CONVERSATION: Holiday Romances
Janine: ‘Tis the season for books set during the winter holidays, and I’d love to know your thoughts on the holiday settings in romances and in other books. Generally speaking, do books set during the holidays draw you? What do you like least and/or best about them? Which holidays do you enjoy reading most or would like to see more of or (if you haven’t read any) just plain see? What are your favorite books and short stories set during the holidays and why?
Layla: I love Christmas novellas and movies— during the Christmas season I make sure to watch as many sappy Hallmark movies set in or around Christmas as possible! One thing that appeals to me about holiday books and Christmas books is that tone of melancholy and cheer— of difficulties overcome and love and generosity but also loneliness and sadness.
I also like stories with the Gift of the Magi like themes or plot and would love some suggestions!!
Jayne: I grew up celebrating Christmas and view it not only secularly but religiously as well. I think that might be part of the reason I’m becoming blasé about “Christmas themed” books. So many of them are set during the Christmas season but in reality aren’t really about the religious celebration of Christmas.
Janine: My evolution with regard to reading Christmas-set books has been interesting. I’m Jewish but participate in Christmas celebrations because my husband does. I’ve come around to enjoying that (it wasn’t an easy process for historical and cultural reasons) but now I enjoy it pretty well. Reuniting with far-flung family members, gift-giving, hot cocoa on a cold day, cooking together in the kitchen while snow falls outside—I’ve gotten fond of them. It’s nice when books capture that coziness. I prefer historicals because older holiday traditions now out of use are more novel (caroling, for example—I don’t think I’ve seen that IRL).
I’ve always loved special occasions of any kind for the way they interrupt routines and remind us to remember that our lives are worth appreciating, our family and friends worth cherishing, and that it’s good to take a break from work once in a while. However, with Dickens’ famous tale A Christmas Carol influencing much of Christmas literature there’s bound to be some sentimentality in Christmas romances, and there is such a thing as too much sugar.
Kaetrin: I love Christmas – the presents (both giving and receiving which I think is the most fun), the food and the family and friends, taking a break from work which I always do around that time of year. Christmas romances are an added plus to my holiday season.
Sirius: I grew up being Jewish in the Soviet Union so we celebrated and still celebrate New Year which always always will remain my favorite holiday. I am more than happy to love Christmas stories because it falls on my favorite part of the year no matter how little I care for actual Christmas. But as I said – I’ve read some over the years and do try, but still there is too much sweetness for me in most of them.
Rose: I don’t celebrate Christmas and don’t relate to Christmas-centric contemporary romances (it’s sometimes okay for me in historicals).
The Jewish equivalent seems to be Hanukkah romances, but that’s really not a major holiday and it’s odd to see it portrayed as such. And there seems even less to read in the genre when it comes to Muslim or Hindu holidays.
I’d love to read an anthology revolving around holidays from different religions. And please let none of the stories involve looking for a date to bring home for the holidays.
Janine: Since my family is Israeli we didn’t celebrate Hanukkah the American way. No eight gifts over eight days, just a little spending money for the younger kids, latkes, sufganyot, menorah lighting (including singing), and a little Hanukkah gelt. I like Hanukkah very much but it will always be a smaller holiday in my eyes, so it’s kind of like if there were lots and lots of romances about Father’s Day and almost none about Christmas.
My favorite major Jewish holiday that could work very well in a book is Passover and I’d love to see more books that take place during the holiday. So far, the only book that’s truly satisfied me in its portrayal of a Jewish celebration is Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Spinning Silver, which includes a marvelous depiction of a Jewish wedding and really captured, for me, the magic of Jewish weddings.
I agree an anthology revolving around holidays from different religions is a wonderful idea and I would love to read one.
Kaetrin: I love holiday themed books – pretty much any holiday, I’m in. Christmas, Valentine’s Day (I’m counting it!), anything. I’m happy to read holiday romances from any culture or religion. Apart from enjoying the story itself it’s an opportunity for me to learn more about the world.
For those who want different religions/cultural traditions rather than just Christianity and Christmas there is the Love All Year anthology from authors from all over.
Janine: My favorite Christmas romances are a bit like my favorite Christmas songs–“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “White Christmas”, “I’ll be Home for Christmas”–they capture the melancholy quality of the holiday. The cold of wintertime, the dwindling of the sunlight, the absence of loved ones whom we miss. That cuts through some of the sweetness.
I can’t think of many books that capture that as well as Mary Balogh’s A Christmas Promise, where Eleanor, the female protagonist, must not only work out the tensions in her marriage of convenience, but also contend with the recent loss of her beloved father. One of the most moving scenes in any romance comes near the end, when Eleanor, who has not been able to let herself cry for the entire book, finally lets her tears pour out. I haven’t read the book in a number of years, so I hope it still holds up.
Jennie: When I think holiday romances, I think Christmas first and Mary Balogh second. I was not raised religious, but we always celebrated Christmas and it was (and remains) my favorite time of the year. I checked and I have A Christmas Promise on a LONG ago top 100 list that I compiled; it’s #76. So that’s a strong endorsement, though I only vaguely remember the plot.
I know I really liked some of the stories in one of Balogh’s Christmas anthologies, but I’m darned if I remember details. I think I read Under the Mistletoe and liked it a lot, but I don’t have a strong recollection of the stories at all. I also think I liked Balogh’s A Christmas Belle but I don’t remember much about it anymore, either.
Janine: That was a secret baby / reunited lovers story. Balogh has some good novellas in Under the Mistletoe, which I reviewed a long time ago. I think my favorite might be “No Room at the Inn,” where a number of grumpy people are stranded at an inn during a snowstorm with nothing to do but fall in love, work out their differences, and/or provide for a young mother and the baby she’s about to have. Yes, this one alludes to the birth of Christ, but even though I’m Jewish I didn’t mind.
I also loved some of Mary Jo Putney’s Christmas novellas. “Sunshine for Christmas”, about an English aristocrat whose depression lifts when he travels to Italy and meets a governess in Naples, “The Best Husband Money Can Buy”, in which a lonely young woman is given the chance to marry and to reunite with her family when she inherits an unexpected windfall, “The Black Beast of Belleterre,” a beauty and the beast book with an isolated, scarred hero. I don’t know how they hold up. A couple of them are in her anthology Christmas Revels.
Layla: I have to search my brain to think of examples of novellas I’ve enjoyed— I remember the plot of one but not the title. It had a young girl who is alone and destitute, she is wandering the streets of London and looking in on holiday window displays and a rich gentleman takes pity on her and either he invites her for Christmas or buys her a hat she’s admiring? I can’t recall. But it had a beautiful melancholy feeling that then turned into happiness and peace.
Kaetrin: Christmas books are the most common and I’m up for all sorts. I enjoy the holiday novellas which are easier to fit on when I’m busy. I recently enjoyed A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone which was set at Christmas. Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh have some wonderful Christmas romances as does Shannon Stacey. A couple of Shannon Stacey’s Christmas novellas I read and liked are “Her Holiday Man” and “One Christmas Eve.” And A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant is fantastic too.
Erin McLellan has a series of novellas featuring various holidays – I loved “Candy Hearts” which is a Valentine’s Day story. There’s a Halloween themed book – Underhill – in the Tyack & Frayne series by Harper Fox but it wouldn’t work as a standalone. Great series though & excellent on audio too. Jordan Castillo Price has a queer PNR series, The ABCs of Spellcraft, all novella length, which is fun and quirky. Again not a standalone but Present Tense is Christmas themed.
Jayne: A few years ago, I reviewed a four-book series by G.G. Andrew with a Halloween theme.
Janine: The first book in Linda Lael Miller’s vampire romance series, Forever and the Night, takes place during Halloween or maybe Thanksgiving. I liked this book pretty well (book three, Time Without End, was a favorite). I tried several of this author’s books over the years and only her vampire romances worked for me (she was on the cutting edge of vampire romances; I’m not sure anyone else published them as early as 1993).
Kaetrin: Talia Hibbert has a fun PNR Halloween novella – Mating the Huntress.
Sirius: I liked Hanukkah stories by Astrid Amara – several years in a row she wrote a story where Hanukkah was part of it but I felt like sugar amount was not overwhelming so was good for me. It’s Christmas Everywhere But Here by Liam Grey is the one that stuck with me over the years but actual holiday is just a back drop really to tell a really lovely family story.
Kaetrin: I really liked the Holidays with the Bellskis series by Astrid Amara (I think that’s the one Sirius referenced) too.
Sailor’s Delight by Rose Lerner was set at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the meaning of those holidays was significant in the story. I knew very little about them beforehand. Dirty (if I’m remembering the right book?) by Megan Hart has a moving Passover scene which has broader significance in the novel.
Janine: I remember that Passover seder in the Megan Hart book. I appreciated it too, but mostly because it was my first experience of Passover representation in a romance.
The Brightest Day is an anthology where all four novellas are set during Juneteenth. I loved a couple of the stories. Jayne reviewed a couple of Passover books by Laura Brown over the past few years. She has also a reviewed a few Kwanzaa books for us and recently, a couple in the Ramadan Nights series.
Jayne: Yes, I have reviewed some Kwanzaa books but it’s SO hard to find any that are romance books. There are some I saw mentioned at Open Library that are older that I haven’t been able to find digitally so I haven’t looked more into them.
The Ramadan Nights novellas have been done for two years so I’m hoping those authors will continue writing them.
Laura Brown is Jewish and has hearing loss so she often incorporates one or both of these in her stories. The Orchard Hill book that I need to go back and pick up is set during Passover but the last book in the series (due out soon, I think) is another Hanukkah book.
Jennie: Are we going as far back as picture books? Because there’s an Easter picture book from my childhood (written before my time, actually) that I LOVED. This is a book actually published first in 1939, but it has a wonderful message and gorgeous, colorful illustrations. I just love it: The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. I first read it as a child and I think my mother might have also (she was born the year before it was published).
Jayne: Oh, I love the Country Bunny book!
Janine: I thought of an Easter romance I enjoyed, albeit mildly—A Baby for Easter by Noelle Adams.
Can anyone think of romances involving holidays celebrated by people from cultural and/or religious backgrounds that we have not mentioned? Diwali or Chinese New Year, for example? Carnival or the Mexican Day of the Dead?
Jayne: I reviewed one Harlequin short Diwali novella, “Second Chance Under the Stars” by Tara Pammi. Jackie Lau has a series with a Chinese New Year story in it, A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year.
Janine: It’s a shame there aren’t many more.
It’s not the same but years ago I read a romantic suspense by Meagan McKinney (she was later convicted of fraud) that took place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, titled A Man to Slay Dragons. The parade featured heavily in the storyline. I loved the book but it was very violent (and featured a creepy AF white supremacist serial killer, be warned). It was published in the mid-1990s so I don’t know how it holds up.
Rose: I’m somewhat more interested in these non-Christmas books, but another issue I have with holiday romances more broadly is that they tend to take place over a relatively brief period of time (the holiday or the period right before it). For me at least, I prefer to read relationships that unfold over a longer period, or to have a more compelling reason for the shorter timeframe – e.g., I’m okay with it in romantic suspense because those are typically more intense.
Jayne: That’s a good point about the time frame of most holiday themed books, Rose. HFN endings work better for me in full length books. Novellas, if done well, are great for these books.
Kaetrin: Second chance is a good trope for a novella and fits well with a Christmas theme too I think.
We’re turning the conversation over to you, readers. What are your feelings about holiday romances—are they appealing or unappealing and why? Are there any holidays you’d like to see more of in books? And what are your favorite books that take place during the holidays?