Sssh – whisper it. Christmas for contemporary fiction writers is much the same as for most other people, those whose problems can be put in the first world section of the global Venn diagram anyway. Sourcing such a cheap tree all the needles fall off in the car …considering whether to bother with sprouts… swearing at the solar powered outside lights because they’re just not up to the job in December.
It’s possible however that most people don’t have to fit in writing a story for an Amazon competition. My agent passed on news of this one: subtext, why not have a go and earn us all our fortunes? This year they wanted a children’s story, specifically an update of “’Twas the Night before Christmas”, that surprisingly complex American ditty, most of which is untrue. We all know Santa doesn’t exist, but really! A house in London where not a mouse is stirring? Unlikely, very.
They had an illustrator ready to go. They’d award the prize by early December, ready to be published a fortnight later for a five day free download and then the usual KDP royalties. And a £2000 gift card. And rights etc.
Not my thing, I said. You were a primary teacher, the agent said. You know the audience.
And I did always like Dr Seuss (yes I know, he didn’t write “’Twas the Night before Christmas” but it’s a long narrative poem from the US and he did write those).
And I was – am – concerned by the number of children I used to teach every year, with over 20 different languages and several different religions between them, who were fed a diet of Christmas Christmas Christmas throughout December, in litressy, noomressy, art, colouring, music… and then more and more of it in the shops, buses, on the telly… A day of Diwali, a quick card for Eid, a month of Christmas. Happy Hanukah and back to the reindeer.
I did – do – think it needs updating. Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliantly diverse school Christmas performances out there, but the day to day diet, as we all know, both within and outside schools, is relentlessly Christmas focussed from late November onwards, and mostly white skinned, traditional and commercial rather than Christian. The families on the adverts are prosperous. They have to be, to afford the toys. The spectre of debt isn’t raised until New Year. The soup kitchens put in overtime, and although we collect at carol concerts, how much do we make the connection, for our children, with the Middle Eastern refugee family the story is about?
Plus the didact in me missed – misses – teaching and thought I could painlessly shove in a bit of Geography and Comparative Religion. So I reckoned I could spare a couple of hours.
Two days later, I had a poem. It didn’t win, but someone at Amazon will be gnashing their teeth one day, because I think I’ll submit it next year to some children’s publishers and see what they think. I tried to keep the rhythm and spirit of the original, but to reflect UK society, now, and to be a bit funny, and a bit questioning, and a bit restful. I’m not going to copy it all out here in case some dastardly person Saint Nicks it. But here are some extracts, and if anyone would like to test run it with their children and grandchildren, please contact me for the full version. If you can read it with a map of the UK to hand and maybe some Santa toys as props, that would be even better. I would love your feedback.
Santa in the UK © Jessica Norrie 2016
On the night before Christmas our parents were busy
We children excited and jumping and dizzy,
“Please tell them a story,” said Mum to her mother,
So Nana sat down with us, sister and brother.
“We’ll go on a journey,” she said, “all round Britain.
Get a scarf and a hat, and where’s that lost mitten?
We’ll give Father Christmas a hand on his sleigh,
He’ll tire us out so we’ll sleep till next day!”
We started in Cornwall, at the tip of Land’s End
Giving out surfboards and Fisherman’s Friends
The reindeer pranced and broke into a canter –
Father Christmas turned round saying “Just call me Santa.
In London we slid down the big helter skelter
Delivered some gifts to the Hackney Night Shelter.
We feasted on vine leaves and rice and kebab
As Santa said that wouldn’t add to his flab.
“Some children don’t celebrate Christmas,” he said
“I’ll still leave some gifts at the foot of their bed.
At Christmas we always help people in need,
Just as we do when we celebrate Eid.”
We squeezed down the chimneys of rich and of poor
If Santa saw presents were few, he gave more.
Then Santa got hungry again in Kirklees
He pulled up the sleigh and picked up a Chinese.
All tangled in noodles he feared we’d gone wrong
And checked on the Satnav. But we weren’t lost long
For look! There was Durham, all sparkling glory!
The cathedral was shining as bright as Diwali.
Santa entered a pub. It was full of good cheer:
“Please offer a bed to this poor couple here.
“You have only to ask,” said the landlord, “I’ve room!”
When sure they were settled, off Santa went – zoom!
Then the Highlands and Islands, bleak fields and sheep
Shepherds snowed in on the hillsides so steep
And hardly a soul there to give presents to –
“Thank heavens for that!” Santa said, “’cos I’m through!
That last chimney was squeezing me closer and closer
I knew I should never have had that samosa.
Exhausted but happy we slept until late
And woke up for Christmas Day well after eight!
“Santa in the UK” ©Jessica Norrie 2016
Anyway, that’s why this contemporary fiction writer’s Next Great Novel was on hold in December. That and designing some all age family entertainment with my own last blog post for the year, “The Writers Bored Game”, which you can find at https://jessicanorrie.wordpress.com
Have a lovely Christmas all, and see you in the New Year.
This post is brought to you by Jessica Norrie.