Father Christmas’ Childhood
A review of Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2015).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Matt Haig’s adorable children’s book A Boy Called Christmas sets out to fill in the details of holiday tradition and fill in gaps in the folklore and mythology of Father Christmas (the British name for Santa Claus), and specifically to fill in details that would be relevant to his target audience by asking the question “What would Santa Claus’ youth be like?” The story starts with an 11 year old boy living in poverty who has been nicknamed Christmas because his birthday fell on Christmas and takes him on a magical quest fuelled by his belief and his desire to see his father who had gone to the North. Like many magical quest narratives, he undergoes the traditional fantasy narrative of picking up helpers along the way. These helpers allow him to encounter the “Other” and learn from those experiences, becoming changed by the animals and supernatural characters he brings along with him on his voyage.
Haig follows the tradition of writing Santa’s life as a fantasy tale that was established by L. Frank Baum in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. He provides details to his tale, specifying where each of Father Christmas’ traditions come from as he battles the monstrous and spreads joy. Most tales have tended toward leaving gaps in knowledge and leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, rather than setting down specific origins for Santa’s behaviour as Baum and Haig have done. Haig’s tale details how Father Christmas first gets his red hat, why he first begins putting toys in stockings, how he comes to acquire toys from elves, how he begins to use his distinctive laugh, and, perhaps most importantly, what motivates him to believe that he needs to spread joy through gift-giving.
Yet, A Boy Called Christmas isn’t just a detailled mythology. In choosing a boy living in poverty with only a turnip carved like a doll as a toy, he brings attention to issues of poverty and how they affect children, while also bringing attention to the fact that many human “naughty” behaviours have come from living under constant oppression. His character, Father Christmas, uses his knowledge of human nature to begin searching for ways to increase human happiness and decrease misery and he situates expressions of joy and caring as the central feature for a better society (one that shares resources and takes time to enjoy life).
Haig initially portrays the elves in this narrative as people who have become xenophobic and joyless as a result of fear mongering by the elf newspaper and explores the power of overthrowing regimes that are based on isolationist policies and racism. As much as this is a story about Christmas, it is also a tale about revolution and calling into question hate-based and fear-based discourse.
This is a book of enlightenment – not just because of the happy, joyful content, but because it reminds readers that they have the power to stop being afraid and make positive changes. It is a book about growing up as an individual, but also growing up as a society.
To discover more about Matt Haig, go to http://www.matthaig.com
To find out more about A Boy Called Christmas, go to http://www.matthaig.com/a-boy-called-christmas/