"Christmas ought to be brought up to date, it ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols."
For me, this line perfectly sums up The Box of Delights by John Masefield. I have decided that rereading it will be an annual Christmas tradition for me, as well as watching the BBC television adaptation. At least, that's the plan; this is the second year I've read the book, and will the the third year in a row watching the TV series.
It's this weird, modern (for it's time; published in 1935) fantasy story that moshes up modern-day religion, pagan religion, talking animals, Roman armies, Herne the Hunter, magic, gangsters, Punch and Judy, flying cars, time travel, and Christmas. The (extremely) simple version of the story is that young Kay Harker finds himself caught up in a plot by evil gangsters/magicians to get hold of the Box of Delights. The Box (held by centuries-old philosopher-turned-Punch & Judy man Cole Hawlings) has the power to make people "go swift," "go small," or travel through time.
That simple description doesn't really do it justice, though. It doesn't take into account the nonsensical digressions and plot twists that come from out of left field and disappear just as quickly. At one point, while Kay and his friends are hiding from the gangsters, using the box to shrink themselves, they encounter a race of fairies who have been transformed into paintings, with no real explanation. When Kay frees them, they reward him by allowing him to visit their realm one day a year.
And then the kids leave, and the incident is never brought up again.
The book is full of stuff like that, and trying to follow it expecting everything to tie together or make some kind of sense is a fool's errand. Last year, I watched the TV series with the lovely fiancee (just the lovely girlfriend at that point) and watched her get more and more confused and bewildered at each new, weird incident. By the end, she was kind of curled up in a fetal ball, whimpering. And the TV series leaves out a lot of stuff from the book.
(There's a really good piece on the TV show here. They pretty much say everything I would want to about the show, so I refer you to it rather than just say it all again.)
I don't think watching the show is going to become a shared tradition for us, and that's fine. It's got some great performances, particularly from Robert Stephens and former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton, but it's weird as all get-out. But it's also a great Christmas story.
And that's why I love the book, as well. As the opening quote suggests, it isn't trying to be a warm, cozy, traditional tale, but it never forgets that it's a Christmas story. When Kay is listening to the villains plotting, he goes through a whole series of speculations about their plans in his head, but the last thing he thinks about is what he's going to get his governess for Christmas. When Maria Jones (one of a family of children staying with Kay and his governess) appears to go missing, Kay and the other Jones kids worry... until it's time for a Christmas party at the parish cathedral. Then they forget all about Maria, until the party is over. And part of the villains' plot involves kidnapping clergymen in order to prevent Christmas services from being held.
Paul Magrs has written a pretty through analysis of the book on his blog. He also compares it to The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, so now I want to read that. But I can't imagine it's got the same sprawling holiday insanity as Box of Delights. And I won't have the same childhood connection to it (I saw the TV adaptation of Box when I was a kid.)
Even though it's a kid's book, and a story I first discovered as a kid, I think it's only come to define Christmas for me as an adult. For one thing, it's not about family and love and home and hearth in the same way most Christmas stories are. Having lived alone for the past 20-some years, and spent many of my Christmases with just my cat, Christmas isn't about that stuff for me, either. It's about the surface trappings (Christmas music, TV specials, movies, stories, and decorations) overlaid onto and mixed into everyday life. This book may be a weird, twisted hybrid that often makes no sense, but I guess that's what Christmas is to me.