Among the may things I love about the work of much-missed late Discworld author Terry Pratchett is the sense of playful irreverence that fills each and every word.
A master storyteller who has a deserved legion of fans including myself to his enduring credit, Pratchett’s sense of the quirkily absurd and his willingness to skewer society’s many foibles are a delight and all are on show in 2017’s Father Christmas’s Fake Beard, a collection of never before published Christmas stories.
Accompanied by illustrations by Mark Beech, whose artwork adds an extra layer of eccentric silliness to proceedings, the stories in Father Christmas’s Fake Beard centre on the fictional English town of Blackbury in which all kinds of festively-strange goings-on take place.
In fact, so exuberantly mischievous is the collection that before you’ve even reached the first story proper, Pratchett has you laughing uproariously at the titular tale which is a series of ever-more annoyed, and thus fantastically-funny emails between store management and a certain MrNicholas who gives, by dint of strange happenings in the department store Grotto, every indication of being the actual Santa Claus.
“He [Mr Nicholas] says he is from the north of Lapland, but I assure him we are an Equal Opportunities Employer, and besides I’m not sure how one would go about discriminating against someone from Lapland, even if one wanted to.” (P. 2-3)
Hints missed entirely by the entirely humourless staff – a man with his own costume and actual beard, an air of generosity, peace and goodwill that clashes with the store’s gleefully-satirised commercialisation and commodification of just about every aspect of the Christmas experience.
Santa, for who else could it be, sets the cat among the festive pigeons by criticising the placing of violent toys such as the Meakill Death Cannon, giving kids whichever free toy they want regardless of gender – the girl’s option is a particular hoot, listed as the My Little Maddened Polecat Dressing Table Set (boys get the far more prosaic Super laser Zappercon) – and hammering and sawing in the Grotto into the night, helped by workers with “little faces”, before “a sledge drawn by eight apparently living reindeer, smashed through the big window by the lifts.”
Full of apoplectic that anyone would dare subvert the sacred tenets of a commercialised Christmas celebration, this is Pratchett at his satirical best, beautifully underscoring why Santa, though hijacked by the likes of Coca-Cola for their marketing purposes, is in fact the very antithesis of commercialisation at heart.
Father Christmas’s Fake Beard continues in this vein, a beguilingly-humourous mix of the quirky and the heartfelt, every line reading like a chatty, bright storyteller who is as happy to tell the narrative straight as to toss in all kinds of quirkily-observant asides.
Whether it’s “The Blackbury Pie”, in which a giant meat pie full of vegetables explodes all over the town and the county of Gritshire after 33 cooks led by Albert Sock (the names are an amusing joy too) have laboured to make it for the poor at Christmas; or “Father Christmas Goes to Work at the Zoo”, and teaches the hippos to fly because naturally there are no reindeer, every single story is full of irreverence and wit and a narrative style that suggests a narrator who’s not taking it all very seriously.
Or is, but who has decided that the best way to handle the hypocritical absurdities of the world, which find their own peculiar expression in Blackbury, is to gently but merciless lampoon them at every turn.
Take “Judgement Day for Father Christmas” in which good ol’ Saint Nick is put on trial on the basis that “Father … er … Christmas is at least as real as a great many other things I read about in the papers every day, and therefore subject to legislation, just like everyone else”
“‘But I must draw your attention to this extremely moving film of an experiment conducted by Uppsala University using a herd of reindeer, which started off at the top of a very tall building and ended tragically at the bottom.
‘I think it demonstrated very conclusively that the number of reindeer able to fly must be so small as to be statistically insignificant.'” (P. 109)
Santa pleads not guilty “On Grounds of Diminished Existence”, i.e. not being real but the judge is having a bar of it, observant to the law and its bureaucratic whims to a degree so inflexible as to be endlessly amusing.
The case ends with reindeer and an elvish forum declaring Santa not guilty because “It’s Christmas, m’lud”, a logic so festive and self-evident that no one can really argue with it, least of all the judge.
Pratchett may be sadly gone – he died in 2015 from Alzheimer’s Disease – but in stories such as the ones in Father Christmas’s Fake Beard and the Discworld series, he lives on, bringing the contrary hilarity of Christmas and the way it draws out the bizarre hypocrisies and foibles of humanity out in amplified fashion, accompanied by a sing-songy style of conversational narration that harkens back to the storytelling of a bygone era when silliness and wryly funny observations were part and parcel of children’s literature, not just at Christmas but happily all through the year.