An illustration of different characters from children's books around a Christmas table
An illustration of different characters from children's books around a Christmas table

There are plenty of traditions around Christmas-time - the tree, the food, the songs - but there is nothing like ritualistically re-reading the same story to conjure a comforting feeling of cosiness at a cold time of year. And if you’ve started that tradition in childhood, then those titles are steeped in nostalgia, too. 

But have you ever thought about how these festive tales came to be? Why the author was so moved to think about a Christmas story, or whether personal experience coloured their creativity? Here, we share the fascinating origin stories behind some of our favourite children’s Christmas classics. 

The Jolly Christmas Postman by Allan Ahlberg and Janet Ahlberg (1991)

As fans of legendary husband-and-wife children’s book duo Janet and Allan Ahlberg will know, The Jolly Christmas Postman (1991) was not without its predecessors. Five years earlier, The Jolly Postman (1986) appeared on shelves after a meticulous five years navigating the intricacies of printing a run of the tiny letters and envelopes which made it so engaging for readers. 

While Allan had spent six, somewhat unsuccessful, months as a postman in his youth, he and Janet got the idea for an interactive post book from their two-year-old daughter, who enjoyed pulling the post out of its envelopes and then putting it back in. “I’m not sure she knew what a letter was,” Allan later commented, “but she liked them.” Both author Allan and illustrator Janet were insistent on getting the little letters right. “We drove our publishers nuts - wanting the right paper, the right printing,” he recalled. “I risk being pretentious but just because a book is tiny and its readers are little doesn't mean it can't be perfect. On its own scale, it can be as good as Tolstoy or Jane Austen.” They even stood over the employees at a printing plant in Suffolk at 6am to check the colour was right.

The punt paid off: The Jolly Postman has sold millions of copies and won a clutch of awards. A festive edition followed and then, in 1995, a miniature version: The Jolly Pocket Postman. This is daughter Jessica’s favourite, for its illustrations and complexity. But it’s also a book charged with poignancy: it would be the last Janet and Allan would write together before her death from cancer. One of her final acts was to write postcards to her friends, husband and daughter as a means of saying goodbye.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore (1823)

Chances are that even if you’ve never read The Night Before Christmas, you’ll be familiar with its opening line: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”. It’s a time-honoured Victorian favourite, published in the America in 1823. But since then The Night Before Christmas, originally called A Visit, has been embroiled in a simmering dispute over its authorship. 

A Visit first appeared, anonymously, in the Troy, New York Sentinel published on 23 December, 1823. It was a hit, and seasonally republished with Christmasses to come, with writer and academic Clement Clarke Moore finally claiming authorship in 1844, by which point there had been seven other claims on the manuscript. Moore said he based his character of Santa Claus on a local Dutch handyman. When he threw in aspects such as reindeer, they were something of a novelty, but became associated with Saint Nick over time.

Moore had a fittingly winsome story of how he wrote the book: in between doing his Christmas shopping, while on a sleigh. Why the skirmish about whether it was true or not? Moore was a fancy professor and authoring a poem about Father Christmas was, it seemed, off-brand. People couldn’t believe that he had such a sentimental streak, although it transpires that he wooed his wife by writing her poems and carving her name on trees. Moore became a single father when she died shortly after her 30th birthday, leaving him with seven children, for whom he also wrote poetry. 

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’.

The Christmasaurus by Tom Fletcher (2016)

While some festive authors really aren’t big fans of Christmas (*cough* Raymond Briggs *cough*) others relish the opportunity to write about their favourite holiday. Speaking to young readers at a school, author Tom Fletcher told them that growing up with a sister who is seven years younger than him meant he had to preserve the magic of Christmas for her. As a result, he also never grew out of Christmas, becoming “an adult with a slightly weird obsession with Christmas.” That was the inspiration for William’s dad in the book, who cries when January begins as Christmas is over, and has a secret Christmas tree in his cupboard. “That is basically me,” Fletcher told his young readers.

The Christmasarus came along after the birth of Fletcher’s sons, Buzz and Buddy, and Fletcher had “a single image of a young boy in a wheelchair being pulled across the sky by a dinosaur, like Santa in his sleigh.” While he didn’t know any wheelchair users, he was put in touch with young wheelchair-users through the charity Whizz-Kidz, thanks to Paralympian Hannah Cockroft, which helped to inform the character of William in his story. 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

There are some things about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which are very Christmassy and charming: it was bound in red cloth with gilt-edged papers; it was a deadline-pushing Christmas miracle; being finished just two days before its 19 December publication date; it was lapped up by literary critics for its celebration of humanity and kindness. There are also some things about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that are rather un-Christmassy and un-charming: it was inspired by very real, very brutal child labour practices; it was written because Dickens was skint and he relied on reading it aloud no fewer than 127 times - until he died - to keep his Christmas coffers full. What is undeniable, however, is that with A Christmas Carol Dickens ushered in a new kind of social celebration of Christmas - one of goodwill, feasting and merriment. If you fancy reading more about his remarkable novel, we’ve got the full story over here

The Nutcracker by E.T.A Hoffman (1816)

For some, it’ll be difficult to think of The Nutcracker and not instantly hear Tchaikovsky’s theme from the ballet it’s perhaps better known as. But before The Nutcracker hit the stage, becoming a Christmas tradition in its own right, it was a book. Written by Prussian author E.T.A Hoffman, The Nutcracker and The Mouse King was one of several of the author’s influential creations. Not much is known about the story’s origins, but it was in-keeping with the genre Hoffman pioneered: fantasy, with a winking eye towards the macabre. Hoffman blended Romanticism and realism, something authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka and director Alfred Hitchcock all took notice of. The Nutcracker and The Mouse King was notably more elaborate than its shiny modern stagings - the Mouse King, for instance, had seven heads, while there’s an entirely separate inner story involving mouse infanticide and an illicit lard feast. Merry Christmas!

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (1985)

Author Chris Van Allsburg had a “mental image” of a child being drawn outside in the middle of the night - “a very foggy, misty night” - and seeing a train. “It occurred to me that it must be a cold night, because the engine’s steam is heavy. It might even be winter. Maybe some snow is falling. Perhaps it’s December, close to Christmas, or even Christmas Eve. Then I asked myself the question again: where would a child want to go more than anywhere else on Christmas Eve?” And so The Polar Express was born. Allsburg said the book was the easiest of his picture books to write: he wrote just one draft, feeling more like he was remembering the story rather than making it up. Allsburg said he writes “for what’s left of the eight-year-old still rattling around inside my head.” Since its publication in 1985, The Polar Express has sold millions of copies.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (1978)

After Father Christmas, Briggs got stuck into something rather less twinkly: Fungus The Bogeyman. “For two years I worked on Fungus, buried amongst muck, slime and words, so... I wanted to do something which was clean, pleasant, fresh and wordless and quick,” the author said. Briggs never, however, intended The Snowman to be a Christmas story, but rather one about death. For all the magic that the boy and the Snowman have, the next day he must discover that his new playmate has melted. “The Snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die,” Briggs told The Radio Times. “Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it; it’s a fact of life.” 

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Rebecca Hendin for Penguin

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