Christmas at the Sanatorium

Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page. You’d think I’d be running out of Xmas books and scenes by now, but far from it – I have to begin this feature earlier in December each year. More ideas still welcome in the comments. (If it’s a particularly good choice I will ditch one of the ones I have ready and give you credit…)

Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

published 1924

Magic M Xmas tree

A tall handsome fir had been set up a few days beforehand at the far right end of the dining hall, next to the Bad Russian table; and its piny scent, finding its way among all the aromas of rich food, occasionally reached the noses of the diners and awakened a kind of wistful look in the eyes of some who sat at the seven tables. By suppertime on the 24th, the tree had been gaily decorated with tinsel, glass balls, gilt cones, little apples in nets, and all sorts of candies; its colourful wax candles burned during the whole meal and for a while afterward. It was said that little trees with candles had been provided for the bedridden too – one tree per room.

A great many parcels had arrived over the last few days. Even Joachim Ziemssen and Hans Castorp had received packages from their distant, low-lying homeland, carefully-wrapped gifts that they had then spread out in their rooms: cleverly chosen articles of clothing, neckties, luxury items in leather and nickel, as well as an abundance of holiday pastries, nuts, apples and marzipan, in such quantities that the cousins gazed at them dubiously, wondering when they would ever find a chance to eat it all.

Magic Mountain Xmas

commentary: This cheery scene is set in a sanatorium for TB patients, in Switzerland at the beginning of the 20th century. The book is one of the great works of the century, but it is a commitment to read it because it is very long and quite sad. I read it earlier this year, inspired (finally, having been meaning to read it for years) by Linda Grant’s Dark Circle, a virtuosic novel on the treatment of TB after WW2.

Christmas at the sanatorium is a charming occasion, although Mann has already warned us that one of the patients will die shortly afterwards. But then, patients die throughout the book… later on, a nurse is quite straightforward with the main character, Castorp:
Quite rightly, the idea would never have occurred to her that it might be more tactful to spare Joachim, and she was much too businesslike to think that anyone, and certainly not a close relative, could possibly indulge in self-deception as to the nature and outcome of the case.
Not very festive perhaps – but the Christmas scene in the book gives us some respite, and the book isn’t as depressing as it might sound. The Bad Russians (as opposed to the Good Russians, who include a woman Castorp has a crush on) made me laugh every time they appear.

Magic M Davos san

You can read other entries on this book here:  there will be more sanatorium/hospital posts as part of the Xmas meme….

The 2nd picture shows, remarkably, exactly a sick young woman in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, celebrating Christmas in bed with her own tree. It is from the Dutch archives.

The 3nd pic is the sanatorium of Davos, from Flickr.

The Xmas tree is from the NYPL.


  1. Oh, yes, Moira, I do remember your review of this one. I'd well imagine that, since the tone of the book is ultimately quite sad, this part of it probably does come as quite a welcome respite. This scene's quite cheery, and I like the way friends and relatives remember their loved ones at holiday time. It seems to add a very nice touch.

    1. Yes, it's something of a break in the action and your words 'welcome respite' are very apt! I am glad I read this book, although it is not very cheerful: as you know, I read it much earlier in the year, and have been thinking about it on and off ever since. It really sticks with the reader - though I doubt I will ever read it again.

  2. Do you know what those Christmas packages remind me of, Moira? A far less highbrow work of literature: the scene in What Katy Did at School where Katy and Clover are the only ones whose Christmas hampers arrive through the snow. Any chance of writing about it on the blog?
    About those candles: I am surprised they didn't burn the sanatorium down!

    1. Oh, I remember the hampers! "Debby's jumbles" - I didn't really know what they were, but they sounded delicious.

    2. Oh yes, both of you, one of my favourite scenes ever! Can't believe I've never thought about it for a Xmas entry. I did do a couple of other entries on Katy in the early days of the blog (it was my absolute childhood favourite book). Yes, must do the hampers. They divided them up so everyone in the school got their own little parcel of treats...

  3. I have remembered two rather unfestive Christmas descriptions, both involving sudden tragic deaths: Christmas 1959 (after the pantomime on Christmas Eve) in Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson; and Christmas 1974 in The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman. Though both books have quite a lot of humour as well.

    1. I have read both those books but don't particularly remember the deaths! But always nice to have a change of pace in the Christmas entries, I am making a note for next year.


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