Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs (1973)
In 1973, Raymond Briggs charmed the nation with his pleasingly prosaic portrayal of Father Christmas. “I’ve always enjoyed taking something that’s fantasy – like a bogeyman or Father Christmas – and imagining it as wholly real,” he told The Guardian. “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.” And, with that rationality, the cheerful chuckling understanding of ol’ FC changed in an instant.
Other influences fed into Briggs’ titular character. He based Father Christmas’s job on his father’s, a milkman, whom he’d wake up early to accompany on Christmas morning: “In that way, I suppose, my early experience of Christmas was not unlike Father Christmas’s”, he said. Briggs also based Father Christmas’s house on his parents’ house in Wimbledon Park, where, like his father, Father Christmas would wash at the sink. He also wrote - and drew - his father into the book: as a man with a cameo role asking Father Christmas, “still at it, mate?”.
At the time of writing, Briggs was grieving. “It was a dreadful time in my life, beyond belief,” he said. “My parents died in 1971, and my wife in 1973. So, looking back, I suppose I was ploughing all my energies into the book.”
Nearly 50 years on, Father Christmas is still delivering presents - in paper form, at least. Briggs is a famous curmudgeon, but the fan mail that decorates his studio suggests he enjoys that his books are still delighting people at Christmas. “Years ago, I had an amazing letter from a kid about the book, pointing out that when Father Christmas prepares his sandwiches, he cuts them in half at right angles, but when we see him eating them later, up on the snowy roof, they’re cut diagonally,” he says. “Fancy a kid noticing that! I sent him a letter back, saying: ‘That’s absolutely brilliant’.