Read Aloud Memories: “King John’s Christmas”

December 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

How to create indelible memories? Read aloud to children. Too much attention is focused on what to give to make a holiday meaningful, when this inexpensive and simple choice is available to anyone who can read: poem, picture book, story. I clearly remember my father reading “King John’s Christmas”  during the holidays on several occasions. So powerful is this memory, that I can hear his voice as I re-read the poem myself:

King John was not a good man —
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.

My father would always begin reading the poem by reciting the first four lines from memory. While his read alouds were not frequent, they were memorably dramatic. He had a gift for animating  words. Most of the stories he chose were something from his childhood. “King John’s Christmas” came from the collection Now We Are Six by the noted children’s author A.A.Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh. King John was less than popular with his subjects, but he was hardly a villain:

And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air —
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

Screen Shot 2012-12-22 at 7.53.15 AM

Ernest Shepard’s illustration of King John, “blushing beneath his crown”

I remember how my father would stress the five syllables of “supercilious”; while we had never heard that word, his intonation told us that no one liked King John. He was a king so disliked that he was forced to send himself Christmas cards:

King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon …
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

A.A. Milne was already an experienced writer before he created the children’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh. He had been an editor for Punch Magazine  and a playwright. He also had served in World War I from 1914-1919 as a signaling officer who saw his fair share of the frontlines. He was dismissed from the army after a fever, and during his recuperation he returned to playwriting. In 1920, his son Christopher Robin Milne was born, and Milne turned to writing for children. After some success with  poetry published in children’s poetry magazines, Milne sought out an illustrator from his days at Punch, Ernest Shepard. The collaboration produced When We Were Very Young and within the first eight weeks of publication, over 50,000 copies were sold here and in the UK.

Milne’s next effort featured short stories involving the childhood toys of Christopher Robin. The book was titled Winnie-the-Pooh, and recognizing how important Shepard’s illustrations were to the book, Milne offered him an unprecedented share in the royalties. The second book of poetry, Now We Are Six, was published in 1927, and “King John’s Christmas” is one of the 31 poems in that book. The illustrations again were Shepard’s.

In stanza five of the poem, King John writes a lengthy Christmas wish list to Old Father Christmas, just before “He stole away upstairs and hung, A hopeful stocking out.”

Screen Shot 2012-12-22 at 7.52.46 AM

Shepard’s rendering of King John leaving his list, “..up the roof…
propped against the chimney stack”

King John’s list was full of things none of us would have requested, but my father would enthusiastically recite the list making each item seem so desirable:

“I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red India-rubber ball!”

The desire for the “big, red India-rubber ball” was the clincher. Why a toy? Had King John never had this simple toy? Had all his Christmas lists been unanswered? Had Father Christmas never visited the king? Milne’s King John was characterized as “not a good man”, but would Father Christmas be so cruel as to withhold a gift at Christmas?

Sadly, yes. King John goes to his stocking on Christmas morning only to find an empty stocking. We imagined the already pathetic king holding a flat limp stocking as my father intoned:

King John said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”

My father would pause to let this discovery sink in. The poem was unimaginably sad to us, especially during the holiday, finding an empty stocking. Then he would read on as King John dismissed all the things on his list. He confesses he had not really wanted anything, all he wanted was the “big red, India-rubber ball”. Milne’s reference to the pocket knife was not the only “cut” delivered when King John comes to the conclusion he cannot be loved, even by the beneficent Father Christmas.

I haven’t got a pocket-knife —
Not one that cuts.
And, oh! if Father Christmas had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red India-rubber ball!”

Does Milne leave the reader with the memory of the pathetic king, abandoned by all at a magical time of the year? Of course not! King John “frowns” as he looks out his window at all the “happy bands of boys and girls all playing in the snow.” He stands alone, abandoned, and jealous of their joy, when suddenly, a small miracle occurs:

When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An India-rubber ball!

Screen Shot 2012-12-22 at 7.52.23 AM

“A big red, India-rubber ball!”

The final stanza is written in capital letters, as if shouted from the rooftops. My father would raise his voice as well in reading the poem’s conclusion:

AND OH, FATHER CHRISTMAS,
MY BLESSINGS ON YOU FALL
FOR BRINGING HIM
A BIG, RED
INDIA-RUBBER
BALL!

So, my thanks to the genius of A.A.Milne for writing the wonderful poem “King John’s Christmas” and to my father who read the poem and made such a powerful memories with all his read-alouds. MY BLESSINGS ON YOU FALL!

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