Written and Illustrated By Charles Vess
Come closer and listen well, for I have a tale to tell. For far longer than even I can remember Father Christmas has always lived in his warm, sprawling house set close by a vast northern forest.
There, in his workshop, Nikolas…Yes, I said Nikolas. Hush. You would do well to remember that it is his given name. Now, where was I? Oh yes… In his workshop there, Nikolas spends each and every day making gifts that he hopes will bring small moments of joy to every boy and girl who receives them. Ever so patiently he sits by himself carving intricate wooden toys of every shape and size. Big ones, small ones, and in-between ones, they all fill the shelves of his vast workshop. And, as the days grow shorter and darker outside, he stays in his workshop longer and longer. No matter how long or short the day, they all seem to fly by faster and faster as the year itself grows shorter still.
Always he must be thinking to himself, “I’ll just spend but a few more minutes here and finish just one more toy.” But that minute always and again blurs into hours and hours and many more long hours besides.
I saw him there once, sitting at his workbench, his carving tools and pots of paint and brushes scattered round about him. The floor at his feet piled high with wood shavings. A splash of bright blue paint smeared his ruddy cheek and the pungent aroma of turpentine filled the air.
He was carefully applying a highlight on the carved eye of one last, small toy and then, finally, Nikolas got to his feet. His boots planted firmly in that deep litter of shavings, he eased his aching back. Even so, he smiled to himself and began to softly murmur.
Indeed, I had to hold myself very still to hear his words.
“Well, that’s the very last of them. At least for this season.”
Nikolas stood for a moment, gazing out his window into the world beyond, his forehead creasing briefly with worry.
“Every year there are so many more children out there in this world that it takes me longer and longer to finish my work. Next year or perhaps the year after I fear I’ll not be able to finish my task.” Then looking at the shelves around him, stuffed as they were with his homemade toys of every kind and description, he let a gentle, satisfied smile wipe the frown from his care-worn face.
“Now then, it’s off to bed for me. Tomorrow will be a very busy day.” One by one, he blew out the lanterns that lit his work place and, pausing at the door, he carefully placed a saucer of milk on the floor at his feet before whispering into the now-darkened room, “Tomten, Tomten, thank you for your patience. Watch this place and keep all here safe through this long dark night.”
Then, softly shutting the door behind him, Father Christmas made his weary way to his soft bed and his pleasant dreams. At this very moment, you may very well be wondering to yourself, What exactly is a Tomten? Well listen and I will tell you true. Many traditions speak of every home having its very own guardian spirit. Tomten is only one name amongst the many given to these small creatures. Whatever you choose to call them, they are very rarely seen for they only ever come out when everyone in their house is fast, fast asleep.
Then they mend what needs mending and chase away the bad spirits that need chas-ing away. And what is it that they ask for in return? Why, only a fresh bowl of milk or a warm slice of bread. So right there, in that darkened room, I stilled my breath and waited patiently for what might happen next.
And then he appeared, a small creature with a long, long white beard and a brightly colored cap pulled tight around his pointed ears.
I watched that Tomten—for that is what he was—lift the saucer to his lips and drink the milk. Greedy he was for what had been left him. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. As he wiped his beard clean the little creature muttered, “If you were to ask me, tis not fair at all. Himself spends so many hours here this time of year I almost perish from the hunger waitin’ for me supper.”
Licking his fingers clean, he continued, “Lovely. Lovely it is for sure. But not nearly enough…” Lifting his head then so that his long cap brushed the floor behind him, the Tomten carefully studied the highest shelf in that very crowded workshop. I could see his wide grin when, even among the thick weave of shadows up there so near the ceiling, he could make out the brightly painted box resting on its high, high shelf.
“Tonight of nights I needs must break a tradition that’s been kept sacred by myself and those I call kin for a hundred times a hundred years.” You see, this Tomten had lived right there, in that very house, for as long as Father Christmas had and that (as I’ve told you be-fore) is a very long time indeed. And after all those long years he’d come to know exactly where every last thing was kept, secret or not quite so secret.
It seemed to me, from the satisfied glint in his eye, that he knew just where the key he’d soon need to open that box was hidden as well. With one quick hop, as graceful as a cat, he was on top of the workbench, and but a moment later he was pulling a large and very old book from the shelf just above. Now, behold my children, inside that book there was a small cavity, cut from a multitude of worn pages, and from that he lifted a very old and very special key. Without hesitation, the small creature firmly grasped the key in hand and began to climb up and over every shelf of that high, high wall, slowly, carefully making his way toward that mysterious box.
I had to catch my breath then for fear he’d fall from that great height, but soon enough the Tomten was perched beside the box and carefully inserting the key into its lock. There was a soft click and quick as you please, the lid sprang open. Ever so gently, he lifted a small woven bag out of the box and sighed with complete and utter satisfaction. Soon, though, there he was climbing back down to safety. And standing once more on the crowded workbench, the small crea-ture quickly began to place every single wooden toy that filled the room into that small bag. I can tell you that I was as surprised to see what happened next as you are to hear of it.
He put each and every precious wooden gift in that long, long room inside that sack. And once he was done, the Tomten let out another, but much softer, sigh of relief. And wonder of wonders, all around him, every shelf now stood completely empty, but the bag—which certainly must’ve had its very own magic—was no bigger than first it had been.
Slinging the sack over his shoulder, the little Tomten staggered a bit and let out a hard grunt before he began to grumble, “As small as it may look, this bag still has the weight of every toy I’ve put in it this very night.” Then, silent as the moonbeam that he was walking through, the Tomten slipped out a door into the black night outside, leaving behind only a faint prayer that hung for a moment in the still air of the workshop. “Forgive me Master Nikolas, but this night my need is even greater than yours.”
I peered through the frosted window. Across the glistening snow-covered field that surrounded Father Christmas’ home I could just see the figure of the Tomten, laden with his awkward burden yet running swiftly, straight toward the forest beyond. He himself weighed so little that his feet left not the faintest trail. But in his haste he never looked behind to see that the bag, with its great, impossible weight, was leaving a trail. A clear enough path for any that might wish to follow it. Now lean closer children, so that I can whisper to you what happened next. The snow came then.
Of course it did, you say, as it so often does here in this part of the world. It was a gentle snow that long night, but a steady one, and soon enough that track was gone as well. I thought to myself then that surely it was a pity for Nikolas because he would never be able to find the wee thief with no trail to follow.
The next morning, as the dim flush of dawn washed through his bedroom window, his youngest daughter woke Nikolas from his deep, deep sleep.
Wait! You say you didn’t know that Father Christmas had a daughter? Why, of course he does. He calls twelve beautiful young women his daughters and one handsome young man his son. And great is his love for them all. But they’re no part of this tale. So hush now! I will tell you of them soon enough, and that’s my promise to you all this very night. For now we only need concern ourselves with the youngest daughter, whose name is Morningstar. I had to wipe a tear from my eye when I saw the happiness that was like a shining light on old Nikolas’ face that morning.
He was thinking, I’m sure, of the pleasure that all his work would bring to so many come the following morn. Beside him his daughter’s face gleamed like the brightening of the sun on the horizon.
“Father, I wish you joy on this special day.”
“Thank you, daughter.”
As I watched Nikolas dally over his breakfast and dither over his chores I wished that I could have just whispered in his ear, to make him hurry, but if he had seen me this tale would end very differently than perhaps it soon will. So it was that only after a load of fresh wood was split and care-fully stacked and the holly wreathes were draped from every rafter and every doorknob was polished as bright as bright could be that Father Christmas walked down the long hall to his workshop and finally paused before his door.
His hand on the latch, Nikolas’ face lit up at the look of antici-pation he saw in his daughter’s eyes. For all the year through he allowed no one but himself to ever enter his workshop. So on this day of days Morningstar always delighted in the surprises that waited within. But we already know what they will see when he swings wide his stout oak door, don’t we? Every toy will be gone, every shelf empty, all Father Christmas’ hard, generous work for naught. And indeed when Nikolas did see those rows and rows of empty shelves, his brow grew dark and the long bristles of his eyebrows writhed like angry snakes. His daughter cried out to him, “Father, father what shall we do?”
“What can I do? Today is the shortest day of the year. I cannot redo all that has taken me this long year to make.”
Once again my face was hard against the windowpane’s cold, cold glass as I watched Father Christmas quickly harness the very same sleigh that would have delivered all of his missing gifts that very night. Mounted high in its seat, his strong, gloved hands holding tight the reins of his stout harness fastened round the broad shoulders of a great elk, he spoke quietly to his daughter, who stood in the snow below him. You know me, children, I am ever the curious one. And try as I might I could not hear a single word of what was being spoken between those two. So I ventured out into the cold. Unseen by both, although perhaps sensed by the elk (but he knew me well and sounded no alarm), I slid under the heavy quilts piled high in the back of that sleigh. And there I was warm and comfortable—or else I ask you who would be here to tell you the rest of this tale?
After a moment, I peered cautiously out from under the heavy skins and saw that the flaming candles fitted to every horn of the great beast had washed a warm glow over both Nikolas and Morningstar. “Fly before me, daughter. I will need your light as well if ever I am to find that which has been stolen.” With a hard stamp of his hooves, the stag bounded into the swirling sky, easily carrying the sleigh behind him. And before us all, as Father Christmas had asked, flew his daughter Morningstar, and true to her name her brow shone so brightly that it illuminated everything in the landscape around us.
Behind us the miles suddenly stretched farther than any imagin-ing. Though still lit faintly by the weak northern sun, our cottage disappeared into cloud and falling snow. Ahead of us was only a dark forest that stretched on every side into the utter blackness of the fast approaching winter’s night, and despair clutched at my heart. So cold and dark was that night that after but a moment of staring into it I could not fault Nikolas if whatever hope was still left in his stout heart had begun to fade. I know that mine had. Suddenly, just ahead of us, the darkening forest lit as brightly as if the rising sun of summer shone down upon it.
Squinting my eyes, I looked and saw the maiden Morningstar, her radiance illuminating all around her on a long, sharp ridge of a black mountain. Standing directly before her was the Tomten. The small creature must have been blinded by her light, for I heard him cry out “Mercy!” before stumbling over the side of the treacherous cliff and falling toward the sharp rocks far below. But have I not told you yet how very lucky a Tomten is? No? Then listen and learn. Before he had fallen very far, his heavy bag caught on the stout limb of a black tree whose roots somehow clung to the face of that wall of rock. And then the Tomten desperately dangled be-low it, holding on with all his rapidly dwindling strength. Still, as lucky as a Tomten may have been, the bag that he clung to was not. The cloth began to tear, instantly sending a nearly endless cascade of carefully hand-carved toys scattering across the snow-covered rocks and the stream below.
In a voice made brittle from his anger, Father Christmas asked, “Why, little one? Why did you betray my trust in you?” Looking up, the small creature pleaded, “Punish me if you must. For it was my idea alone. But what I did last night was for my family. I could not leave them without some small joy to brighten the coming morn with, could I?”
Who was he talking about, I wondered.
With a heavy sigh (and I could feel the blast of his breath burst past my ear), Father Christmas reached down and pulled his pre-cious but tattered bag to safety and the Tomten, of course, came with it. At that moment Morningstar’s radiance began to shine even brighter still and everywhere below us I could clearly make out many, many more small creatures just like the first. Surely Father Christmas saw them, too? Each tiny face turned up toward us was so thin and looked so hungry and their clothes were so torn and shabby. Still, on every face was a smile and in each small outstretched hand was a rescued toy. Many, of course, had been broken in the fall, but each and every toy had been found and was now returned.
Still, Father Christmas grimly asked the cowering figure who sat beside him now in the sleigh, “But Tomten, where then are the homes your family members are meant to nurture and protect, as you are meant to protect mine?” But our Tomten only bent his head in shame and spoke not a word of explanation. Below us the creatures labored up the steep cliff and gathered around the sleigh that now rested on the topmost peak of that great mountain. One elderly creature, his long, long beard wound many times securely around his wide leather belt, stood with his gnarled hands twisting together, and, looking up at Father Christmas, he spoke.
“Our farmhouses are deserted now. The families we once pro-tected have gone to the cities, and seldom do they return.” “Homeless we have wandered the land. Till one by one we knocked on your door. This one let us in. And fed us. But we minded that maybe we were too many to bide there without dis-turbing your peace. So we came away here to live instead.” “But here is a bitter place to live indeed. The deep black forest that surrounds it is without hearth and fire to warm our bones. And there are no bowls of milk or even crusts of bread to fill our bellies. Selling these toys at market would have brought us more than enough to see us through many long cold winters.”
Of course, Father Christmas saw the truth of what the elderly Tomten said reflected in the eyes of all those around us, and slow-ly he began to smile again. “Perhaps we could help one another?”
Not long after and before the sun had truly set, the Merry Dancers left rainbows of color rippling across the deep snowy field that surrounded Father Christmas’ home. It was a delight to see each and every Tomten dancing across the surface of the unbroken snow beside the great sleigh, each carrying a toy under his or her arm and lifting a song to his or her lips. Father Christmas welcomed them heartily to his home.
He opened wide the stout door to his workshop and ushered them all within. His daughter Morningstar followed them, bringing warm cider in such cups that fit easily in the small creatures’ tiny hands. Quickly then, under Nikolas’ watchful eye, the happy throng was soon quite busy repairing every damaged toy and touching up every spot of chipped paint. Best of all, a very clever mother Tomten quickly mended the torn bag with a stitch known only to herself. And because there were so very many helping hands, at the end of that short, short day, they were done with their work before night had begun to fall.
Even Father Christmas was amazed by the Tomtens’ craftsman-ship as he smiled broadly, proclaiming to them one and all, “Why, I couldn’t have done a better job myself.” What a sight there was to see after that! Father Christmas bend-ing low to shake the hand of that most ancient of all the Tomtens and gratefully saying to him, “I offer you the hospitality of my home. It has always been large enough for all who have need of it. I hope that each of you will choose to remain here and share my hearth for many years to come.” Children, if only you could hear now how these old rafters rang and the windowpanes rattled with the cheer that shook the room at his words.
Once again warm and comfortable in the house, I watched as Father Christmas sat high on his newly laden sleigh outside and looked down at the mass of happy creatures that stood gathered around him. His eyes crinkled with delight when he reached his hand down to one in particular, speaking loudly for all to hear, “Come with me tonight and see what you are a part of now.”
I still gasp in delight when I remember the sleigh beginning to rise again high above the snow-covered field. Below it, the small figures cheered and tossed their tall red hats far into the air. Of course, Morningstar took up her accustomed station, flying before Father Christmas. Her gentle light guided the sleigh with its precious contents through all the clouds heavy with snow, tickling the night around them with color. And just before they disappeared into those clouds, I saw our Tomten raise his arms and cry with delight at the world stretched out so far below him. I can only imagine what he saw that night.
Perhaps a world vast and dark, spread out in a haphazard pattern of city and cell tower, apartments and apple trees, skyscrapers and silent nights, all rising to meet Father Christmas and the gifts he brings to us all. And children, listen to me now: because his work is never, ever done, we should all make it our business to help him however we can.