Part of my annual re-reads!
This holiday season, I discovered a gem in Jeff Guinn’s Autobiography of Santa Claus, which provided me with some wonderful context of all things related to St. Nicholas and Christmas. In this follow-up piece, Guinn tuns his sights on Layla, also known as Mrs. Claus, who played a central role in the aforementioned book, but also has her own story.
In the opening section of this book, Guinn backs up much of what was outlined in the autobiography, as well as laying the backstory for Layla. After being left a great deal of money when her parents died in the late 4th century, Layla decided to take up offering gifts to the less fortunate children, where she encountered Nicholas and Felix—his sidekick—in a most interesting manner. After agreeing to work together, she and Nicholas grew closer before falling in love. Their efforts, soon supported by an ever-growing group of helpers, continued for many years, as Nicholas and Layla honed their skills and focused attention on certain nights around the world.
While much of Europe had come to accept Christmas, there was a move away from its acceptance at the end of the Tudor dynasty in Britain, tied specifically to the squabbles between the Catholics and Protestants. As ships sailed to the New World, Puritans began setting up colonies in American, leaving Nicholas to decide there was a need for his presence there, ensuring the Christmas spirit made its mark.
Layla stayed back in Britain, where Parliament and Charles I were at odds over governing, putting Christmas in jeopardy. Puritans in Parliament were led by Oliver Cromwell, who interacted regularly with Layla. While Layla sought to keep Christmas special in Britain, Cromwell sited that it was only a means of justifying drunkenness and debauchery, two things the Puritans could not abide.
Meanwhile, some of the others in the group began creating a new-fangled sweet, a peppermint confection that left a buzz on the tongue. When news arrived that Layla was atop the list of Puritan traitors, she was ushered off to Canterbury for safe keeping. Still, the English Civil War raged on and Christmas was soon banned by legislation. Layla sought to promote Christmas from within, remaining off the radar while building up a small contingent of supporters in an effort to protest the ban. Creating a secret symbol to denote those who wanted to see Christmas protected for the masses—using those peppermint sweets shaped in a shepherd’s crook—Layla tried organising an effort to bring holiday magic back to Britain.
When Puritans caught Layla and her group, they were punished for their actions and sent to face the consequences. However, Layla refused to believe that Christmas would be muted and pushed to have others see the benefits of celebration, even among the most straight laced of Christians. With Nicholas so far away at the time, it was up to Layla to defeat Cromwell and his soldiers, bringing joy back to Britain at a time when politics left things balancing precariously. A great complement to Guinn’s first book in the series, sure to be appreciated by those who have read it. Recommended to those who love Christmas, as well as the reader who enjoys obscure historical facts.
I have always been in awe by Jeff Guinn’s writing, as it tells such an interesting story and adds little known facts to enrich the reading experience. After devouring the first book in this series, I had to get my hands on this book to see how they would mesh together. Guinn does well to construct Layla her own backstory and melds it with the story from the aforementioned autobiography before tackling the central issue of the book, Christmas suppression in Britain. Those who have read the first book will see that this tome differs greatly in that there is an elongated focus—almost a fictional tale—on this issue, turning Layla into the obvious protagonist.
Guinn develops some interesting Christmas tradition as he weaves together the puritanical suppression of Christmas during the English Civil War. Peppering the piece with some interesting characters and many aspects of English history, the reader ends up well-versed in all things Puritan and Oliver Cromwell. The twists and turns throughout leave the reader wanting to know more and wondering where the blurs between fact and fiction may lie. With a mix of chapter lengths, Guinn and Layla take the reader on countless adventures as they seek to shed light on the dark days of Christmas in 17th century England. Not to be missed by those who love Christmas, or those who seek a spark during this holiday season.
Kudos, Layla Nicholas and Mr. Guinn for helping to bring a smile to my face as I tackle this stunning Christmas read.