Raymond Briggs, one of the greatest cartoonists left us on 9th August 2022. His loss to comics is monumental, but his work lives on, including the finest Christmas tale there’s ever been – Father Christmas.
First published in 1973 and followed, in 1975, by Father Christmas Goes on Holiday, this is not your usual jovial old man dressed in red and white – this is Briggs’s own wonderful reinvention, turning Father Christmas into a put-upon, grumpy, cantankerous old man who just happens to have the world’s most difficult job one night every year.
And it’s that perfect twist of Briggs’s that makes Father Christmas quite the best Christmas tale you’ll ever read and one that you should read, every year, to your kids, and give as presents to everyone.
“I’ve always enjoyed taking something that’s fantasy – like a bogeyman or Father Christmas – and imagining it as wholly real. Take Father Christmas. What do we know about him? Well, he’s got a white beard, so he must be quite old. He’s rather fat, so he probably likes his food. He’s got a red face and a red nose, so he probably likes his drink. And he’s been doing this dreadful job for donkey’s years: going out all night long, in all weathers. He’s sick to the back teeth of it: who wouldn’t be? So it follows, naturally, that he’s going to be grumpy.”– -Raymond Briggs – speaking to The Guardian.
And Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas is quite wonderfully, magnificently grumpy all the way through the book, as we follow this simple working man – Briggs imagined him pretty much like his milkman father (who makes a cameo late into the book), getting up way too early and struggling through the weather to do his deliveries – from the very start of the very special day all the way till its ending, in front of the fire and with a nice tot of whisky before heading to bed.
So, in Father Christmas, you’ll see him work his wat through the night, fed up with the weather, the cold, the endless present run, fed up with the cold, the chimneys, the cats, the aerials. In fact, the only thing brightening his night is the goodly supply of food and drink.
Particularly the drink.
When you first experience Father Christmas, especially if you read it first as a child, it’s a simple and amazing story, the whole idea of Father Christmas being this curmudgeonly old bloke, complaining about everything, blooming this and blooming that – well, that’s just perfect storytelling right there.
But as you look deeper into the book, there’s so much that Briggs brings to it, the mark of his genius of course, taking a simple tale and filling it with depth and detail to be found.
Throughout it all, as this grumpy old man goes through the process of getting ready and heading out into the world, Briggs takes us back into a past time, one of our grandparents or great-grandparents, a world already fading into memory when the book was published. We see our Father Christmas climb out of a bed drowning in covers, duvets, and blankets – essential when there was no central heating – something you can see as he’s wiping the condensation from the windows. Then, whilst he’s putting his slippers on we catch a glimpse of his chamber pot – again, an essential in a time of outdoor toilets – which this grumpy old man has to trek to…
And when he’s out on his rounds, many of the houses he visits are austere things, none of the vast amounts of stuff found in our homes now, bare floors, bare walls, minimal furniture. Even the bigger houses show signs of things gone by – the rangy house with added on bathroom downstairs replacing the outdoors loo, and the little room with the telephone in, well away from the rest of the house, in a time when the telephone was rare and just not an essential.
And of course, all of these details come on pages that simply take your breath away with just how much Briggs puts into his work and just how well he does it.
Everything here, whether it’s the beautiful double-page spreads of travelling through the inclement blooming weather or the cut-away shots of the houses, or the perfect body language and characterisation of the grumpy man leading the tale, is just so simply perfectly done, a masterpiece on the comic page.
As with all of Brigg’s work, Father Christmas takes a saccharine-free look at things, there’s no Coke-Santa Christmas overload here, the sentimentality is tempered with the grumbling and the realism of the world we see. Briggs’s Father Christmas is magical of course – the sleigh and the flying reindeer give that away – but also just a normal bloke who puts up with the responsibilities of his job, gets through the working day and looks forward to “nice clean socks, good drop of ale, lovely grub” and a late night whisky and cigar in front of the fire.
Father Christmas is, quite simply, a delightful comic that will enchant children and adults for generations to come, just one book in the enormous legacy left to us by a true genius of comics, Raymond Briggs.