Literature Review: Christmas Fairy Tales

Līga Horgana is back with a literature review of Christmas Fairy Tales, a collection of short stories written and illustrated by Margarita Stāraste and translated by Indra Lielbriede.

A week ago, the local children’s library was decorated for Christmas. All the visitors were welcome to enter the “Winter Fairy Tale” exhibition and enjoy this magical time together with Margarita Stāraste (1914-2014) – an artist beloved by generations of readers, whose works radiate love, joy and the variety of the nature and the living world. The author of about 20 children’s books and illustrator of 40 others, Stāraste’s passion for art and the magical fairytale world is readily apparent in the Christmas Fairy Tales compilation (Translated by Indra Lielbriede, published by ZvaigzneABC in 2012), originally published in 1943. 

This approximately hundred-page long work contains seven stories and lively blue-white illustrations that depicts unusual characters, along with their worries and happiness. The tales recount miraculous stories that happen around Christmas time in a very different yet relatable fairy tale world where all things, even ones as seemingly unimportant as common kitchen items, celebrate Christmas – this beautiful and special time of the year. 

“It was Christmas night. A time for magic when incredible things often happen. This Christmas was no exception. When the plump cook had untied the strings of her white holiday apron and gone to bed, strange voices could be heard in the kitchen. “Listen up!” squeaked the ladle in a woody voice. “All year we’ve been toiling away in this kitchen like slaves. Now it’s Christmas night and we too should have some fun!”

“Yes, yes!” cried the dishtowel on the wall, looking wan and overworked. “We too need a change once in a while!” (20.) 

However, these are mostly fairy tales about elves, dwarfs, and many other forest creatures. They tell about all the good; fear even as great as the Gingerbread heart’s fear of being eaten can be overcome, and mistakes even as silly as elves’ wish for a warm Christmas with no snow and frost can be corrected by regret and apology. Most important is the value of loving, warm relationships; the greedy and vain little fir tree ends up without even one white candle, while the kind yet poor bunny Ruby enjoys the most wonderful Christmas night and gets rewarded with a sack full of snacks.

I always enjoy Margarita Stāraste’s work, and my 4-year-old daughter who already recognizes her drawing style from other stories does as well. One of our favorite characters is a gingerbread man called Kraukšķītis (little crunchy) from another Christmastime story — Winter Fairy Tale, published in 1972. When I was a little girl, I used to look at the beautiful illustration at the end of this story and think of the most beautiful Christmas (or New Year’s) scene ever.  Although this work hasn’t been translated in English so far, I can still recommend watching the short animation version by Avārijas Brigāde that came out in 2014. It is accessible on DVD format, but unfortunately it could be difficult to find online.  However, the Christmas Fairy Tales were still a little bit too complicated for my kids with too much text, difficult vocabulary (which of course is good if we care about developing literacy skills) and too few illustrations, so they always very calmly fell asleep before the end of the tale. The right reader for this would probably be at least 6 years old. But despite all this, I believe that for all others interested in Latvian literature, there is no better time in the year to read this book than now.

For a sample of Stāraste's illustations, you can check out this page here.

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