Part of the wonder of Christmas for children comes from the simple fact that they haven’t experienced it many times before, and so everything is still new and exciting. Suddenly, the house is dressed up in pretty lights and shining baubles, strange new people are coming to visit or stay, a sumptuous feast is cooking in the oven and there’s a promise of gifts galore, brought by a magical man in a big red suit who can fly around the world in a single night. Christmas, perhaps more than any other time of the year, is about being at home with the ones you love, and I find that the best stories take place there.
Christmas in Exeter Street, by Diana Hendry, is a beautiful and beautifully illustrated book, detailing one house: “a lovely old house with big friendly windows, a holly wreath on the front door, and three chimney pots shaped like the crowns of the wise men”. ANd it’s lucky it’s such a cosy place, because the family living there has invited two sets of grandparents, three neighbours, two family friends and five aunts to spend Christmas with them. And that’s just the start, as this picture book, aimed at children aged three to six, shows: old friends turn up out of the blue, family members return from far away, and even total strangers come to ask for succour on this cold, wintry night. When Father Christmas comes, he has no less than eighteen children to give presents to (but don’t worry, he makes sure that no-one is missed out).
Although it’s not overtly religious or sermonising, Hendry’s book has a little bit of a feeling of a modern nativity to it, depicting not just a family but a whole community coming together to share in what they have, even if it’s very little. People are given beds on shelves, mantelpieces, windowsills and even - literally - in the kitchen sink. In return like the shepherds and wise men of old, they all bring something special to share with the house: a jar of their special cranberry jelly, their pet cats, a big Christmas pudding, a box of Australian Delight (“like Turkish Delight, only nicer”), or even just, in the case of baby Lily-Lou, her smile. The resulting book is simply but elegantly written, and suffused with a wonderful glow of humour, peace, and goodwill towards all its characters, culminating in a wonderfully illustrated Christmas dinner featuring everyone who’s stayed (although it beggars belief that they’d all fit around the dining table.) John Lawrence’s colourful illustrations can help younger children to follow along with the story, and add a wonderful element of fun to the proceedings. There’s not a single character who isn’t smiling, and by the end, you’ll probably feel the same way.
Father Christmas, by Raymond Briggs, shows a very different home, that of the big man with the big white beard himself. Briggs’ Father Christmas, we learn, lives all on his own, with just a cat and a dog and his reindeer for company. The story provides an interesting twist on the typical tale, showing Father Christmas’ perspective of his round-the-world trip delivering presents on the night before Christmas. Compared to The House on Exeter Street, almost bursting at the seams with cheery guests, Father Christmas’ home might come across as a bit lonely and sad, but Briggs never lets this happen. His illustrations are full of the cosiness and warmth of home, and the fact that poor old Father Christmas spends the first half of the book out in the freezing rain and snow, delivering presents all night long, means that simple comforts - a good hot bath, “nice clean socks!” and a big delicious Christmas lunch - are as satisfying for the reader as they clearly are for the man himself.
Father Christmas himself is a wonderful character, grumpy and curmudgeonly, always ready to complain, but with a heart of gold which shines through in his fluffy scowls and occasional smiles. Ever since I first read it, he has been the Santa I prefer to imagine, and his homely Christmas the one I’d love to have.
This year, more children than ever will be celebrating Christmas, and from all kinds of homes, with all kinds of families. Being able to draw on the common themes of the festive spirit, and ensure that everyone can enjoy it together, is something that books can do like nothing else. So on Christmas Eve, once the stockings are hung up and the turkey’s in the oven (and that Very Important Parcel has finally arrived in the mail), make sure you have a good book to curl up with, and a special someone to share it with. Merry Christmas from us at Cambridge Children’s Publishing!