Harvey Slumfenburger and a Surly,
Cognac-Drinkin’* Santa: An Appreciation

h1 December 19th, 2006 by jules

*(Courvoisier, anyone?)

Indulge me while I take a break for a moment from new holiday titles to write a tribute to what are probably my top-two favorite Christmas picture book titles ever (and that’s a bold statement, as there are so many great ones).

harvey-slumfenburger.gifDoes it get any better than John Burningham’s Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present (published in ’93)? I ask again, does. it. get. any. better? I think not. A friend of mine — an educator and former professor of mine as well — used to say that she, as a teacher of young children, wanted every child to be and to feel noticed. I love that. Well, that’s the glory and brilliance of this book — that Santa, though tired, though beat from his one-night world odyssey of gift-giving, takes the time to deliver the one present that he inadvertently missed. Yes, he’s wiped out and one of his reindeer has even fallen ill. He’s even in his comfy, warm jammies and sliding under the covers when he spots that one present that slipped his attention. He knows he has to get up and deliver it; he knows he has to take the time to notice Harvey Slumfenberger (aw, I’m tellin’ ya, the very premise makes me tear up. Santa’s loyalty is hard-core, quite impressive).

And, man, Harvey needs this attention. He’s way, waaaaay up on the tippy-top of “Roly Poly Mountain, which was far, far away.” And “{Santa} knew that Harvey Slumfenburger’s parents were too poor to buy him presents. He knew that Harvey Slumfenburger only ever got one present, and that was the present that Santa brought him.” Oh my but Santa’s wrecked. Still, he throws some clothes on over his PJs, puts on his boots and hat, picks up his sack with that one stray present in it, and starts to walk in the cold to Roly Poly Mountain, ’cause he doesn’t let his peeps down. Especially not Harvey Slumfenburger.

Santa — since, remember, his reindeer are worn out from fatigue and catchin’ colds — has to piecemeal his way to Harvey’s home. He tells each and every traveller he meets:

Excuse me. My name is Santa Claus {ed. note — love. it. As if you can’t tell from his duds}. I still have one present left in my sack, which is for Harvey Slumfenburger, the little boy who lives in a hut at the top of the Roly Poly Mountain, which is far, far away. And it will soon be Christmas Day.

Did I mention Santa’s dedication makes me tear up? Every time he says this to the friendly folks he meets who are willing to help him get there, I tear up a bit more. And it’s a recurring refrain, so aw I’m a goner when I read this one to my two-year-old who hangs on every word. So, yes, he gets there bit by bit — a pilot, a man with a jeep, a boy with a motorbike, a girl who has skis, and a climber with a rope (at the bottom of ROLY POLY MOUNTAIN!! The suspense builds. Dude, he’s almost there!) all help him. Each one, however, has a spill, making Santa’s goal of reaching Harvey seem exponentially insurmountable. As the climber on Roly Poly Mountain is heaving ‘ol Santa up the mountain’s side, the rope breaks. “But if you keep going up that cliff and over those boulders, you will see a little hut at the top, and that is the hut where Harvey Slumfenburger lives,” the climber tells him. And, of course, Santa climbs the rest of the way (cue more tears). He slides down the chimney and puts the present in the stocking of the sleeping Harvey Slumfenburger, which is hanging off his bed in his very unassuming room.

And on one hysterical, yet touching, cartoon-panel-style double page spread, “Santa set{s} off on the long journey home” — on a pony, on a scooter, in a helicopter, in a canoe, on ice skates, on roller skates, in a hot air balloon, on a sled, and — my favorite — on a zip line. He gets home any way he can, and then he finally slips into bed. On the book’s final page, Harvey wakes up, reaches for the stocking, and takes out his present.

Then — to make this obscenely spectacular book ramp up into the ineffably-perfect category — the book’s final words are “I wonder what it was.” Okay, even that makes me tear up — the lovely wonder of it all, Burningham letting the child reader imagine the possibilities.

I’m a bit biased: Burningham is one of my top-five favorite author-illustrators of all time. He is one of those rare author-illustrators who can create such a touching story and keep it from giving us a sickening-sweet sugar high. He’s always straight-up honest with us, keeping it genuine, keeping it simple. He seems to be at the top of his game, too, with his pen-and-watercolor illustrations in this one. Ah, the many textures and the spare, pleasing touches of black, especially the glossy-black mountain that Santa and the skiier glide down. And the menacing sky above Roly Poly Mountain. And the breathtaking, wordless, blue-hued double page spread, showing Santa just feet from his lowly hut in the North Pole. He’s trudging through the snow, about to simply pass out; he’s so tired, but he made it. He did it all for Harvey. Aw, crap. I’m losin’ it again . . . Sniff. Sniff.

father-christmas.gifAnd then there’s Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, published in ’73. I’ll try to keep this one short, since I rambled in such an insufferably earnest fashion about Harvey Slumfenburger.

This is refreshingly funny — Santa as a curmudgeonly ‘ol misanthrope of sorts. I mean, he’s got such a hard job, and he’s really just another working-class guy, you know, who just has a dreadfully early wake-up call for his particular line of work. Perhaps we, the gift recipients, take him for granted sometimes.

He’s dreaming of sunbathing at the shore when his alarm goes off on Christmas Eve day, thus shattering his sunny reverie. “Blooming Christmas here again!” he says with a grimace, as he sits up in bed. He hates winter, curses the snow, and groans at the icy-cold forecast he hears on the radio. He takes care of everything at home, including feeding his cat and dog for whom he has an obvious affection, and then hits the skies: “Giddy up! Tally-ho!” Briggs depicts all of this in cartoon-panel-style, mostly wordless illustrations. It’s quite funny when he curses the chimneys, the soot inside (“Blooming” this! “Blooming” that!), scoffs at some of the late-night snacks left by children, curses the cat he trips over in the dark of someone’s home, and then kicks back with a huge smile to enjoy a glass of wine left by some savvy sleepers in one home. “Lovely!” says Santa, as he reclines in their armchair with beverage in hand, taking a much-needed break.

Finally arriving home, he takes care of domestic chores, feeds the pets, gets the reindeer settled. Then, he enjoys a hot cup of tea, a hot bath, a “good drop of ale” (with some tasty cognac included in one spread as well), a cigar, some hot cocoa, and a good program on the ‘ol telly. He’s worked hard, earned these delicacies. After messing grumpily with the “fiddling buttons!” on his PJs, he gets into bed, declares himself done for another year, wishes the pets a happy Christmas, and then turns to us, the reader, with a scowl and says “Happy blooming Christmas to you, too!”

The End. Love it. If you’ve had it with the syrupy-sweet holiday tales that pervade the season (that you can’t manage to avoid even though you try), treat yourself to Briggs’ Father Christmas (and he’s not all growls-‘n-grimaces anyway; he has some welcoming moments of warmth, such as when the milk man passes, asking “still at it, mate?” and he replies with a smile, “nearly done”). And treat your favorite child, reminding them that — despite his magical talents and hat tricks — Santa is human, after all. And that we all need a brandy every now and then. Oh, wait. Not that. Not for children. Just for the mom and dad after setting out all the gifts.

Happy bloomin’ holidays!

2 comments to “Harvey Slumfenburger and a Surly,
Cognac-Drinkin’* Santa: An Appreciation”

  1. Julie. How is it that we’ve been friends for all these years, and I didn’t realize that you share my love for Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present? Why has this never come up in conversation before?

    Can I throw in another super-excellent but not brand-new Christmas title here? Michael Foreman’s The Little Reindeer. Check it out.

  2. […] a picture book, the kind that gives some parents near apoplexy. Much like John Burningham’s Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present, for which I possess an abiding […]

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