The Sugar Plum Christmas Book, 1978

Finding this book, this influential but long-lost item of my childhood, was no easy task. While I could remember whole poems and, especially, the cutely disturbing illustrations, the only part of the title I could recall was “Christmas Book”. Which is all but impossible to identify through googling. The search went on for a good few years, sparked up again each Christmas when I remembered its existence and tried, fruitlessly, again.

This year I cracked it – an imageless mention of “Sugar Plum Christmas Book” on Abe Books sparked off a lightbulb moment and when I found a picture of the cover it was a glorious moment. I couldn’t have told you what the cover looked like, and now I’m amazed I ever forgot. Something called “Sugar Plum” would, these days, be pink and fluffy and saccharine, and so the Eastern European peasant vibe, along with all the goblins, beasties and strange little elves inside, is quite striking. The stories and the rest of the contents is charming and nicely written by Jean Chapman, but it’s Deborah Niland’s illustrations which turn it into a special book for me.

The Sugar Plum Christmas Book, 1978

Im not sure where my original book came from. I remember my childhood reading consisted of rather a lot of sold off library books and charity shop finds. I had one of those personalised books where they fill in your name, town and family in the story, except it was second hand, and so it was someone else’s life inside the book. Which I didn’t think was odd at all at the time and I used to read it quite a lot, thinking about this other kid’s life and friends. I also had “St Michael” books from Marks and Spencer, and books bought from the intermittent book stall at school. My new Christmas Book is an ex-library book which apparently sat on a shelf for the whole of the 1990s (something I always find slightly sad).

I read and re-read it, whether it was seasonally appropriate or not. One of the joys of finding it again was that it felt like listening to an album you haven’t heard in 20 years, but you still know all the words to. This poem has certainly been rattling around my head for nearly my whole life.

As has the picture of the naughty dwarves in The Red Cap story, especially the one eating a burger, and the two playing what appears to be a strange nose wrestling game.

It’s full of songs, stories, crafts and recipes. None of which I actually made, but I feel that now I want to, with my own kids. Especially this Nisse puppet.

And maybe I’ll finally work out the tune to the Nasty Little Beasties song too.

The story of the mysterious strangers and the horrible Slybones family, The Way of Wishes, is another one which made a big impression. The descriptions of the Christmas food, and, especially, the vivid picture of the Christmas pudding fight.

But it’s this picture which sums up my memory of the atmosphere created by this book. A tiny cottage, like one of those seen in fairy tales, probably in a forest somewhere, full of archaic hospitality and whimsical cheer.

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