Word for Word: A magical Christmas box

The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights

The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights


In the winter of 1984, the BBC aired a serialised adaptation of John Masefield’s strange, magical 1935 novel, The Box of Delights. The story, in which a boy called Kay meets a mysterious Punch and Judy man while traveling home for the Christmas holidays and is entrusted with the eponymous magical box, reaches its dramatic climax on Christmas Eve; in 1984 the usual television schedule was changed so that the last episode of the series was shown on December 24th. I woke up early the next morning to find a copy of the book in my stocking, and as soon as I’d read it, I promised myself that I’d read it every Christmas in the future.

Nearly 30 years later, I haven’t broken that promise, because nothing makes me feel more Christmassy than The Box of Delights. Just reading the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawling’s warning to Kay – “the wolves are running” – sends a shiver of magic down my spine. Masefield was Britain’s poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, and his writing for children has a wonderfully wild and lyric quality. By any standards, it’s a superb fantasy novel, funny, dark, often surreal and utterly original, and Masefield brilliantly combines a sense of convincingly old magic with ordinary life and its trains and telephones and sceptical policemen.

But it’s never felt right to read the book at any other time of year, because Masefield creates an extraordinarily evocative picture of a very specific season. There’s the villainous Abner Brown, masquerading as a carol-singing clergyman in his attempt to get the Box; the marvelous Christmas tree at a party hosted by the local bishop, hung with wonderful presents that are just short of magical; the fact that it all ends with an extraordinary Christmas eve service. I’m particularly fond of Kay’s tomboyish visitor Maria, who declares that “Christmas ought to be brought up to date. It ought to have gangsters and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.” If you read The Box of Delights on a balmy July day, it would have you craving chilly mornings and Christmas lights.

That’s the thing about Christmas-themed stories – it just feels weird to read them before the festive season is upon us, like celebrating your birthday six months early. Christmas books only work for a few weeks every year. And that’s what makes them so special.

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