Thursday, December 24, 2009

Reworking the Classics: The Night Before Christmas by Tom Browning

Taking on a tradition like St. Nick, a classic like Clement C. Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas, requires combination of chutzpah and humility. Santa's annual visit has been portrayed in so many ways, from Tim Burton to Tomie dePaola, from Mary Engelbreit to Jim Rice, that it is hard to imagine a version that is able to shake off the stereotypes and show us something new. Tom Browning's new The Night Before Christmas (Sterling, 2009) doesn't even try.

Instead Browning goes for full-fledged nostalgia, saturating his palette in deep reds, golds, and midnight blues, and picturing his Santa as almost Rockwellesque--a handsome, masculine, and full-dress St. Nick, turned out in a gorgeous fur-trimmed red suit, big black boots, and wide buckled belt straight out of those Coca-Cola Santas who used to grace the back cover of National Geographic. His sleigh is a glorious enamel green with rococo scroll work, his reindeer so muscular and realistic that you can almost hear them chuff and shake their harness. The house we see from above is a generous white craftsman cottage with a long front porch and squared columns, and the family inside are pert and perky, Mamma and Pappa kissing chastely as they turn in wearing kerchief and cap, three children sleeping contentedly together in one bed, smiling with the sweetness of their sugarplum dreams.

The traditional text is attractively set off in scrolled inset boxes on each right-hand page, each inlaid with a miniature painting taken from the full-page paintings which adorn each verso. These illustrations are lit with the golden glow of fancy and nostalgia, working in bits of homey humor such as Santa setting his sleigh down to give his reindeer a snack before he soars to the rooftop for his grand entrance, or Santa sharing his obligatory glass of milk with the family cat beside the Christmas tree. This Santa seems to enjoy his magical powers, creating tree ornaments from soap bubbles, scattering moonshine flying dust on the toy airplane he gently places by the tree, and glorying in the stardust which enables him to rise effortlessly up from the chimney.

No new ground is broken here, although Browning does work in some creative perspective, both in some of the Santa's-eye views in his large illustrations, and in the small details he sets forth, jewel-like, as ornaments for his text. All in all, Tom Browning's The Night Before Christmas is a strikingly beautiful book which tells the satisfyingly familiar story well, one that just may be the best one for your family at Chrismastide.

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