Christmas Eve, and we’re gathered round the laptop screen, glowing blue in the darkness. An ocean away, my mother opens the book on her lap. “Are we ready?” she says. We are. And so she reads.
My mother reads this book every Christmas Eve, even though her youngest child is now old enough to join the army or get married, and three of her children live on a different continent. It’s just what we do. How would we know it was Christmas without Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present?
It’s a picture book, by John Burningham, about a forgotten gift: Harvey Slumfenburger is the “little boy who lives on top of the Roly Poly Mountain, which is very far away, and it will soon be Christmas Day”, and he only gets one present a year (from Father Christmas). When Father Christmas discovers he’s been forgotten – and the reindeer have all come down with flu – Father Christmas has to set off under his own steam. He has all kinds of adventures and, when he gets to the top of the Roly Poly Mountain (which is very far away) and delivers Harvey Slumfenburger’s present – that’s when it’s Christmas.
Every year, without fail, no matter how many of us need to be there via Skype, that’s what we do. Other traditions have slipped and fallen (stockings require a physical presence; NORAD Tracks Santa doesn’t work once he’s been before you’re even in bed), but this endures, as Christmas books often do. We come back to them, year after year; when I left home, I bought my own copies, to keep in the box with the decorations, gently scented with old pine and old paper.
A pop-up book of Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, illustrated with tiny, precise papercut artwork by Robert Sabuda – there can’t be many poems so widely known, or so widely parodied (Aldi advert, anyone?). And Nicholas Allan’s hilarious and irreverent picture book, Jesus’ Christmas Party. And The Dark Is Rising; The Box Of Delights; The Children Of Green Knowe – these faded Puffin paperbacks mean Christmas far more than a tree or a turkey. I don’t know why, exactly, but when I want to feel at home, I go there. I’ve always read these books at Christmas, wherever I have happened to be in the world – they are my traditions all on their own.
How do you build a Christmas for yourself? I will tell you: you read
Because it’s a funny thing, your first Christmas away from home. Or maybe your first Christmas altogether. Maybe you’re far away from your family, or maybe you don’t see your family, or maybe your childhood wasn’t like that. Maybe, like six-year-old Elizabeth, in Trish Cooke’s astonishingly out-of-print Mammy, Sugar Falling Down, this just isn’t what you’re used to. Maybe you don't, like the little boy in Mary Hoffman's An Angel Just Like Me, see yourself in the ways the world talks about Christmas. Your life isn’t like the stories, or the stories aren’t like your life. Maybe you’ve never had a white Christmas, or hung up a stocking, or believed in God – and yet here you are, reading this article, being a part of it.
How do you build a Christmas for yourself? I will tell you: you read.
You read, and you borrow, and you do what we’ve been doing for thousands of years. That’s how Christmas works: a tree from Germany, a Santa from an American Coca-Cola advert, a star from an ancient Aramaic text. A bit from here, a bit from there, and, like the mother in Allen Say’s Tree Of Cranes, you take what you’ve got, and you work with it; it’s a picture book about a little boy with a Californian mother, growing up in Japan, and one day, one winter, to his bemusement, she starts to make a thousand paper cranes, and to hang them on the tree by the door, and light it with candles…
You take The Christmas Cookie Bonanza from Jenny Han’s glorious Y.A. novel To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and you get your friends, and you read and you bake and you read and you build.
You thumb through (just me?) an ancient, jumble-sale paperback of Enid Blyton’s The Christmas Book and, even as you’re laughing at the unbelievably distant world it depicts (boys home from boarding school for the hols; Daddy at the bank; Mummy and Cook in the kitchen), you’re wondering if you ought to eat your mince pies in silence (for luck, Blyton says) and where you can buy mistletoe in London.
You bring an oversized Christmas tree into your tiny home, and you hang it with glass baubles, and light the room with candles, like a miniature photocopy of the enormous, glorious tree-decorating scene in The Children Of Green Knowe, by Lucy M. Boston. It’s about a little boy, coming to stay with his unknown great-grandmother for the holidays in an ancient house full of treasures and secrets, and it’s about the most magic book I know.
You take the bits you love from the books you love, and you build yourself traditions – it’s not a Christmas like in the stories, but it’s yours. You are warding off the dark, at the darkest time of year, in the way we have felt compelled to do for so long.
Robin Stevens’ latest in her boarding-school mystery novels, Murder And Mistletoe, is set with little girls on the cusp of being grown-up – of understanding their place in the world, and how differently that world treats Miss. Hazel Wong to The Hon. Daisy Wells. It’s a wonderful book, twisting and turning like good mysteries should, but, like all the best children’s books, there’s a note of something like sadness in it. I’ve never been able to pin it down exactly – it’s like nostalgia, but while the thing is happening. A sense, perhaps, of an ending, or a beginning, like a year tipping from winter to spring, or Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman melting away in the morning, or his The Bear vanishing back to the North Pole.
Perhaps this is because things change more quickly when you’re a child than ever after. You go to school; you learn more; you leave your mother and your home and you go out into the world. All children (except one) grow up: Peter Pan, remember, ends with grown-up Wendy with her own little daughter. I loved that part as a small girl. I loved the idea that I, one day, would be grown, too. The seasons change, and so do you, and. at Christmas, perhaps, you can’t help feeling it however old you are – it’s an inescapable marking of the passage of time.
When we read, we can go home – we get to be, for a little while, the person who believes. That’s the magic of Christmas
And it is, itself, time-limited – we spend three weeks thinking about a single, glorious brief period, and if you miss it, you have to wait a whole year. There’s very little in our world that you have to wait for, if you can afford it – Christmas is one of the only things left.
A few years ago, someone gave me J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas. These elaborate, hand-written, hand-illustrated letters were sent to his four children over the course of about 20 years, and manage to be simultaneously both a 20-year epic battle between the elves and the goblins told in multiple invented languages (but of course), and a gorgeous, bittersweet record of a family growing up between the wars. Father Christmas keeps writing to the Tolkien children even when they are grown up; eventually, they stop writing back.
That’s how it works: eventually we grow up, and stop believing. Eventually, we become the people writing the letters, and biting the mince pie, and drinking the sherry. We move from the recipients to the perpetrators of the magic, or the deception – whichever you want to call it. But, when we read, we can go home – we get to be, for a little while, the person who believes. That’s the magic of Christmas.
There’s a book I love above all others at Christmas, and it’s a picture book, by Diana Hendry. It’s called Christmas On Exeter Street, and it’s about finding room, and coming home. It’s about making space for everyone, and there always being a place for you – it’s about having the kind of home where everyone, no matter who, is always welcome. Where you might have to stack aunts on the French dresser, and put stranded motorists on the mantelpiece, and give up your bed for a roofless vicar – but there’s always somewhere to go. That nobody is ever stranded, or lost, or alone.
I don’t think this is true. I will spend Christmas on a cancer ward; and wars don’t stop for Christmas; and Crisis, wonderful though it is, can’t hope to help the many homeless in this country. The world is not easy and the world is unfair.
But these books don’t pretend otherwise.
The people who arrive in the house on Exeter Street have lost their homes (Lily and her baby, Lily-Lou), or had their roof blown off (the vicar and his children), or are transient (the Uncle from Australia).
Tolkien’s children get no presents one year and, while the letter blames the Polar Bear (who fell asleep in the bath with the tap running, and flooded the cellar), the date on the letter suggests WW2 shortages.
What’s true in these books – and what can be true when you read them, I think – is that if you try, you can make things better. If you are brave, and good, and you do your best to help, you can make a difference
Tolly’s parents are in Burma, and don’t like him much. The Mistletoe And Murder girls run up against racism, and sexism, and adult quarrels that ought to be beyond their comprehension. Harvey Slumfenburger gets no presents, ever, and lives in a shack.
But what’s also true in these books – and what can be true when you read them, I think – is that if you try, you can make things better. If you are brave, and good, and you do your best to help, you can make a difference. I read Christmas On Exeter Street to my goddaughter, and I want to be a better person. I want to make the world better, for her, and for all the children like her, and the child I used to be, and perhaps that’s why, at Christmas, we read children’s books: to remind us to hope, and to remind us to try.
And so, this Christmas, I’ll be Skyping my mum from the cancer ward. I’ll Skype my sisters, and I’ll turn off the overhead light, and in the blue glow of the screen, I’ll tell her: I’m ready. Read. Please read.