Tradition dictates that it’s acceptable to leave your Christmas decorations up until Twelfth Night – the 5th or 6th of January (yesterday or today) depending on who you talk to. Surely this ought to apply to Christmas reading as well.

Jenny Overton’s The Thirteen Days of Christmas is set in England at some unspecified time in the past. Certainly long before the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was invented; this purports to be the story of how it came into being.

Annaple Kitson is the oldest child of her family, and since the death of their mother has looked after the rest. Her father and younger siblings aren’t always happy about this; for one thing, Annaple is a terrible cook. For another, she is romantic and tends to go off into daydreams – or to inconvenience the rest of the family by demanding that they do things in the correct and picturesque way. Luckily the very rich Francis Vere wants to marry her. Francis’ wealth means that Annaple would never have to cook again, but she keeps turning him down for being insufficiently unromantic. At Christmas, therefore, Annaple’s younger siblings advise Francis to be as strange and creative as possible. And so he shows up on Christmas morning with a partridge and a pear tree.

Annaple may find this gift unusual and charming, but her reactions to those that follow grow progressively less amused. Three French hens may be useful, but the cumulative nature of Francis’ gift-giving (as those familiar with the song will understand) means that she ends up with thirty. The house, presumably quite small, is soon crowded with poultry, songbirds and visiting dancers and performers. What is a family of five to do with the daily delivery of eight pails of milk, or over forty swans? Worse, as the gifts get more and more out of control, all the neighbours show up to enjoy the tamasha.

Annaple’s insistence on romance is portrayed as silly, but she does have the right to turn a man down if she doesn’t wish to marry him. 

Dropcap OnIt’s all very absurd and, told in Overton’s matter-of-fact style, it’s easy to see why this is so many people’s Christmas read of choice. It’s also interspersed with the lyrics of some beautiful old carols. But it’s this spectre of an appreciative audience, gleefully watching the heroine’s downfall, which made me very uncomfortable while reading.

Because everyone but Annaple herself seems to really want this match to happen. Annaple’s insistence on romance is portrayed as silly and perhaps it is, but she does have the right to turn a man down if she doesn’t wish to marry him. Worse, her family consistently blame her for his excesses—she should never have told him her favourite nursery rhyme or her favourite fairy tale. We are never sure if Francis is aware of how much he’s inconveniencing his chosen bride; since he’s an idiot of he isn’t and manipulative if he is, the outcome isn’t good for Annaple either way. The vast crowds on the street outside all appear to be on Francis’ side, much like the back-up dancers who materialise in a film song to support the hero’s play for a girl.

Over the last couple of weeks most of this country has been engaging in a conversation about our attitudes to women and the ways in which our cultural products reflect or perpetuate them. Certainly not the most conducive background against which to read a book about a silly young girl being publicly humiliated by an entertained crowd, all because she has chosen to reject a man.

Luckily Francis’ twelfth day present turns out to be something Annaple loves, so we’re not presented with the spectacle (which at one point seems quite likely) of her marrying him just to get the harassment to stop. The thirteenth day is the wedding, and for the first time we see the Kitsons as a loving family. But even the lovely, warm scenes between Annaple and her sister Prudence (finally!) were not enough to allay my deep discomfort.