05 Dec 2018 Interview with Hark! The Biography of Christmas author Paul Kerensa

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Paul Kerensa is an award-winning writer of TV, radio, books and his own stand-up comedy. He's part of the British Comedy Award-winning writing team for BBC's Miranda, the Rose d-Or Award-winning writing team for BBC1's Not Going Out, he's written for cult shows like C4's TFI Friday and BBC Radio 4's The Now Show and Dead Ringers, as well as mainstream hits like BBC's Top Gear, Buble at the BBC and the BBC Music Awards.

Paul has written several books and Lion Books is thrilled to publish Hark! The Biography of Christmas — an enlightening sleigh ride through festive history.

Here Paul chats with us about what inspired him to write Hark!, his favourite Christmas fact, and best Christmas childhood memory.

But first check out Paul chatting with Harry Farley about Hark! and bizarre Christmas traditions below.

What inspired you to write Hark! The Biography of Christmas?

I’ve always loved Christmas, but always thought there were too many things to do with it. Easter’s hardly got any! Can’t Christmas throw tinsel or crackers Easter’s way? This book was a chance to research how we’ve ended up with such a busy Christmas culture. My housemates and I used to have a pre-Christmas Christmas dinner, and we’d have festive readings between each course – Dickens’ recipe for Christmas pudding, Washington Irving’s account of St Nicholas and his flying wagon, Twas the Night Before Christmas, etc. Year after year, I was delving further into Christmas past – and before you know it, you’ve pulled on the thread of the metaphorical Christmas jumper so much that you’ve got a floor full of wool. Hark! was me stitching all that wool together again into something that made sense.

How much research did you do before writing this book?

I spent a couple of years on and off researching – I was the strange guy getting all the Christmas books out of Guildford Library in June. I’d come home reciting festive trivia to my family. I know I’d overdone it when my four-year-old said, at the very start of December, “Daddy, I think you’ve ruined Christmas.” She was sick of it.

What did you enjoy most about writing Hark!?

I started Hark! loving the trivia (Oliver Cromwell changed the shape of the mince pie, that sort of thing), but I finished it loving the characters and stories. So much so that I then wrote a play based on Charles Dickens, Prince Albert and Washington Irving all meeting up and somehow emerging with ‘the modern Christmas.’ Thanks to those three, we have mulled wine, Santa, snow, trees, charity, family, the greeting ‘Merry Christmas,’ and so much more. One thing the history books never reveal is the abundance of tiny influences that might just be coincidences... but when Dickens stayed with the New Yorker Washington Irving the year before writing A Christmas Carol, he must have met Washington’s brother, Ebenezer. Right? (Oh and if you’ve never heard of Washington Irving, we can thank him for Sleepy Hollow, the cosy Christmas, Santa Claus, Gotham City and the word knickers. Why has no one heard of him?!)

Do you have a favourite Christmas fact or story that most people don’t know?

Oh so many. Jingle Bells was the first song in space as part of the first space prank: the astronaut said they’d spotted a module in a polar orbit, pulled by a dozen smaller modules, then played the song for NASA. Oh and that song was written for Thanksgiving, not Christmas, and is really about drink-driving – jingling your bells like your beeping a car horn. But my favourite? King Herod had a wife called Doris. And another called Cleopatra. But come on, Doris...

What is your best Christmas childhood memory?

My favourite Christmases were those few years when the grandparents were there (well, three of four), and my brother and I were old enough to join in with the games. Balderdash was the favourite. Big meal, big family, nice big game. Bliss.

Will you be celebrating any new Christmas traditions you learned while writing Hark! this year?

I’ve started going to our local Mummers’ play now. I wrote up my thoughts of it in the book, when I went for the first time. Up and down the land, you’ll find pubs with Mummers, normally on Twelfth Night, and I highly recommend you go and see one. It’s a centuries-old bit of culture, with wassailing and carolling and a crazy play and bizarre clothing. Nowadays, they read the lyrics of centuries-old carols on an illuminated iPad. Ancient meets modern.

Do you have a favourite Christmas hymn or carol?

To hear, I love In the Bleak Midwinter – although it didn’t take much research to realise that certain carols like this don’t fully reflect the Nativity story. Winter? It was probably a Spring birth. And I Saw Three Ships? Not in Bethlehem you didn’t – it’s inland. In fact, for the whole eighteenth century, only While Shepherds Watched was deemed biblical enough to be legally sung; all other carols were banned from churches. (Maybe my four-year-old was right – maybe I have ruined Christmas...).

Read fantastic reviews and the first chapter of Hark! The Biography of Christmas below.

Enjoy reading Hark! Buy your copy here.

Read Paul Kerensa's article, 12 Stories Behind Christmas TV Shows, here.

Interested in learning more about Paul? Check out his podcast The Heptagon Club, he tweets @paulkerensa, and his wonderful website here.