BOOK (1973)

Rewind book: Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 10:31am

Father Christmas
by Raymond Briggs
Hamish Hamilton

If you feel a pang of guilt for being tired of Christmas before it's even happened, worry not - you're in good company. Father Christmas finds it all a bit of a drag too.

At least he does in Raymond Briggs' charming 1973 graphic novel Father Christmas, where Santa Claus is portrayed as an old curmudgeon who grumbles about his job in the matter-of-fact way of an ordinary elderly gentleman.

In one of his beautiful and timeless works, the British illustrator - probably best known for his book The Snowman - puts into warmly evocative images a very British view of Santa. Far from the mass-market Americanised representation of Saint Nick, which envisions Father Christmas as a near-superhero of boundless jollity, Briggs' character is down to earth and human.

Instead of living in a hidden retreat in Lapland, the North Pole or whichever snowy location the hero of Christmas is believed to be found, Briggs' character resides in a regular, apparently suburban, home with his cat and dog - simply named Cat and Dog - and two reindeer. He has a few friends with suitably old-fashioned names, such as Fred, and he likes a drink; the regulation glass of sherry left by children on his annual rounds is the highlight of his job on Christmas Eve.

There's no Rudolph, no elves and no Mrs Claus. Such is the rejection of the advertiser's popularisation of the character that Briggs doesn't even refer to him as Santa Claus, doggedly sticking instead to an understated British aesthetic.

That said, he is a warm and human Santa. While he moans about his job and the effort needed to deliver toys to every home in the world, it is obvious from his asides and mannerisms that he has great affection for what he does. It's a fact that becomes more apparent in Briggs' follow-up, Father Christmas Goes on Holiday, in which our hero tires of sun, sea, sand and foreign food, and longs to return home to his pets and reindeer.

That this is a British Father Christmas is beyond any doubt: all his deliveries are made to English suburban-looking homes and his last stop is at Buckingham Palace. And the only human interaction he has is with the milkman, a British institution of the time (but sadly less so today).

And like most people who find themselves in a job of drudgery, Father Christmas really cheers up once he's knocked off work and the holiday begins. Then he slips out of his red robes and gets into the spirit, singing Christmas songs in the shower, looking forward to his festive "grub" of turkey and then overdoing the drink later. He even shares gifts with his pets before putting his feet up to watch the Queen's speech on television. It is this representation of Father Christmas that makes Briggs' Santa so much more appealing than the embellished, grotesque image of Madison Avenue. He is one of us, subject to the same fallibilities and weaknesses.

He can also be viewed as a rejection of the commercialisation and materialism that dominates the modern Christmas. Briggs' tale avoids saccharine sentimentality and makes the scantest mention of toys or presents. As a result, Briggs offers us a Father Christmas who is a closer approximation to the spirit of Christmas, one of sharing, of fun, and of family and friends.