I’m a sucker for Christmas books. Â One of the joys of this time of year is revisiting my favorites — Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the various collections of Christmas verse and art that I’ve acquired over the years. Â And this year, I’ve stumbled upon another marvelous book for my collection.
Elizabeth Goudge’s I Saw Three Ships is a petite book — at sixty illustrated pages, it’s short enough to read in one sitting (if you don’t have a toddler in the vicinity, that is). Â It’s a book for kids, though — as with most great children’s literature — adults can get just as much out of it. Â It’s a Â charming story of a little girl named Polly Flowerdew who lives with her two maiden aunts in a seaside town at the start of the nineteenth century. Â Polly wants to leave the house unlocked on Christmas Eve, believing the old country custom that says that the Wise Men may come calling. Â Her aunts, who are far less whimsical and trusting, are against the idea. Â (“There are no wise men. Â I have never met a man yet who was not foolish,” pronounces her Aunt Dorcas.) Â But Polly’s idealism softens them, and by the end of the evening, three wise men have indeed come calling … along with a miracle that no one in the town could have expected.
It’s a hard story to write about, because to say more about the plot will give it away. Â Suffice to say that it’s a true gem of a book, with some very moving symbolism around the three wise men and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Â At times, the author’s humorous characterizations reminded me a bit of Roald Dahl (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame), though without the mordant tone. Â And it’s amazing how the author manages to weave the story together with such grace and in such a short number of pages. Â She is very subtle in her storytelling, which is why this is really a book for older kids/preteens, though you could read it aloud to younger kids and pause to explain some of the less obvious bits. Â All in all, it’s a beautiful and uplifting read for the holiday season.
And yes, it is inspired by the old carol, the lyrics of which are featured at several points in the book. Â Here’s a great rendition of it by Sting (is it just me, or does he never seem to get old?).Â It’s hard to think of a more joyous holiday song than this one.