Father Christmas

Phil Ford

Just as soon as I announce my intention to not blog, I am seized by the desire to blog. Well, just a little blogging, just one non-music-related Christmas post. In case anyone thinks that my posting SCTV’s elaborately cynical take on holiday specials suggests a certain lack of Christmas cheer, I should also say right now that I love Christmas. I don’t love the ridiculously hypertrophied “Christmas season” that now stretches from Halloween to the New Year, and I don’t love the fact that for two months you can’t go anywhere without hearing stale Christmas music in a variety of unpleasing arrangements. So while I don’t share Christopher Hitchens‘ loathing of Christmas and all its works, I do sometimes feel oppressed by what he calls “the assault of the one-party state
totalitarian Christmas music.”

But what I do love about Christmas is crystallized in Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, which I read as a boy and now read many times each year to my kids. (It’s their favorite Christmas book.) It’s such a lovely book, so unsmarmy, humorous without being “funny” (i.e., without the usual frenzied unfunny mugging), sentimental but not saccharine, and refreshingly free of sanctimonious cant. It pictures Father Christmas as a gruff, working-class Englishman, wearily getting out of bed on Dec. 24 and not looking forward to his busiest day of the year.

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Father Christmas is magical, of course — he has the flying sleigh and reindeer and everything — but he also gets dirty when he goes down chimneys (“blooming chimneys!”), trips over housecats in the dark, and gets stuck in bad weather:

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But when it’s all done, he goes home, feeds the cat and dog, puts his dinner in the oven, takes a bath, pours himself a beer (“good drop of ale”) and reads some travel brochures by the fire. And then he has his dinner, his pudding (the kind I had as a kid), and a postprandial cigar and brandy:

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I loved this book as a kid, and love reading it to my kids, because this Father Christmas is the kind of person I always recognized in my own family and (now that I’m older) can sort of relate to — a guy who puts up with the inevitable and likes the little pleasurable consolations that life has to offer. Briggs’ cartoon panels are full of warm buttery light and plain household objects, lovingly observed — they are the coziest pictures in the world. The landscapes and houses that Father Christmas visits are little oases of warmth in the darkness and chill of winter. I was living in a 19th-century brick house in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood when my parents bought me this book, and  I recognized my neighborhood in one of the pictures

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right down to the tracks in the snow left by a recently-departed car, and the little colored squares of lighted curtained windows along the backs of the houses across the alley.

My choice of pictures here — FC on the toilet, FC swearing at the weather, FC drinking and smoking — probably makes Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas look a little more punk than he really is. It’s really a very sweet book, with lots of pictures of FC just doing ordinary stuff — looking after his pets, putting the milk bottles out for the night, etc. But this book is sadly hard to find in the United States. There is a an expurgated version of the book and DVD, apparently, tailored to American audiences, which object to drinking, smoking, and even the very mild cussing. “Blooming” is no worse than “darned”, but apparently it’s still enough to trigger angry emails from concerned American parents. Look at some of the comments left on the Amazon page for the original, out-of-print edition: one, titled Outrageously INNAPROPRIATE [sic.] and CRASS!!!, says,

My daughter innocently brought this book home from her school library
hoping to have a nice Santa book the week before Christmas.
Unfortunately, this book isn’t even a story, instead it is a cartoon
strip about a grumpy Santa swearing throughout his Christmas chores.
One panel depicts Santa with his pants down around his ankles while
using the toilet. Apparently, the only thing that make this Santa happy
is booze.

As Jaroslav Hasek once said, “This is only a small illustration of what bloody fools are born under the sun.”

But hey, it’s all love and no hate at Christmas, so I’ll just stop right there. Happy non-specific solstice celebration, everyone!

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Father Christmas

  1. Rudolph says:

    Wow. I have to say that when I wrote my post ‘How Sony Censored Father Christmas’ last week on a lunch break I was focusing on the controversy surrounding the voice-over. But in seeing your link to my post, I had to read your take. and my God if you didn’t just sum up the magic of the book ten times better than I ever did.
    What a glorious statement of how all the aspects that people complain about are actually what makes the book so special. If Father Christmas is depicted as a magical imp with other-wordly powers and no everyday concerns, thousands of elves to help and always a happy song, then what he does on Christmas eve doesn’t feel half as special as believing in someone actually having to struggle to achieve the unachievable.
    I think there needs to be a revival of this book in America – England has always ‘got it’. Maybe we need to keep evangelising the best modern day Christmas book.
    Stuff ‘The Polar Express’, Raymond got it right!

  2. Ben.H says:

    Thanks for posting some pictures from this book – I’ve loved it since I was a kid. Sadly, I don’t have a copy of it with me now, so I’ll have to celebrate christmas with “Fungus the Bogeyman” instead. Which is fine by me.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Thanks for your comments. I’m happy to see that there are people besides me who value that book.
    Thanks for the tip on “Fungus the Bogeyman.” I have to read that.

  4. Kip W says:

    I’m glad for the pointer, and will find this book some day. One recommendation in return from me would be (not a holiday book) Frank Tashlin’s The Bear that Wasn’t, a beautifully designed and funny look at a bear who wakes from hibernation to find himself in a factory where everybody tells him to get back to work. Simultaneously understated and overstated.
    I would like to put in a good word for The Polar Express. I was taking in an exhibit of original art from children’s books and happened upon the painting of the train coming into the North Pole. I stood and looked at it for about fifteen minutes and left with some regret. The rest of the book may not be as good as that single illustration, but any book that contains it isn’t all bad. I can’t comment on the movie, not having gone out to see it.

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