This is a book about the nature of belief; the reminder that things we think of as essential, eternal, unbreakable are here because we willed them to be. It is the book about origins, of sorts.
This book is a reminder that what we think of as sweet harmless stories come from darker, scary places. And that is for a reason. So many things stem from the simple fact - we, humans, need to believe; we need to create and fantasize to make the world make any sense, to have the world we think of as permanent BE.
Belief is what underlies what we are as humans. But Pratchett, in this Christmas-type Discworld story does not harp on the same old 'You gotta believe because of the holiday spirit' BS. He does not limit himself to the cynical in its childhood clarity belief that 'if you don't believe in Santa, there will be no presents'. No, in his interpretation belief is our attempt to make things make sense. Yes, we chose to believe in god(s) or in nature or karma or things of that sort; we take comfort in these things.
But belief Pratchett is concerned with is way more than that - it is what's woven into the fabric of our existence; without it, would we ever even have abstract concepts that define us - mercy, justice, compassion, friendship, love? Basically, we need to believe in little lies - like Hogfather - before we are able to believe in big lies that make us human.
And that's what Pratchett says in this book, through the small-caps voice of his most enigmatic and inhuman character - DEATH. Why? Because "some things are fairly obvious when it's a seven-foot skeleton with a scythe telling you them."
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
"So we can believe the big ones?
"YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
"They're not the same at all!"
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME... SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"
MY POINT EXACTLY.
Despite what I wrote above, this story, with all the think-about-it message is far from preaching; on the contrary, it's hilariously entertaining. Due to a bit of trouble involving the Auditors of Reality and a sociopathic member of the Assassins Guild ("Mister Teatime, who saw things differently from other people, and one of the ways that he saw things differently from other people was in seeing other people as things."), Death finds himself in need to impersonate the legendary Hogfather (think Santa Claus with boar husks, riding a sleigh led by boars). And there are teeth involved.
And ultimately it's up to Death's granddaughter (don't ask) Susan to fix this entire mess. Susan, the level-headed, extra-rational, self-sufficient duchess-turned-governess who firmly believes that "Real children do not go hoppity skip unless they are on drugs." Susan, the level-headed young woman that, despite trying to cling to normality, keeps monsters in line with a very important storyline-wise fireplace poker.
"The children refused to disbelieve in the monsters because, frankly, they knew damn well the things were there.
But she'd found that they could, very firmly, also believe in the poker."
And it is exactly this combination of magic and firm reality that makes her such an irresistible character. That, and the extreme pragmaticism combined with a weary knowledge of the world that does not fit into the rigid frames of everyday "normal".
"She'd become a governess. It was one of the few jobs a known lady could do. And she'd taken to it well. She'd sworn that if she did indeed ever find herself dancing on rooftops with chimney sweeps she'd beat herself to death with her own umbrella."
And, of course, we get to enjoy the company of one of Pratchett's most fascinating characters - Death. There are plenty of funny moments as he tries on Hogfather's false beard for size, so to say. Up until now, he never had to trouble himself with the 'naughty or nice' question, and he's never had people line up eager to see him. And there are a few things that Death learns thanks to this new temporary jobs - like the value of charity, the gift of life (if you've ever been scarred by Andersen's saddest fairy-tale 'A Girl with Matches' you'll know right away what I mean!) and the unfairness of socio-economic status quo.
"Charity ain't giving people what you wants to give, it's giving people what they need to get."
Not to mention the pointy-hatted appearance of the Wizards of the Unseen University ("Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time."), the amazing thinking machine Hex (which from now on will be FTB-enabled FTB = "fluffy teddy bear", of course!), Verucca Gnome, Nobby Nobbs (who, of course, had been a nice... ummm... individual), and one well-crafted bathroom. All together, all this creates Pratchett's trademark witty and slightly absurd atmosphere, frequently with seriousness cleverly hiding behind well-placed puns and goofs.
5 stars and a high recommendation to new and old Pratchett fans. This one will definitely remains my beloved annual holiday read.