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.
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:
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 educational 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.