Christmas is coming! Or you know, in a few months. But I’m already counting down and waiting for when it’s appropriate to put my Christmas decorations up. Or at least, put the rest of them up and admit to people that I’ve never packed away all of my decorations. Yes, I’m a Christmas freak! So I’ve also started reading Christmas books now. So if you want to be in a Christmas mood, read on!
Mary Balogh has written several Christmas books, but this one is my favourites: Under the Mistletoe. Because it contains five lovely short stories: A Family Christmas, The Star of Bethlehem, The Best Gift, Playing House and No Room at the Inn. All of these are already available in other collections, except for A Family Christmas which was newly released here. Also, she doesn’t just use Christmas as a way to force an ending or as a little side-extra. All her Christmas stories cannot be set at any other time than at Christmas. She really uses it as part of the story, almost as a third character.
A Family Christmas
“He has grown,” Edwin said.
“Of course. You have not seen him for almost three months.”
Was it an accusation?
“He has lost much of his hair,” he said.
“That is natural,” she told him. “It will go back.”
“Do you still… nurse him?” He could remember his surprise when her mother and the doctor had been united in their protest against her decision to not hire a wet nurse. It was one issue on which she had held out against her mother’s will.
She made no move to pick up the child, who admittedly seemed happy enough where he was. Edwin longed to do so himself, but he was afraid even to touch him.
“He looks healthy enough,” he said.
Why was it that with Elizabeth words words never came naturally to him, and that the ones he chose to speak were stiff and banal? They had never had a conversation. They had been bedfellows for two weeks he would prefer to forget – she had been a cold, unresponsive, sacrificial lamb beneath him on the bed each night – but they had remained awkward, near-silent strangers.
So this story is set in ye olden English times. Elizabeth and Edwin married a little over a year ago, spent about a month together and then went their separate ways. Elizabeth got pregnant during their short time together and stayed in the country with her mother. Edwin went back to London to take care of his business and kind of forgot about his wife and child. He visits a few times for a few days at a time, but quickly goes back to London because he doesn’t know how to talk to his wife. When his son is three months, he decides enough’s enough and goes back to his wife to try and figure things out and be a real husband and father to his family.
There are a few issues however: Elizabeth didn’t know Edwin when they married, she didn’t really want to marry him either but was forced by her parents. They were destitute and needed Edwin’s family’s money to keep up appearances. But her mother doesn’t like Edwin because he was just a man of commerce, and they were nobility. She has made her distaste clear and also completely takes over Elizabeth’s life, complicating things. Also, the couple never really talked to each other so they don’t know each other at all. Trying to rectify all that right now is hard, but Edwin’s determined. So he comes home for Christmas and crashes Elizabeth’s mother’s Christmas party with her entire family.
In the end, all’s well that ends well of course. Elizabeth and Edwin finally get to know each other and have a few good talks. Elizabeth feels supported by Edwin enough to stand up to her mother and kick her out. And in the end, they manage to appreciate each other for who they are and are ready to start their happy family life.
The Star of Bethlehem
“We need some time apart,” he said. “Although for the past few months we have seen each other only when necessary, we have still contrived to quarrel with tedious frequency. We need a month or two in which to rethink our relationship.”
“How about a lifetime or two?” she said.
“If necessary.” He looked at her steadily from cold blue eyes. Beautiful, headstrong Estelle. Incurably flirtatious. Not caring the snap of a finger for him beyond the fact that he had it in his power to make her the Countess of Lisle and to finance her whims for the rest of a pampered life, despite the occasional flaring of hot passion that always had him wondering when it was all over and she lay sleeping in his arms if she had ever gifted other men with such favours. And always hating himself for such unfounded suspicions.
As you can see from this little snippet, things between the Count and Countess of Lisle are not a-okay. They married (through an arranged marriage) and both really liked each other. However the Count never told her how he felt, and the Countess was definitely in love but unwilling to make the first step. So she tries to get his attention by outrageously flirting with other men – never breaking her wedding vows and not even accepting a kiss from any other man. But they find it hard to connect. A chimney sweeper’s boy landing in her bedroom changes things however. The Duchess immediately takes him to heart and wants to take care of him and the Duke agrees. Trying to help him and his family get on their feet brings the Duke and Duchess closer together.
In the end, they symbolise their love with a ring. The Duke gave this ring to the Duchess when he proposed and she nicknamed it “star of Bethlehem” since it was a Christmas proposal. It was lost, but they both had a copy of it made to gift the other at Christmas as a show of affection. To say what they can’t say out loud. Happy Christmas ending!
The Best Gift
“Miss Craggs.” He took a few steps toward her. “I understand that you will be staying here for Christmas?”
“Yes, my lord.” Her voice was unexpectedly low and soft.
“You are expecting company?” he asked. “There would be someone to miss you if you were not here?”
Her face did not change expression. And yet he was given the impression that far within herself, where her living was done, she grimaced. “No, my lord,” she said.
“I am Deborah Latimer’s uncle,” he said. “Warren Nash, Viscount Buckley, at your service ma’am. Would it be possible to persuade you to come with us to my country seat in Hampshire? My sister and her husband, Deborah’s parents, have gone to Italy and left her in my care. Frankly, I do not know what I am to do with a fifteen-year-old over Christmas. I need a female companion or chaperon for her. Will you come?”
There was the merest flicker in her eyes. Nothing more. He had never known a woman who was so impassive. He had always thought of women as open books, their emotions as clear to view as the words on a page. He had never had any problem knowing what his various mistresses felt or thought.
“Yes, my lord,” she said.
He waited for more, for some questions or conditions. But she said nothing else. Her eyes, he noticed, were focused, not on his, but on his chin or thereabouts.
Quiet Miss Jane Craggs grew up in an orphanage, never knew her family and ended up at a fancy school teaching the children of the nobility. Viscount Buckley does not only get stuck with his niece for Christmas, when he gets back home his illegitimate daughter is waiting for him as well. Her mother, an actress who he had an affair with 2 years ago, has died and the child was now sent to him. So there he is, with a niece who’s angry to have been left behind, a daughter he has never seen before and a quiet mousy chaperon to deal with. On top of that, neither of them like Christmas, in fact they rather hate it – for their own specific reasons.
But for the sake of the children, they decide to throw themselves into it. Jane even manages to convince the Viscount to keep his illegitimate daughter and give her all the love and everything else she needs. In the end, he understands that that is what’s best for everyone and that he truly loves his child. At the same time, he realises he also loves Jane and asks her to become his wife and mother to his girl and future children.
“Lilias,” he said, and held her head more firmly against her shoulder. “How can I say it this time without saying quite the wrong words again? If not for your own sake and your brother’s and sister’s, will you do it for mine? Marry me, I mean. Though I don’t deserve it. I left you without a word. For Dora’s, then? She needs a mother. You would not believe what a sullen and bad-tempered child she was when I first took her and how petulant she can still be when she does not have her way. And I cannot say no to her, though I know I must learn how. She needs you, Lilias. And she loves you already. Have you seen that? I want you to be her mother. Will you? Will you marry me?”
She pulled her head free of his hand and looked up into a face that was anxious and vulnerable.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Not for Dora’s sake, Stephen? It would not be enough. And not for Andrew’s and Megan’s. That would not be enough either. And not for my need. Somehow I will survive as a governess.”
He opened his mouth to protest. She set one finger lightly over his lips.
“For one reason only,” she said. ‘For the only reason that would make it work. only if we love each other. Both of us.”
In this story we meet Lilias and her younger brother and sister, who have fallen upon hard times. When Christmas has passed, they will all go their separate ways in order to survive. But first, Lilias wants to give her siblings a Christmas to remember and she goes to the marquess, who she grew up with, to ask for a Christmas goose and a few presents. He thinks it’s a ploy, that she’s telling her sad story to get him to marry her. He reluctantly agrees though, and goes to see them with his daughter to give her what she’s asked for. But then his daughter befriends Lilias’ siblings and wants to spend her days there to play with them and get in the Christmas spirit. Again, he reluctantly agrees – not being able to say no to his daughter – and remains wary of Lilias. But over time he sees that they are really in financial trouble and that Lilias is settled into her fate and not trying to trap him. As Christmas approaches and they undergo all the Christmas traditions together, he realises he cannot lose her and that he wants to take care of her and her siblings. He has trouble finding the right words to tell her, however, but when he manages to do so, they find their happy ending.
No Room at the Inn
There was another gentleman in the room. Pamela’s eyes skirted about him whenever she looked up. On the few occasions when she looked directly at him, her uncomfortable impression that he was staring at her was confirmed. He was not handsome. Oh, yes, he was, of course, but not in the way of the blond god. He was more attractive than handsome, with his dark hair and hooded eyes – they might be blue, she thought – and a cynical curl to his lip. She had met his like a few times since becoming a governess. He was undressing her with his eyes and probably doing other things to her with his mind. She had to concentrate on keeping her hands steady on her knife and fork.
“Oh. On my way home ma’am,” she said in answer to a question Mrs. Forbes had asked her. “To my parents’ home for Christmas. Eight miles from here.”
Everyone was listening to her. They were sharing stories, commiserating with one another for the unhappy turn of events that had brought them all to the White Hart. Only the quiet gentleman seemed to have had no Christmas destination to lament.
“I am a governess, ma’am,” she said when Miss Eugenia Horn asked her the question. “My father is a clergyman.” The gentleman of the lazy eyelids – the innkeeper had addressed him as “my lord” – was still staring at her, one hand turning his glass of ale.
In this story, we meet a governess, an unhappily married couple, two unmarried ladies, an older colonel and his wife, a stranger and a rakish Marquess. They are all stuck together in an inn because of bad weather, a few days before Christmas. Then, a young couple shows up. They are on their way to get married, but the woman is heavily pregnant and about to give birth. There is no more room at the inn however and the innkeeper offers them their stable for the night. However, when it becomes apparent that the woman is about to give birth any second, the patrons rally together to get her upstairs and settled and help her deliver the baby. The stranger turns out to be a doctor and delivers a healthy baby. In the midst of it all the unhappily married couple reignite their love for one another, and the governess and rake fall in love and decide to get married. Only after the baby is born do they realize these events closely resemble those which brought Jesus into the world at Christmastime.