A Special Christmas Guest Post from Benji Davies
The holly and the ivy. Mistletoe and Wine. Dasher and Dancer. Like Christmas and books they go together.
One of my strongest memories of the festive period and a family tradition in my childhood home was the reading of a special book on Christmas eve. My two sisters and I relished the moment this precious, small, shiny, yellow-spined book was brought down from the high-cupboard hideaway where it had been stowed out of reach and largely out of mind, all year long. On the cover an illustration of three pyjama-clad mice, readying their stockings to hang by the chimney, a mouse child to represent each of us. The older siblings wearing red and yellow were my sisters, the smallest, wearing blue, was me – with added ears, whiskers and tail. It was the perfect primer for yuletide expectation, read to us as it was by my mum before lights out, tucked under the duvet on that cosiest night of the year. Christmas could not formally begin without The Night Before Christmas, recast with anthropomorphic mice.
Our favourite page was off-script. It was an every day moment thrown into the festive proceedings by the illustrator – Cyndy Szekeres – and it completely stole the show. On this special page turn, the mouse that was me had been caught short. In all the excitement, which matched ours, he needed a wee. Knowing as we did what was to come, we were squealing before the page was even turned. Once the page turned we rippled with delight. There he was, in the bottom left corner of the page, throned atop a little white potty. Like Saint Nick in the poem, our bellies shook like bowls full of jelly. Then we recomposed ourselves because the rest of our literary Christmas eve ritual must earnestly continue. We adored that book.
I love it that illustrations can steal the show. The DNA of my own work is deeply rooted in these kind of illustrations and I owe so much to those illustrators, like Cyndy, who fired my imagination through observation and good humour. Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas is a rhyming tale that has been embellished by many artists and illustrators over the two centuries since it was written. In the Arthur Rackham version which I came to appreciate much later, Father Christmas is only seen by the male parent of the family in question. But in our version it was the whole family – Papa, Mama and their three wide-eyed children – roused from their wintry slumber, living as they do in a tree stump swathed in thick snow. And all the better for it. It put us right there in the midst of the festivity.
When I was writing my new picture book, The Snowflake, I reached back into my feelings about Christmas as a child and those moments that we treasure, blanketed as they are in nostalgia. What we feel about Christmas once we are grown-ups becomes an echo and often a yearning for what we felt as child. As Greg Lake lamented “the peal of a bell and that christmas tree smell… their eyes full of tinsel and fire”. I wanted to capture this spirit for Noelle’s story in The Snowflake, the child-like wonder unique to this time of year, and I poured my festive memories into the words and pictures.
When books and Christmas come together mystic powers swaddle us. Pictures light our eyes and words lead us soaring over snow-frosted rooftops. For me, The Night Before Christmas perfectly describes that lead up to Christmas morning and its secretly observed moment that most of us wish deep in our hearts to see as children; to actually witness Father Christmas delivering presents at the stockinged fireside of all our yuletide fantasies, beside a tree festooned with baubles and ribbons, under candle-decked mantel pieces and the gaze of golden paper angels.
If I have evoked even an ounce of these feelings in The Snowflake then my job is done and I can settle my brain for a long winter’s nap.