The Christmas Pig (Christian Book Review)
An imaginative and charming story with a lot of heart and an important message.
J. K. Rowling has always been a lightning rod for controversy, receiving vitriol from both ends of the political and religious spectrum. What has rarely been in question is her status as one of the most gifted storytellers of her generation. The Harry Potter novels remain a literary phenomenon on a scale that may never be matched. Since she completed the bestselling series, Rowling has mostly written for adults. In 2020 she returned with the dark fairy tale The Ickabog, her first children’s book in 13 years (review here). With the publication of her holiday-themed story, The Christmas Pig, Rowling proves that she has many more tales to tell. The Christmas Pig is an imaginative, charming story with a lot of heart and an important message.
The story is part Toy Story, part Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (1954 Christmas special), part Pilgrim’s Progress, part Wizard of Oz, and part Chronicles of Narnia. Despite its plethora of influences, the story is original and fresh. Whenever it starts to feel predictable, Rowling shakes it up by introducing something new.
The plot revolves around a boy named Jack and his beloved stuffed animal Dur Pig (called DP for short). The filthy, worn-out toy is Jack’s constant companion throughout his difficult childhood moments—his parents’ divorce, moving to a different school, bullying, and unrelenting change. On Christmas Eve, Jack’s stepsister throws DP out the window of a moving car. Unable to find the cherished pig, Jack’s family buys him a replacement—The Christmas Pig (CP). Jack is heartbroken until the special magic of Christmas Eve, “the night for miracles and lost causes,” allows the things in his room to come to life, including CP. Together, Jack and CP must journey to the Land of the Lost to rescue DP and bring him home.
The magical formula in the staggering success of Rowling’s Harry Potter books was a mixture of inventive worldbuilding and a keen understanding of the spirit of childhood. Both elements are on display in The Christmas Pig. Christmas, the holiday season filled with so much wonder and magic, proves to be the perfect setting for Rowling to unleash her creativity.
The story starts slow, taking time to develop Jack’s character and circumstances. The action doesn’t truly begin until page 41. Once the adventure starts, it moves rapidly from one episodic encounter to the next. The Land of the Lost is a fully developed world with vivid imagery and defined rules (even if some of these rules are quite convenient). It is a world where the spirit of lost “Things” go after their “Alivening” (which occurs when humans develop feelings of attachment to them). Many of the inhabitants of the world are tangible objects—a lost coin, a Christmas ornament, old toys, a broken compass. As the story progresses, the characters become increasingly bizarre and interesting, such as a gang of Bad Habits and a Royal family of Hope, Ambition, Happiness, and Pretense (a false persona once created by a child as a coping mechanism).
The world is presented as a sort of Purgatory with various cities and stations (Surplus, Bother-its-Gone, Beloved, etc.), and Things move between them depending on their condition in the real world. Ruling the land is The Loser, a menacing, Satan-esque being that devours the unloved and unwanted Things. The book features several illustrations throughout, which provide added imagery for the world Rowling created.
Childhood and Growing Up
On the surface, the book is an exercise in worldbuilding. At its heart, however, is a meaningful story about growing up, accepting change, and letting go of the past. The book’s methodically paced opening is crucial in establishing Jack’s character and the real purpose of his adventure. Jack’s beloved stuffed pig is far more than just a childish object; it represents childhood itself. Losing the pig is symbolic of Jack losing the innocence of childhood and being forced to let go of the familiar past. The toy is the final anchor that ties Jack to idealized memories of “the way things used to be.”
Rowling has never “dumbed down” her storytelling for children. She respects her young readers’ intelligence and is not shy away from mature themes. While she may occasionally aim over their heads, she never aims beneath them. Jack is a child who responds to situations appropriately for his age. His struggles are also applicable to adults who, though not mourning the loss of a toy, may struggle to let go of the past and move forward.
Our Relationship with Things
The Christmas Pig is a fascinating case study about our relationship with the things and objects in our lives. It explores the question of what matters. At one point, a pair of expensive earrings arrives in the Land of the Lost and throw a tantrum about being placed alongside the plastic and cheap jewelry. It is a reminder that wealth and physical objects are temporary. Costly or cheap, all eventually end up in the same place. In contrast, other Things in the story, such as a dirty stuffed blue bunny or an angel ornament made from a toilet paper roll, are the objects most treasured, because they represent something far more valuable than empty materialism. The quirky gang of “Bad Habits,” with names like Chewfinger, Sugarguzzler, and Nosepicker, are fittingly characterized as seductive and manipulative bullies. The personification of these bad habits serves as a John Bunyan-type allegory.
By the end of the book, I found myself contemplating the things in my life and wondering which city they might belong to. What would I miss, and what would I instantly forget? As I did, I was reminded just as Jack was that it is rarely the costly or fancy things that matter. It is the thoughtful gift my wife gave me when I was having a rough week, or the picture my children lovingly drew that I truly value. The message of The Christmas Pig is that there is nothing wrong with “stuff,” but the things that really matter are the ones that connect us with the people we love. This reminder is timely at the onset of the Christmas season and beyond.
J. K. Rowling’s The Christmas Pig is a delightful and uplifting book. It is not her magnum opus or the next Harry Potter; it is simply a fun, standalone holiday story. Also, I’ll eat a whole Christmas Pig if there isn’t an announcement that the book will be made into an animated holiday special. It should be. The Christmas Pig, like many beloved holiday stories before it, is a needed reminder for children and adults alike of what really matters in life.