One of my earliest memories of Christmas was when a favourite aunt (who always gave us wonderful presents) gave my sister and I each a copy of Clement Moore’s famous poem The Night Before Christmas in the form of a book, beautifully illustrated by Florence Sarah Winship. These books were presents that we were allowed to open on Christmas Eve (all other presents had to wait till the next morning). They subsequently became part of every Christmas Eve thereafter, because before long we both knew the poem by heart and could recite bits of it at random.
One Christmas Eve we dressed up as fairies (or was it elves?) and recited it to our parents from each side of the fireplace, next to the Christmas tree. We had copied the poem out onto handmade scrolls which we rolled importantly from one verse to the next. Some of these we spoke together, others individually. Rounds of applause followed and although the presentation may have been a little rough, we were extremely proud of ourselves!
Years later while browsing in a bookshop, I found a newer copy of the poem, this time illustrated by Tomie de Paola. Of course I added it to my book collection. Sometimes during the pre-Christmas season I page through both versions in order to re-live a little of that magic from so long ago.
I must have been about twelve years old when a teacher read us the Reader’s Digest abridged version of Norah Lofts’ How Far to Bethlehem? We were in a Christian school, so the whole class knew the story of the Nativity, but it was the different way in which it was told that appealed to us the most.
My imagination was fired up by the thought that I was getting some insight into the lives of those mysterious humans from far away, the Three Wise Men. Who knows who they really were? Wherever they came from and wherever they went afterwards, for a few days their visit to that stable has made them part of the story that has been handed down, in one form or another, for over two thousand years. No matter which way you look at it, there’s a good story there…
This brings me to another favourite book which I found in the children’s section of a bookshop a few decades back. Having no children myself, my justification for buying it was so that I could read it to my sister’s children. I did. They’ve all long since grown up, but every year I take out that book and re-read it because I love it so much. It’s called The Witness, written by Robert Westall and beautifully illustrated by Sophy Williams.
The Witness appeals to me because I love cats. It’s a secular story of an Egyptian cat far from her home, who gives birth to two kittens one harsh winter’s night while sheltering in a stable. Afterwards, she sees another mother – a human – who has given birth to a baby boy in the same stable. As a cat, she also sees the glorious angels hovering above the family of humans. The angels are amused that the animals can see them when the humans can’t.
Some days later, after the kittens have grown a little, there is a visit from three rich men who bring costly gifts for the human baby. They have travelled through many lands and recognise that the cat is from the temples of Egypt. They also warn the humans about King Herod before they leave.
The baby’s father later tells his wife that he has had a dream in which he was told to take the cat back to her home, but he doesn’t know where she lives. His wife points out that the cat is Egyptian, so the little family prepares to make the long journey to Egypt with all three cats…
To me, the magic of good storytelling is to take a story that may be familiar, but to tell it from a different point of view and provide a good twist to what might be a well-known ending.
Wherever you are this holiday season, and whether or not you celebrate Christmas, may you have a peaceful time, and enjoy reading!