In a quest to escape the reality of 2020 and recapture my youth, I’ve set myself the goal of reading all 41 Discworld novels in one year. Join me on this voyage of discovery which definitely isn’t a complete waste of time. Mild spoilers, probably.
So far as I know, Hogfather is the closest anyone has gotten to fictionalising the laughable War on Christmas.
The Assassin’s Guild is given a contract on “The Fat Man” aka The Hogfather aka the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas. Death steps into the role for one Hogswatch night to give his granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit, a chance to reluctantly save the day. It’s the Ur-Pratchett plot, his metaphysical mono-myth — what we believe in, or in this case, don’t believe in, can save or doom the world.
It’s not exactly original, but neither is doing a Christmas themed story. Reading it July is an odd experience however and one I would recommend if, to paraphrase Jeremy Usborne, like me, you are a Christmasist.
A Christmasist is not de facto a Christian. In fact, the two might be incompatible belief systems. To me a Christmasist, and I’m happy for any Peep Show scholars to refute this, is one who believes in the value of Christmas minus it’s usual context. Who believes and cherishes the semi-secular associations, morality, mythological, and materials of the festive period.
“Every Christmas, my wife and I put on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We don’t exactly watch them. Usually, we’re too stuffed, tipsy or sleeping to be considered as watching them.”
Because the dogma of the Christmasist is based in nostalgia, and this entire challenge has been about squeezing some nostalgic escapism out of this otherwise unbearable year, Hogfather performed excellently despite me reading it in the summer.
In general, Christmas and fantasy go hand in hand for me. They are both means of temporarily forgetting your worries, they tend to promote positive messages of doing good, and they are magical in literal rather than descriptive sense.
“…there is something else in fantasy that generates the same feeling which isn’t Christmas-specific. It isn’t always the same but the elements are usually similar, let’s call it ‘the warmth in the cold’.”
Every Christmas, my wife and I put on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We don’t exactly watch them. Usually, we’re too stuffed, tipsy or sleeping to be considered as watching them. But the concoction of fantasy and Christmas is there all the same. It was this Christmas passed, while I was becoming increasingly depressed about work and politics, that I used fantasy as a crutch and decided to read all the Discworld books in one year — which as it nicely turned out in the worst possible way would be a year everyone would need some escapism.
So Hogfather made me feel Christmasy. But there is something else in fantasy that generates the same feeling which isn’t Christmas-specific. It isn’t always the same but the elements are usually similar, let’s call it “the warmth in the cold”. Here’s one of Pratchett’s —
“Death pointed downwards. An endless white snowfield lay below, only the occasional glow of a window candle or a half-covered hut indicating the presence on this world of brief mortality.”
And, from some bloke named Tolkien in his description of the Hobbits arriving in Bree and finding the Prancing Pony.
“Towards it they now hurried desiring only to find a fire, and a door between them and the night.”
“The door was open and light streamed out of it. Above the arch there was a lamp, and beneath it swung a large signboard: a fat white pony reared up on its hind legs. Over the door was painted in white letters: the prancing pony by barliman butterbur. Many of the lower windows showed lights behind thick curtains.
“As they hesitated outside in the gloom, someone began singing a merry song inside, and many cheerful voices joined loudly in the chorus. They listened to this encouraging sound for a moment and then got off their ponies. The song ended and there was a burst of laughter and clapping.”
I’m sure “the warmth in the cold” appears endless in fantasy, usually in the form of a tavern or pub. Outside are the darkness, the rain, and the penetrating cold. Then, cocooned in blackened walls, the golden warmth of safety, as well as food and ale which is always the best tasting, most satisfying and sleep-inducing you can imagine. If I had time, I could happily dig out and read only these sections of fantasy novels.
“It’s the comfort of comparison. It’s made sweeter by the proximity to the cold.”
These sweet moments of happiness before the perilous journey ahead aren’t always Christmassy in fantasy novels, Jesus doesn’t pop up in a lot of them, but they are most easily created in reality around the winter solstice. Like any other nostalgia, the memory of entering a warm pub flooded with light, laughter, and booze might not be entirely true, and Christmas is never as good as we remember it being once you hit a certain age, but the idea of it, the mythology of it provides a genuine comfort. That blazing square of golden light from behind a steamy window promises happiness and comfort against the night.
The same feeling occurs if you’ve ever been snowed in, or hastily ran out of the rain, or watch the sunset at 4'o clock from a classroom, library or even office. It’s the comfort of comparison. It’s made sweeter by the proximity to the cold.
“You hold on to the memory of good times with happy friends and trudge through the darkness until you see the next golden light, the next refuge.”
It is perhaps why I romanticise pub trips — I’m always longing for that same feeling but know now that it occurs naturally and any attempt to create it artificially will ring with the hollowness of the festive period, the anti-Christmasmist doctrine of their being too much pressure for it to be fun, or that it’s just for kids — Christmas, not the pub. That is the performance of Christmas, not the experience.
Christmas in July is really no different than reading a fantasy-comedy in 2020. The golden-brown pages are a hearth, a warm place to visit and enjoy away from the chill, even if it’s only for the evening. You enjoy it, wrap up in your warmed coat, wiggle your toes in your dried socks, say goodbye to the merriment, and step out into the dark. You hold on to the memory of good times with happy friends and trudge through the darkness until you see the next golden light. The next warmth in the cold.