Northern Exposure: December Stories 1 by Ian Sansom

Northern Exposure is my monthly look at literature from Northern Ireland and this month has a particularly festive feel!

Northern Exposure shutterstock_226220014

The second publication from No Alibi’s Press is the poignantly festive December Stories 1 by Ian Sansom. Starting on December 1st, the collection contains a story for every day of the month with each of the 31 pieces presenting a particularly different slant on the festive experience.


Like a Ghost of Christmas Presents, Sansom offers little glimpses into the lives, rituals and traditions of a wide range of people – from school teachers to professional Santa’s, burglars to an orchestra violinist.

While we all celebrate Christmas at the same time of the year, this collection reminds us that we don’t all celebrate it in the same way.

Humour features greatly in December Stories. The Author’s Christmas Pudding recipe calls for

100g wit, crumbled
3 large free-range sub-plots
1 wineglassful of irony or satire, plus extra to flame

Meanwhile, in BC, on a type website, acronyms galore reduce the festive season to a series of impenetrable letters

I know I’m not supposed to say this but FWIW I FHXmas

In the hilarious Two Words, a teacher sends a letter home to parents stressing what is and is not an appropriate Christmas gift.

And as for handmade…Unless your son or daughter are in fact a professional jeweller, baker or potter – or Kirstie Allsop – please do not give gifts of jewellery, baked goods or pots. Admittedly, I will make an exception for homemade fudge.

In many of the stories, humour gives way to pathos as when a burglar, dressed as Santa, finds himself returning rather than stealing Christmas gifts. In the trials and tribulations of growing the perfect professional Santa beard mask a seasonal loneliness that can’t be hidden by any red suit.

Seasonal loneliness looms large across the collection. Christmas is always considered a time for family, a time to come together and celebrate. But what happens if your family is fractured or broken and things can never be the same again? In Phantom Limb, a man coming to terms with the changes he observes in society reminisces about how things used to be,

Boxing Day they used to have everyone in- all the neighbours, sharing the leftovers, bits of ham, bits of cheese and biscuits. And on Christmas Eve his mother always went to midnight Mass. The whole street did. You knew where you were then.

From the father in Around Christmas who continues his own father’s tradition of visiting a Jewish deli to a son remembering a Christmas Eve swim with his father, there is a sense here that as you get older, Christmas takes on a melancholy tinge, and that now, we will never quite know where we are – our childhood Christmases becoming our own mental phantom limb, we are unable to see them, but we experience them nonetheless.

Sansom’s great skill here is to mix humour and pathos to capture that conflicting feeling we often have at this time of year. Everyone feels differently about Christmas, but as you get older, a certain sense of nostalgia creeps in and the traditions we adhere to are an attempt to recapture a simpler time.

Ian Sansom reading from December Stories at Seamus Heaney HomePlace last week, accompanied by his son Isaac.

He is also good at capturing the pressure that we all face to have a perfect Christmas and the need to keep up with others. In the opening story Its All About the Wings, a school nativity becomes a competitive hotbed of parents attempting to build the most impressive set of Angel Wings for their child. While in the key story on 25 December Countdown, the influence of Christmas magazines and the pressure to create the perfect festive meal proves too much for one woman.

Prepare brandy butter: whisk150g butter until creamy. Wish you had an electric whisk that worked. Perhaps start to feel a little sad. Do not have a little cry. Under no circumstances have a little cry. Add sugar until light and fluffy. Realise that your whisked butter and sugar are never light and fluffy. Trickle in the brandy. Watch it curdle. Despair. Put in fridge. Realise fridge is full. Leave on windowsill. Buck yourself up, woman. Bucks Fizz.

While December Stories doesn’t shy away from the sometimes painful reality of Christmas and the intensity of the feelings that the season can conjure, it is by no means a depressing read. There is humour and hope in all the pages here and a reminder to focus on the small good things, the things that bring us moments of joy amid the shopping, planning and general madness of Christmastime.

Plus, you will never look at a Yankee Candle the same way again!

Ian Sansom has hinted that next year might bring December Stories 2 and I for one will be lining up to get my copy!

As part of my blogversary post, I hosted a giveaway of a copy of December Stories 1. I’m delighted to announce that courtesy of my very high-tech system, the winner is Rebecca Foster!


About the Author

Ian Sansom was educated in Essex, at Oxford and Cambridge, and at the Northern Irish Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. He was a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and has taught at Brunel University and Queen’s University, Belfast. He is a former Director of the Warwick Writing Programme at the University of Warwick.

He was a founder and editor of the magazine The Enthusiast. He has been a columnist for the Guardian and is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, the Spectator and the New Statesman. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and journals. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4.

He is the author of The Truth About Babies (Granta, 2002), Ring Road (HarperCollins, 2004), the Mobile Library series of novels (HarperCollins), and Paper: An Elegy (4th Estate/Harper Collins, 2012). Westmorland Alone (Harper Collins, 2016) is book 3 in his 44-book bestselling series, the County Guides. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Book 4 in the County Guides, Essex Poison was published in 2017 he is currently working on a book about W.H. Auden.

Further Links

No Alibis Press and Ian Sansom produced a short film every day for the month of November featuring Ian reading from December Stories – these are highly entertaining and give a real flavour of the collection! Watch them all on YouTube.

Listen to Ian’s BBC Radio 3 show On the Average where he takes a sideways look at the history and meaning of the ordinary and the everyday and discovers how the word ‘average’ has become a byword for mediocrity.

Check out more about Ian on his website

No Alibis Press is a fantastic new publishing house created by the greatest bookshop in the world (in my opinion!) No Alibis Bookstore. Find out more about No Alibis Press here.


Irish Literature Northern Exposure The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

17 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I can really sympathise with the teacher and her letter home. Some of the things I got given were unusual to say the least. I do however regret no longer being in a position to receive the annual boxes of handerchiefs. Some may think that as a gift they show a lack of imagination but when you’re not getting a regular replacement supply you really miss them.


  2. This sounds wonderful. I definitely feel the creeping of nostalgia at Christmas time – especially since my grandmother and uncle passed away, and we used to travel to visit them at Christmas every year. Not including them in Christmas plans still makes me sad even though it’s been a few years since my grandmother passed. Christmas can be a bittersweet time! But my son is still young enough that his enthusiasm makes things magical.


  3. Definitely sounds like an interesting read. I like how it presents different views of the holiday. I personally can get buried deep into my own little world of Christmas preparation and forget it may be a time of bittersweet or of sadness for others.


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