Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of that old Raymond Briggs magic – Snowmen, Snowdogs, Father Christmas on the bog, that sort of thing. Well you won’t find any of them in The Christmas Book. This marvellous collection from 1968 was put together by James Reeves, with numerous black and white Briggs illustrations. The range of stuff here is brilliant, from classics by Walter de la Mare to the very latest Paddington Bear .
If you find Walter de la Mare’s tale of the three wraithlike traitors (Herod, Pilate and Judas) just a bit chilling, then the extract from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows will warm you through. In Christmas Underground we find Mole and Rat as they take shelter in Mole’s long forgotten home in the middle of the wild woods. A group of carol singing field mice come to call, and although there’s no ‘Pâté de Foie Gras, no champagne!‘ on offer, there is a roaring fire and a jug of mulled ale. It’s fantastic to see the Raymond Briggs version of this lovely Christmas interlude, who wouldn’t want to take sheleter in Mole’s cosy little bolt hole?
Arthur Ransome is another famous practitioner of idyllic scenes from olde Albion. But the story featured here takes us far, far away from Swallows and Amazons country, all the way to the frozen forests of Mother Russia. Ransome was posted there as a spy during World War I, but fell in love with the country and its people. The story Frost demonstrates why he was so enchanted. It’s Cinderella as the Brothers Grimm might have imagined it.
This version sees the wicked step mother trying to kill off her hated step daughter Martha, by dumping her in the middle of the forest. In the night Martha is visited by Frost, the embodiment of winter, who acts like a kind of hardcore Father Christmas. Martha charms him and is rewarded with furs. On her safe return the stepmother is enraged by her ‘marriage’ to Frost and sends her own daughters out to seek their reward. But the sisters are rude and charmless, and are discovered the next morning dead, ‘with their anger still to be seen on their frozen ugly faces.’ Cracking stuff. I might start using Frost as a seasonal threat with my children.
Laurie Lee provides Carols in Gloucestershire from his autobiographical Cider with Rosie. The scene he sets is the same one that launched a thousand phoney Christmas films, ‘Later towards Christmas there was heavy snow, which raised the roads to the top of the hedges. There were millions of tons of the lovely stuff, plastic, pure, all-purpose, which nobody owned, which one could carve or tunnel, eat, or just throw about.’ His village is cut off from the rest of the world, but nobody seems to mind. Lee and his friends to go off carolling, connecting back to the first Noël.
‘2,000 Christmasses became real to us then; the houses the halls, the bright to guide the Kings through the snow; and across the farmyard we could hear the beasts in their stalls.’
Moving back indoors, Paddington bear is enjoying a more familiar Christmas scene. In Michael Bond’s Christmas tale our Peruvian hero is to be found putting up decorations with the long suffering Mr Brown, who ends up with a drawing pin in his head.
‘When Mrs Bird Rushed into the dining room to see what all the fuss was about, and to enquire why all the lights had suddenly gone out, she found Paddington hanging by his paws from the chandelier and Mr Brown dancing round the room rubbing his head‘.
Now that’s the sort of Christmas I remember.