As origin stories go, the one that belongs to Santa Claus is a doozy.
Drawn from a host of different European traditions, embellished by one Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century and prettied up with fetching red and a convivial air courtesy of a soda maker in the 20th, Santa Claus or Saint Nikolas is one of those figures whose backstory commands attention and whose current standing as a much-loved figure of Christmas commands understandable love and devotion.
So, you have to hand it to British author Matt Haig for daring to dive in and re-fashion to his own end in his 2015 novel A Boy Called Christmas which wonderfully re-imagines St Nikolas as a young boy in eighteenth-century Finland who takes one of the worst times of his life and creates something lasting and selfless, courtesy of some elves, a talking mouse and a flying reindeer called Blitzen.
While many of the elements we know and love are present and accounted for, from the elves who fashion beautiful wooden toys and live a happy, kind and bucolic existence in the frozen wastes of northern Finland to the red woollen cap and a mode of caribou-driven transportation, Haig does something wondrously, heartwarmingly original with them while folding in some sage and moving lessons about the nature of grief and loss.
It’s a tricky balancing act – how do you keep the magic of Christmas alive in all its captivating glory while being robustly honest about the way in which grief can hollow out and break things in ways you simply don’t see coming – and yet Haig manages it with aplomb, something which is carried over into its similarly affecting film adaptation by screenwriters Gil Kenan (who also directed the movie) and Ol Parker.
In this faithful but genre-elastic version of the story, the tale of Nikolas (Henry Lawfull) and his father Joel (Michiel Huisman) is bookended and interspersed by segments in which Aunt Ruth (Maggie Smith in mischievously gruff and sparkling form) spins a highly imaginative and warmly instructive tale to her two nephews and niece – Andrea (Isabelle O’Sullvan), Patrick (Eden Lawrence) and Moppet (Ayomide Garrick) – who have recently lost their mother and who, along with their bereaved father Matt (Joel Fry) are not really much in the mood for Christmas.
Functioning much like the storytelling in The Princess Bride, Aunt Ruth’s tale of a young boy lost in the mire of grief and beset by a poverty so profound that the only option might be for his father and other mercenary men to do terrible things in order to realise a bounty from the king (Jim Broadbent in When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne mode) functions as a way of interpreting the way in which grief gives you choice – be lost to its hopelessness or find a way to not just exist but LIVE beyond it.
In this, A Boy Called Christmas succeeds brilliantly, being neither trite nor heavy-handed in its messaging, reminding us of the way in which life can go on but never once dismissing how real the pain of great loss is and how, as Aunt Ruth remarks at one point, grief is the price for having loved, a price that is always worth paying.
At every point the films lands adroitly in a poignant middle, keeping the magic of an Enid Blyton-eseque story alive in all its transformative hope and wonder while lending an emotional heft to the tale that can’t help but affect you in the very best of ways.
If you have lost someone – this reviewer read the book in the same year his father died and watched the film two years after the untimely death of his mother to cancer – then you will find much with which to identify in this sensitive, insightful rendering of the book.
But if you have also, against all odds, held onto your sense of childlike wonderment and excitement – hard to do as an adult at the best of times but even more so, during the last two years of pandemic which have sorely tested us all – you will much to love about A Boy Called Christmas on some quite magically escapist levels too.
For all the pain Nikolas endures from the loss of his mother some years earlier to the departure of his father on a morally dubious quest to secure their future and the arrival of hateful Aunt Carlotta (Kristen Wiig) who is a villain worth her every scene-stealing moment, he is a boy with an extremely good heart reminding his father at one key point in the film that “Being good is better than being rich”.
He is also perfectly primed to become Saint Nikolas down the track because he is genuinely someone who believes in the very best of everything humanity has to offer, which is a good thing because when he finds the hidden elf village of Elfhelm, high in the snowy mountains of northern Finland, a place his mother had a very special connection to, humanity is rather on the nose among the authoritarian ruling elite, headed by a black-clad, haranguing, Taliban-esque Mother Vodol (Sally Hawkins) who has turned a lively and celebratory town into a place of fear and loss.
Can Nikolas save Elfhelm, the concept of Christmas, which is to the humans of the kingdom from which the proto-Santa comes, and everything good and wonderful about life, which, in the world of young Nikolas and the Aunt Ruth’s niece and nephews, has taken quite a battering?
No one is feeling like there’s much to celebrate, and yet by film’s end, and without pretending is endlessly uplifting without any consequential heartache, or that everything bad that happens to you can be tided up with a pretty red bow or swept under the existential carpet, you very much feel like life may be redeemable after all.
Not just redeemable but actually quite thrillingly possible.
That’s hard for either Nikolas or the young children in the present to envisage at the beginning of this marvellously affirming but grounded tale, but it happens and happens that feel possible and believable all while keeping things effervescently and vividly magical.
Again, it’s quite the balancing act but A Boy Called Christmas manages it in ways that reach deep down into your heart and soul, sit with you in you latent grief and pain all while reminding you in ways true and not cheaply sentimental, that life goes on.
That’s quite a lot for one Christmas movie to achieve it but A Boy Called Christmas does it so seamlessly and movingly that you are subsumed into its story such that you feel like you’re living the story with Nikolas.
A Boy Called Christmas is avowedly a Santa origin story that promises to show you where the legend begins but it is also luminously, richly alive with the truth of human existence, both its enervating, soul-crushing lows and its new-start highs, and that makes it compelling and real in ways few festive stories are, offering real life lessons and escapist wonder in equal measure and bringing Christmas alive once again when we all need it the most.