This post first appeared in December of 2011. I hope you don't mind the recycling; still recovering from the flu.
In this graphic novel, silent but for a few grumbles and greetings,
there is no Ms. Claus, elves or secret toy-industrial complex. Father
Christmas, here, is an old man living in apparently contented solitude,
dutifully venturing out yearly to make his deliveries. He endures
storms, fog, sleet and high winds across the world, complaining the
entire way and occasionally strengthening his resolve with a drop of
Such an unsentimental portrait might sound depressing, but it makes
Santa more human, and more comprehensible to my daughter, than the usual
laughing caricature. Briggs makes him a hard-working man performing a
service we value; Briggs could easily be showing the daily routine of a
miner, a fisherman or a farmer. At one point Santa passes a milkman also
making deliveries, and they exchange pleasantries without stopping –
and even on Christmas morning, the milkman must make his rounds as well.
What I particularly like, though, is that Santa seems to live on a
homestead. He starts his morning by using the outhouse – at least, it’s a
toilet outside in the shed -- and gathers hay for the animals. He is
pleased to find two winter eggs from the chickens, and has breakfast
with tea. He puts coal in the small stove, similar to the one we use to
burn our bog turf. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a vegetable garden
or greenhouses out back.
The book doesn’t say where he lives, although children here believe
Santa lives in Lapland, in Finland, rather than at the North Pole as
American children do. From the tea to the Christmas pudding, though, it
looks like working-class Britain in the mid-20th century, the “deeply
conservative land” that David Kynaston pieces together from diaries in
his impressive Austerity Britain. It’s the Britain G.K.
Chesterton or C.S. Lewis might have recognised, the life an old man
might have lived in Britain when the book was written in 1973.
Father Christmas and Austerity Britain
would seem two very different books, but they both focus on the similar
cultures, eras and intimate details of living – supper, chores,
schedule. Minutiae like this bring earlier eras to life in a way most
histories miss, and offer a casual vision of an austere but civilised
world that we would do well to revive.
In a small room Father Christmas sleeps under quilts, in long johns,
with a hot-water bottle, for heat was precious. The bed-stand looks of
rough wood, as though he carved it himself, and on it he keeps his teeth
and a wind-up alarm clock. He puts talc powder under his arms instead
of modern deodorant. The concept of a carbon footprint was decades away
when the book was written, but without adding anything for flying
reindeer, Santa’s would be close to zero.
As he makes his rounds, we see English farmhouses by moonlight, and my
six-year-old points out the details she recognises --- bicycles, water
barrels to catch rain from gutters, sticks crossed in the garden for
peas to climb. Sometimes Santa has to crawl out of the stove, for people
cooked with wood or coal and the oven went to the chimney.
The whole story, of course, made more sense when it was gaining
popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most children were
familiar with sleighs or lumps of coal, and hung their stockings by the
chimney anyway, to dry. The oranges we received in our stockings were
meaningless to us in the 1970s but precious to our forebears; they were
from exotic lands. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Mama was in her
kerchief and I in my cap because the houses were cold. Children a
century ago would not have found such details cryptic, any more than
they would stables and mangers.
Today it might seem like that world has been completely forgotten. As we
inched up the energy needle, our mainstream culture abandoned most of
its traditional holidays -- Midsummer, Candlemas, Twelfth Night, May Day
and many more – and swelled Christmas from a night to a shopping
“season.” Christmas movies and television increasingly portrays Santa’s
“workshop” as an assembly line, while news pundits annually track the
spending numbers like telethon hosts.
When we take pleasure in these things, we peek through cracks in the
wall of stress and excess and see another, older world on the other
side, and realise there is another source of comfort and joy.