Regency Christmas anthologies for the first nine years they were published. She also wrote a story, “Guarded by Angels,” for Topaz’s Angel Christmas (1995). “A Handful of Gold,” first published in The Gifts of Christmas (Harlequin, 1998), was reissued in Christmas Keepsakes (Harlequin, 2005) and The Heart of Christmas (Harlequin, 2009). Under the Mistletoe, a collection that includes four Balogh Christmas novellas from her Signet years plus a new novella, was published in 2005.
In addition to these dozen Christmas novellas, Balogh has also written four novels with Christmas settings and themes: Christmas Beau (1991), a revenge story turned into a reunion story by the magic of Christmas, A Christmas Promise (1992), a cross-class marriage of convenience tale with a family Christmas that bridges two worlds and a most sigh-worthy conclusion; Christmas Belle (1994), another reunion story, this one with a rare actress heroine; and A Christmas Bride (1997), one of the best redeemed heroine novels. Speaking critically, I think A Christmas Promise is the best of the four. It shows the complications of a marriage between people from different classes, offers a detailed look at the Christmas celebrations of the period, and provides a poignant view of how grief affects the bereaved during a holiday, and it does all this with grace, credibility, and romantic tension. But I love all four books and have reread each one several times.
But it is the novellas that I always make time to reread at Christmas. In her novellas, Balogh, like Carla Kelly, gives me a love story with an HEA that pleases my romance-loving heart and usually, without being preachy in the least, reminds me that for her characters Christmas is a religious holiday with profound meaning. I don’t think there is a bad story among the twelve, but these are the Balogh novellas that I make sure to include in my Christmas reading ritual each year:
1. “The Best Gift” in A Regency Christmas VI (1994)
In this story Cinderella story, the heroine Jane Craggs, a Jane Eyre type, is asked to escort one of her pupils to the young woman’s 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. The way Balogh weaves the story of the father learning to love his young daughter into the love story is a marvel. That the magic of Christmas transforms even a lonely, obnoxious adolescent may be a greater marvel.
2. “The Bond Street Carolers” in 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. The hero and heroine make a brief appearance in Simply Unforgettable (2005).
3. “The Wassail Bowl” in A Regency Christmas Feast (1996)
The Earl of Wyndham and his wife have been estranged for three years because he believes that she has been unfaithful to him. Although he nominally accepts her youngest child as his, he has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with his wife’s daughter. Wyndham is eagerly anticipating the arrival of his young son for Christmas, but he is shocked when his son arrives accompanied by Antonia, Lady Wyndham and her daughter. Wyndham discovers his heart is not hard enough to resist the charms of his son’s sister—nor of their mother. Forgiveness, reunion, and healing truths along with scene-stealing children make this a touching story. But Wyndham totally deserves the sticky bath he receives when his countess throws the contents of the wassail bowl in his face.
Most of Balogh’s Christmas novellas, unlike the Christmas novels, which, with the exception of Christmas Belle, have been reissued and are available in print and as eBooks, can be found only in used copies. Under the Mistletoe, which includes “The Best Gift” along with three other older stories (“Playing House,” “No Room at the Inn,” and “The Star of Bethlehem”) and “A Family Christmas,” written for the collection, is available in digital format.
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.