Raymond Briggs is one of the All Time Supremos at generating the Christmas Awesome Factor. The Snowman is such an exquisite book and it has an incredibly poignant message – the final frames are heartbreaking! I confess that I was not entirely convinced by the addition of the Snowdog last year but I freely admit that for me the ultimate Christmas advert will always, always be the Irn-Bru one even if Raymond Briggs did apparently find it offensive. Mr Briggs, I salute you for your fine skills, many talents and general brilliance but I’m sorry, that advert makes me giggle every year. To be honest, I have been a big fan of pretty much all of Brigg’s books (although reading When the Wind Blows as a nine year-old was a confusing experience), but my secret favourite is probably Father Christmas. I got it out of the library when I was five, which unfortunately meant that I was then doomed never to own it as the rule was that I was not to be bought books that I had already read (it was a fairly reasonable decree designed to add some kind of acceptable ceiling to my burgeoning book addiction), but I still manage to re-read it virtually every year. Raymond Briggs’ vision of a grumpy old man stumping about getting ready and then setting off is just superb. I loved the way that he casually greeted the milkman, then his relief at noting from the Buckingham Palace flag that ‘they’ were ‘in’. Father Christmas is brought down to earth from the deified St Nicholas figure to just an ordinary guy doing his job, stopping off for sandwiches on somebody’s rooftop and wondering how on earth he is supposed to deliver presents to an igloo.
Christmas book-ends Little Women, contrasting the sparse Christmas of the opening chapter with that immortal opening line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”, to the second one where fortune has smiled upon the March family, showered them with presents and best of all, returned their father to them. The second Christmas comes as a glorious reward at the end of a year of trials and tribulations and of course Personal Growth. Everything the girls wished for at the beginning is given to them at the end and more besides. Still, given that this is a book that is heavy on the Life Lessons, Alcott is also pretty clear that Giving is better than Receiving – in the beginning, the girls give their breakfast away to the impoverished Hummel family and then are rewarded by Mr Lawrence sending them over a dinner later on that day. Like anything in life, their Christmas bounty comes as a result of labour.
Each of the Christmas chapters throughout The Little House series has a different meaning, and indeed Christmas does mean different things at the different stages in one’s life. I remember and treasure each Ingalls Christmas. There is the early Christmas where Laura receives her beloved rag doll Charlotte and gazes on it in rapturous wonder. Then there is the year when Mr Edwards walks eighty miles to find sticks of candy for Laura and Mary. Then the Christmas in Plum Creek when Pa gets caught out in a blizzard and is stuck for three days and has to eat the Christmas candy to survive – the simple gift of his safe return is more than enough. There is the year when Laura gets the muff at the town Christmas tree and is meanly delighted that hers is nicer than Nellie Oleson’s. Moving on to De Smet, there is the Long Winter where the family comes close to starving and the train is unable to get through, meaning that the Christmas barrel that has been sent from Back East does not reach them until after the thaw. Luckily (?) the barrel had been frozen too so the turkey is fine to eat and they are finally able to have their Christmas dinner – in April. But by now Laura is growing up and Almanzo has spotted her – there is the Christmas where she receives a pretty box with combs in it at the town Christmas tree and her Pa whispers that he had seen Almanzo buying it. But the best of all is the Christmas in These Happy Golden Years when the newly engaged Laura is fretting that she has not heard from Almanzo since he had gone Back East to see his family, but then all of a sudden, he appears at the door! Laura is a such a restrained writer but her joy bubbles under the surface of her prose and when one of her sisters asks if Christmases get better every year, Laura simply replies that yes, they do.
Welcome Yule, Jan Mark (short story from Black and White)
I know that ghost stories are kind of a traditional part of Christmas. I scare really easily so it’s not a tradition that I look to very frequently but I do love Jan Mark’s Black and White anthology. They’re more gently spooky tales rather than anything else and my favourite one by a long chalk is the Christmas-themed Welcome Yule. Emma’s Dad has been co-opted by the new vicar to help with his Christmas festivities. The vicar refuses to take no for an answer and is briskly dismissive when the locals suggest that his planned date for doing carols around the village is perhaps a little risky given that it is the date that the Waits have always used. Always. Putting full steam ahead, the vicar cheerily assures everyone that the Waits, whoever they may be, are entirely free to join them but that the carols will go ahead on that date. Emma and her parents stick with it but large chunks of the congregation drop out, knowing that the Waits will not be happy. It is the villagers’ bland acceptance of the Waits that makes it all the more hilarious – when the vicar finally comes up against them, he is aghast to realise that they are supernatural spirits bent on honouring Christmas their way rather than his. Demanding to know how long it has been going on, Emma’s Mum blithely assures him that it wasn’t until around the Black Death that it ‘really got going’. The only one of the Waits they really know is Big Will with the lantern and ‘it takes more than Oliver Cromwell to make him miss his Christmas Carols’. By the end of the story, it is pretty obvious that vicar will not be messing with the Waits again.
I love Shirley Hughes – from Alfie and Annie-Rose to Dogger to The Trouble with Jack to Ella’s Big Chance, I think I’ve been a fan of everything she’s ever written. Still, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas is a particular festive favourite. There’s the build-up with stirring up the pudding and sorting the presents, then the day itself with a full itemisation of their respective stockings, the arrival of the guests and the divvying up of the presents. There is the old lady who has joined them who has no family of her own, then baby cousin Elizabeth who is far more interested in the wrapping paper and towards the end of the day, Tom gets slightly over-wrought and so Granddad takes him out for a walk, just the two of them. Shirley Hughes captures the detail of family life so perfectly and yet she gives it such beauty.
I first encountered this one as part of my Christmas Anthology which was the book that my mother and I always read in December if we managed to finish A Christmas Carol. Alison Uttley is the woman who wrote The Little Grey Rabbit series (loved those when I was a tot) but The Country Child is sort of like Little House on the Prairie if Laura had lived in England and her parents had just stayed put. It’s a beautiful account of a rural upbringing, full of the fears and superstitions of countryside life. Susan’s Christmas day is described in delicious detail, she feels for her stocking in the dark, she gives her presents to her family, they walk to church in the snow. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Uttley has a gift for the kind of description that makes the reader really feel what is going on around – this is a beautiful account of an old-fashioned Christmas.