Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The First Christmas by Jan Pienkowski.

Christmas It’s just 24 pages long;  it condenses the story of the nativity into perhaps 750 words, and it plays merry hell with time, space and geography.  The manger is in a pine forest, surrounded by red deer, foxes and squirrels.  Nazareth is a mediaeval town, with narrow streets and leaded windows.  When Joseph and Mary flee into Egypt, they do it in the middle of a thunderstorm of gothic proportions from a portcullised castle straight out of Hans Christian Andersen, and the Angel of the Lord is frankly a bit of a poser.

In short, it shouldn’t work; but Jan Pienkowski’s  The First Christmas hasn’t been out of print in the 24 years since it was first published.  The reasons are simple.

The language is  the language of the King James Authorized Version of the Bible – it may be in its simplest form, but the lyrical beauty is still there:

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.  But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them Christmas 2in her heart.

The superbly detailed silhouettes, set against glowing, jewel-coloured backgrounds reward careful inspection and  reveal Pienkowski’s endearingly whimsical side:  the two small figures on the poop deck of the Wise Men’s ship, who are pointing in different directions and plainly arguing about which way is East; the voluptuous dancer  in the castle window practising her moves; the ants resolutely marching along the rowan branch and  the three mahouts giving the elephant a quick wash and brush-up while the Boss is off delivering the frankincense . . .

This  timeless book works on all levels.  Children and adults alike will love the illustrations – each finding different joys in them.  Young readers can tackle something a bit more elevated than the standard Christmas 1educational texts; parents will enjoy reading it aloud to their children – at least they will unless they have a tin ear for poetic rhythms – and non-parents will just enjoy owning something so uncompromisingly beautiful.  It’s quite literally a work of art – telling a classic story very simply.

And those anachronisms?  They’re part of the book’s charm – along with the page embellishments, the quirky humour and the  glorious cover.

Whilst I would happily recommend this book to anyone of any religious persuasion (or indeed, total lack of it) devout Christians need have no fear that it in any way cheapens or diminishes the Christmas message.  It may be pared down to the bare bones, but it’s there, loud and clear:

AND SHE brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.



Puffin Books.  2006.  26pp.  ISBN: 978-0-141-38274-6.

7 comments on “The First Christmas by Jan Pienkowski.

  1. Lisa
    December 20, 2008

    Gorgeous looking book and lovely review, Moira.

    The second picture reminds me so much of Susan Barrett’s “Fixing Shadows”

  2. Jackie
    December 20, 2008

    WOW!! Those pictures are so colorful, strange and riveting. Thanks for including so many pages in the review. I have got to get my hands on the actual book, as I want to see the rest of the pictures. And they work with the KJV narration, too. The whole thing has a jewel-like timelessness that is very appealing. Wow!

  3. Moira
    December 21, 2008

    I loved the cover of ‘Fixing Shadows’ Lisa – I think I said as much at the time – and now of course I realize it was because it reminded me of Pienkowski’s silhouette work – although I didn’t twig until I read your comment!

    I think the timeless quality is partly down to the charming anachronisms … because he didn’t set it in the Holy Land, but in a sort of Never-Never-Ruritania instead, it gives it the quality of a classic fairy story.

  4. Elaine
    December 21, 2008

    The author was interviewed on Radio 3 last week when he also chose some of his favourite music. I was charmed to see that he chose the Beatles Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds immediately followed by Gregorian chants as sung at a monestry where he goes on regular retreats. He sounded the most fascinating person.

  5. Alis Hawkins
    December 21, 2008

    Thank you for this post! I have loved this book ever since my sons (now 17 and 18 were small). It’s probably the most beautiful Christmas book ever produced and should be on everybody’s coffee table!

  6. Pingback: Nut Cracker by Jan Pienkowski and David Walser « Vulpes Libris

  7. Pingback: Top 10 Christmas Picture Books (that Feature Jesus) - Sacraparental

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This entry was posted on December 20, 2008 by in Entries by Moira, Fiction: children's and tagged , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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