Book review: The Girl Who Saved Christmas by Matt Haig

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin Publishers)

Christmas is as wondrous and magical as life gets.

A giant, and often much-welcome step away from the same-old banality of the everyday, which is often not awful, just not that great, Christmas promises that everything, at least for a while, will be sparkly bright, awash in contentment, love, and that most cherished thing of all, hope.

Hope is turns out is an incredibly powerful thing in the context of the author of A Boy Called Christmas author Matt Haig’s delightfully festive novel The Girl Who Saved Christmas in which one beleaguered but ever optimistic young girl named Amelia Wishart in Dickensian Britain is the one person keeping the newly-created festival of Christmas, complete with elves, Santa delivering gifts and expectant children, alive and kicking.

In Haig’s warmly inventive take on the origins of the modern version of Christmas, which it is generally agreed got a major push along in Victorian Britain thanks to Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) and the Queen’s consort Albert, the idea of Santa delivering presents is only a year or so old.

We are, indeed, at the very start of what has now become a massive juggernaut in modern times, but at this nascent stage of the game, all kids like Amelia want is to be remembered and to have the hope that in the midst of bleak and often dark lives – Amelia and her mum are chimney sweepers and live in a less than salubrious part of London – that good things can happen to them.

“Magic was there, in the world, and it spread among the dreams of all children. But Father Christmas couldn’t fool himself. Without that one child, that eight-year-old girl called Amelia Wishart, hoping so hard for magic to be real, Christmas would never have happened. Yes, it took elves and the reindeer and the workshop and all of that, but she was the one who saved it.

She was the first child.

The girl who saved Christmas.

And Father Christmas would never forget it … ” (P. 3)

Santa has a soft spot for Amelia who wrote him an impassioned letter and to whom he delivered a sack full of gifts in what must have been the biggest and best surprise for a young girl for whom magic is most definitely not an everyday occurrence.

In fact, so blighted is her life that her only real joys are her lovely and supportive mum, the books of Dickens which are her one rare treat and the hope that Santa will once again visit her at Christmas.

Her hope and expectation are joyously pure, and when she is faced with getting things or making over very, VERY important wish upon which the happiness of the rest of her life depends, she plumps for the latter, writing to Santa that year is a mix of desperation and hopefulness.

She is what powers Santa’s sleigh (the intangible fuel of her spirit charted via the delightfully-named Barometer of Hope) and indeed the whole idea of Christmas and so, when things start to go haywire in Santa’s North Pole redoubt of Elfhlem, which is awash in cute names, delicious food and heartwarming elfin bonhomie and love, it stands to reason that perhaps Amelia is in trouble?

To be fair, that doesn’t occur to Santa straightaway what with trolls smashing the place up – they are powerful but none too bright – manic pixies flying around the place with less than good intentions, reindeers losing the power of flight and elves in all kinds of trouble and strife.

That’s a lot to handle and Santa, who’s the older version of the sweet much put-upon boy we met in A Boy Called Christmas, is too preoccupied to put two and two together and work out that maybe Amelia needs more than sackful of presents this time.

(image courtesy official Matt Haig Twitter account)

But as he sets out for his latest Christmas run after a year of rather bad luck – one of the lovely things about The Girl Who Saved Christmas is its use of a poetically childlike English sing-song cadence which feels like a festive hug on a sad and lonely day and carries significant nostalgic heft – it soon becomes clear that Amelia is the key to everything, necessitating a rush through Victorian London, which thanks to the ebbing away of the magic that power Christmas, must be entirely on foot.

Yes, in the midst of earnestly intense storytelling which isn’t afraid that life can get very dark indeed – let’s be honest, the very best of children’s books are winningly realistic about how unmagical and damn near tragic life can be at times – we have the vision of Santa all in red coat and tight pantaloons racing down cobbled streets in search of a young girl who needs his help now more than ever.

It’s gloriously emblematic of a book that is as apt to feature reindeer peeing down a chimney or injunctions about eating yellow snow as it is to include scenes so poignant and heart breaking that it comes close to ripping your heart out.

Haig’s gift is that he balances the two parts of the whole masterfully, holding the seriousness and silliness in tension so well that moving from one to the other, or having them both in the same scene, does not feel even a little off-kilter or discordant.

“‘The love of a person never disappears,’ he [Santa] said softly. ‘Even if they might. We have memories, you see, Amelia. Love never dies. We love someone and they love us back and that love is stored and it protects us. It is bigger than life and it doesn’t end with life. It stays inside us. They stay inside us. Inside out hearts.'” (P. 279)

The Girl Who Saved Christmas is a salient reminder, one we very much need after yet another year of COVID-fuelled exhausting reality, that hope is intensely, wonderfully powerful.

It’s not an idle thing, held aloft in wafty moments by daydreamers on a sunny day; rather it has the power to change things for the better in real and substantial, altering events and perspectives at will, and while it can be beaten down to an almost invisible degree as Amelia discovers, it can return, more radiant and transformative than ever in the blink of an eye.

Christmas novels should make us feel like the world is limitlessly alive and pulsing with life-changing possibility, magic and spine-tingling wonder and that reindeers and elves and present delivered by a man in a red suit are heartwarmingly real and there when we, or young girls in Victoria’s England, need them, and The Girl Who Saved Christmas is all those things and more, awash in the kind of hope that can move mountains, stop trolls in their tracks and remake the world from one of desolation, loss and cruelty into one in which love, belonging and balls that always bounce are always there which saves us time and time again right when we need it.

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