A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig was getting rave reviews in the broad sheets at the end of last year and was touted as one of the must buy Christmas gift books for children. I’ve read a lot about Matt Haig and his adult writing. I have read some of his blog posts and articles. Despite finding them very interesting, I had never read one of his books until now.
I didn’t rush out and buy it. I tend to be wary of books that are all the thing, be they children’s books or adult books, and hard back prices make me wince if I’m taking a gamble on something, so I wait.
Generally I am also suspicious of Christmas books. I’m not a fan. I decided to make an exception in Haig’s case.
Luckily I didn’t have to wait long for this book to be available in my local library and I snapped it up.
I’m glad I did. For once, it’s one of those books that lives up to the media hype surrounding it.
It’s charming, and funny, but has a dark edge to it that undercuts the charm, and sometimes you find yourself emotionally quite wrung out by where the book is taking you. It’s clever and compelling and not at all sweet and schmaltzy, which was what I was worried about when I read the initial reviews.
The book tells the story of Nikolas, the boy who will grow up to become Father Christmas. It tells of his beginnings and takes you right up to the point where his destiny is decided and he becomes the man/myth/legend we all know. It traces the origins of all the strange rituals and traditions we have come to associate with Christmas giving and weaves them into a compelling and strangely believable story, despite all the magic.
The character of Nikolas is deftly drawn and wonderfully sympathetic. I like the fact that Nikolas has tragedy in his life, which I won’t go into here, or it will spoil the story. I love the fact that Nikolas has doubts about what he is doing, about what his role in life is, about how to be happy and to be true to himself. All these things make him very real indeed, and therefore someone you can empathise with and love, rather than the strange figure we associate with nowadays.
What I really loved is how Matt Haig takes tropes of traditional fairy stories and weaves them into this narrative, anchoring them into a story telling past we all know and recognise.
The illustrations by Chris Mould are terrific and really bring the book to life. They’re full of life and humour and a real energy that buzzes off the page.
This is a wonderful book that really makes sense of Christmas and gives it a weight it has, for a lot of people, lost under piles of presents and ridiculous expectations. This is simple, powerful and really, really lovely. I recommend it to boys and girls aged 6-12, and anyone who loves Christmas.