What did you expect to find behind the last door? The baby Jesus? No. Like all good advent calendars it has to be Father Christmas – and not just any Father Christmas. Raymond Briggs’ 1973 picture book is my absolute favourite Christmas book. I ritually re-read it every year and get something new from it every time
‘Father Christmas is one of the most subversive children’s books that’s ever been written’, says Michael Rosen in an interview from the BBC4 series Picture Book.
It’s not just that Briggs takes the benign Saint Nick and turns him into a grumpy old man who doesn’t even like his job, he also makes him human, and a working class human at that, taking inspiration from his own father.
‘I saw him partly in terms of my father, because he was a milkman. In those days it was sooty and dirty because everyone had coal fires and he used to get filthy doing the job – I used to help him a lot when i was a kid. Your hands used to get really black.’ It was a reaction to what Nicolette Jones describes in her biography Blooming Books as ‘the regal Santas enthroned in glittering palaces and the factory owners with a staff of elves.’
Father Christmas was also groundbreaking in its form, as Michael Rosen points out, ‘In the era in which he was writing there were two layers of children’s books. There was the good layer, called the picture book, and there was the bad layer, called the comic. What did Raymond Briggs do? Oh no, he made a picture book that was a comic.’
Now correct me if I’m wrong but that would make Father Christmas the first English language ‘graphic novel’. It was certainly the book that introduced me to the wonder of comics. Briggs used the form brilliantly, realising the full cinematic impact, particulalry in the scenes when Father Christmas flies his sleigh through all weathers.
I imagine what really appealed to me as a child was the fact that Briggs used a recognisably British setting. Father Christmas visits Raymond Briggs’ real home near Ditchling, Sussex, as Nicolette Jones writes ‘the layout of which is accurately reproduced in the book, down to the picture window looking from the living room onto the back garden and split stable door at the front’.
‘He also makes a delivery to the Edwardian Terrace Briggs grew up in.’ The cross sections of these streets and houses could well have been my own. I was one of those children, face pressed against the window pane as Father Christmas trudged along the rooftops above. Though I did worry – are those wakeful children really going to get their stockings filled?
Well that’s that done for another year. I’m going to settle down in my easy chair now with some lovely grub, a stack of holiday brochures and a drop of Cognac from good old Fred. Thanks for reading, and a Happy Blooming Christmas to you too!