An Elfish Yuletide Tale

A Boy Called Christmas
Matt Haig, illustrations by Chris Mould
Allen & Unwin RRP $19.99
November 2015

51utTx5pslL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Matt Haig’s Christmas tale for children explains how a Finnish boy named Nikolas became Father Christmas. You know the one, the fat bloke in the red suit who delivers presents to all the children of the world on Christmas night using only a sled and flying reindeer.

The story begins with Nikolas and his father, a nine and a half-fingered woodchopper, eking out a meagre living in the forest. One day Joel the hunter calls at their isolated cottage with a job offer for his father—to join an expedition to go north in search of Elfhelm, the mythical home of the elves.

Nikolas’s evil aunt Carlotta moves into the cottage to take care of Nikolas while his father joins the hunt for elves. Very soon, Nikolas learns that she does not have his best interests at heart—having him sleep outside in the cold and cooking his favourite turnip toy into a soup are harbingers of horrors to come.

So Nikolas and his pet mouse, Miika run away and head north in search of his father. He has many adventures, as in all good stories, until he encounters the elves and then his adventure really beings. The elves are less than pleased to see a human in their midst based on their previous encounters with others of his species. An elf child has gone missing and Nikolas’s father and his gang are suspected of the kidnapping. Nikolas is thrown into prison to share a cell with a troll and a Truth Pixie who enjoys making people’s heads explode.

Needless to say, Nikolas escapes and finds his father, rescues the elf boy and stays with the elves and eventually becomes Father Christmas—that well known merry fellow on the Coco-Cola ads and employed in department stores to charge $10 to sit on his lap and for a photograph and a $2 present. (Ba-humbug)

Overall, A Boy Called Christmas is a pleasantly festive story that children will enjoy. There are some really amusing moments (I could have done with some more) and Nikolas and the Truth Pixie are lovable characters. For the rest, they were stock fairy story characters straight from central casting.

My one main quibble with the story was the philosophical message sewn into it. Right from the start, Haig took Christianity out of the Christmas story, making it a secular folk tale. I would have no problem with that if it were not that he used the Christian/(insert any religion of you choice) idea of belief as the theme of his secular story. When Father Christmas is trying to figure out how he can deliver toys to all the children of the world in one night, he comes up with a staggeringly brilliant solution.

“He stayed up all night thinking about it, and then he stopped thinking about it and started believing in it. He believed so completely that it was already real. There was no use trying to think of a way, because it was impossible. And the only way you could make something impossible real wasn’t through logic or sensible thinking. No, it was to believe it could be done. Belief was the method. You could stop time, expand chimneys, even travel the world in a single night, with the right magic and belief inside you.”

Now, I know it is a kids book and my exploring the philosophical meanings behind it is missing the point but I am going to do it anyway. I understand that it is not supposed to be taken seriously, it is fairy story, I get it. I also get that if Haig took out the word belief and riffed on the transformative power of imagination I would not have a problem…but he didn’t.

You parents out there. I am not sure if you are aware of it but everyone is trying to influence your children. Before your kids have developed the critical faculty to realise they are being influenced it is already too late. Without knowing how it happened the adorable little proto-adults have grown into large quasi-children with all the pre-set opinions and preferences that advertising slipped into their minds in the ad breaks when they were innocently watching TV and on the bill boards they saw out of the corner of their eye while on their way to the toy shop. The message is usually, buy this and you will be happy/accepted/complete/better. Don’t buy this and you will not be any of those things. And if your parents really loved you they would buy them for you.

I digress—back to my original rant. I think the most dangerous thing a child can be told it that belief is more important than verifiable fact and critical thinking. The OED definition of belief—an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof—says it all. Look at the last two thousand years of history to see the harm beliefs and people believing have caused. Look at the news today to see the harm they are still causing. A person who believes (in the extreme sense) cannot be reasoned with and assumes that his or her beliefs infer privileges and rights that override those of others.

So parents, if you do buy this book for your darlings for Christmas perhaps it would be a valuable opportunity to have a birds-and-bees type discussion about belief vs critical thinking and proof. Having said that, I would suggest that you be very careful to explain that unfettered imagination is a very different animal than belief. Imagination knows what it is, belief does not. One lifts and enriches the human condition and the other blights it.

Happy Christmas (Ba-humbug)

About Tim Hehir

Tim Hehir writes novels, short stories and plays. His YA novel Julius and the Watchmaker is published by Text Publishing.
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