Two Christmas reads, 20 years apart

I love my holiday traditions. There’s Christmasification Day, the day when I lug all the Christmas decorations from the attic, take down all my year-round home decor and replace it with its holiday-themed counterpart. It always takes hours. It’s always exhausting, and it’s always worth the effort.

There’s the annual December binge of holiday movies with my husband and kids. For me, the animated Grinch beats the live action one, Scrooged is the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and Die Hard is unequivocably a Christmas movie. Anyone who says differently sits on a throne of lies.

There’s even my extended family’s tradition of stealth-decorating one of our houses…with a hideously ugly set of holiday antlers. Yes, antlers. It started decades ago as a gag between my dad and my uncle, and – like a snowball rolling downhill – grew bigger to include us all.

One of my favorite traditions is my annual re-reading of Rosamund Pilcher’s Winter Solstice. In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, I steal a few hours here and there to curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of tea (in a Christmas mug, of course) and lose myself in the story. I think part of the reason I enjoy it so much is that it’s a little cocoon of self care in the midst of a busy season. When I’m reading, I’m detached from my to-do list. I’m not wrapping gifts, cleaning, cooking, or shopping. It’s bliss. Still, that’s just part of the reason. The truth is, I love this book. Here’s why:

The Setting

I’m a sucker for quaint, probably because I grew up in New England. Give me a sleepy little town on the sea in the off-season and I’m all in. This is Winter Solstice in a nutshell; it’s crackling fires, hot cups of tea, and bracing walks on the beach, all in a far-flung village in Scotland.

The Characters

Winter Solstice centers on five people, each nursing a loss of some kind. At the heart of the book is Elfrida, a retired London actress who trades the city for a quiet life in a small English town. Her life is far from quiet, however, with the unexpected friendship of party-throwing socialite Gloria Blundell and her kind – and more introverted – husband Oscar. There’s Elfrida’s cousin Carrie, newly returned to London following the end of an affair in Europe, and Carrie’s niece Lucy, a teenager heartbreakingly ignored by her parents. All are brought together to Oscar’s childhood home in Scotland for Christmas. 

The Snowstorm

Every good story needs a mysterious stranger, right? That’s Sam, an ex-pat back in the UK following years of living and working in New York. Sam’s clearly there to be Carrie’s new love interest…but how do you plausibly bring a stranger into the mix – and into the house – for days at a time? Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

That these interwoven stories of loss, healing, and redemption take place during Christmas adds to the book’s richness. After nearly a decade of making Winter Solstice a fixture of my holidays, I wasn’t actively seeking to replace it. Imagine my surprise – and delight – when I discovered Escape to Christmas Cottage, by CJ Morrow. It has all the elements that I love about Pilcher’s book: a rural setting – this time in Southwest England – personable characters that feel authentic, fireside chats and a good old fashioned snowstorm.

Determined not to ruin another Christmas for her family, widow Ruby Sutton packs her knitting and her grief and travels solo to the Devon coast for 10 days of solitude, or so she thought. Through a miscommunication between the sibling co-owners of the cottage, the second bedroom is occupied by Noah Steele, recovering from the still-new shock of losing his girlfriend to his best friend. Ruby naturally isn’t about to share her vacation with a stranger, but just as she packs up to head home, yep – cue the snow! As one day leads to the next, Ruby and Noah gradually warm up – and open up – to each other over cups of hot chocolate, glasses of wine, and bad holiday TV.

Despite the similarities in plot, each book offers something that the other doesn’t. Winter Solstice is told from multiple points of view, giving readers deeper insight in each of the primary characters. Escape to Christmas Cottage sparkles with humor, and the banter between Ruby and Noah is witty and real.

I sat down with Christmas Cottage a few weeks ago, when “Christmasification 2021” was complete. And I’ll definitely be curling up with Winter Solstice sometime around the 22nd. A new tradition that complements the old. Perfect. 

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