Sad-faced Father Christmas - a classic Finnish story translated to English
Leena was so happy! She did a somersault in the soft, white snow, and kept humming away to herself: “Tomorrow is Christmas, tomorrow is Christmas!”
Then she got onto her sleigh and launched herself down the hill. Just at the end of the sleigh run she caught sight of Sanna from the cotter’s cabin, trudging through the village with a bundle under her arm.
“Hi Sanna!” Leena yelled out when she was still a long way off. “Do you know what day it is tomorrow?”
“Course I do”, Sanna said.
Leena stopped her sleigh. “What do you think you will get for Christmas?”
“Me? For Christmas? I won’t get anything”, Sanna said.
“You won’t get any Christmas presents? Of course you will. Your parents will give you something for sure.”
“Where would they get presents from? We are lucky to have these grits for our Christmas porridge.”
Leena looked at Sanna, eyes wide with astonishment. She felt really bad. She thought for a moment, and said, “Listen, Sanna, you should write Father Christmas a letter. I write to him every Christmas. I tell him what I would really like to get for Christmas. Sometimes he brings me everything I ask for, sometimes only some of the things. Guess what I asked for this year? A wardrobe for my doll’s clothes, and a pram and bed for her, a book of fairy-tales, a real live cat and a doll that opens and shuts her eyes. We’ll have to wait and see what Father Christmas thinks of all that. Father said we should put our letters in the big hollow pine tree over by the gate in the corner. Father Christmas will pick them up as he goes past, he said.”
A hint of a smile appeared on Sanna’s lips.
“Do you think Father Christmas would take any notice of a letter from me?”
“Of course he would. You just have to put it in a hollow pine tree. Have you got a pine tree by your gate?”
“Not a pine, but there’s a rowan tree”.
“That will be just as good. But remember to write in time, so that Father Christmas can get your letter before Christmas Eve. See you later, I have to go home now to learn my Christmas poem.”
“’Bye”, Sanna shouted, and she too went off home, half walking, half running. She was so excited that there was a red glow in her cheeks. What if Father Christmas really did bring her something too?
In the evening twilight Leena sat beside the window in the children’s room and stared up towards the cabin, just visible behind the edge of the forest. She was a little bit worried. What if Father Christmas hadn’t found Sanna’s letter? Maybe you did have to post your letter in a pine tree, not a rowan. She sat there, thinking and thinking.
“I’m going to run up there and see”, she suddenly said to herself. And all at once there she was outside, walking quickly up the slope to the cabin. Sure enough, by the gate there was an old rotting rowan tree. Leena felt in its trunk with her fingers – and there it was, a scrap of white paper. So Father Christmas hadn’t found it. Leena opened it and read:
“dear Father Christmas sir, I am writing to you I am well and hope you are the same, please bring me a doll, one with a porcelain head and yellow hair, I don’t have a doll. And a book of fairy-tales yours sincerely Sanna Kuitunen.”
Leena held the letter in her hand, and thought hard. Then suddenly she had a wonderful idea: “I’ll take Sanna’s letter to Father Christmas myself.” Not pausing for a moment, she put the letter in her pocket and set off quickly walking along the forest path. She walked and walked, sometimes breaking into a run, but the forest got thicker and thicker. It was dark by now, and Leena thought she could see wolves’ eyes gleaming in the thicket around her. She was getting scared, and felt like turning around and going home. But then she thought of poor Sanna, who would assume that Father Christmas had go her letter, and she resolutely kept on walking. At last she came to a thick copse of tidy little fir trees growing all around. “These would be just right for Father Christmas”, Leena thought, and she guessed that she had reached the part of the forest where Father Christmas lived. A high snow-covered mountain rose up in front of her.
“That must be Christmas Mountain”, Leena thought, and she knocked timidly on a door that she discovered in the side of the mountain.
“Who’s there?” came a voice from inside the hill.
“It’s just me, Leena. I have a very important message for Father Christmas”, Leena said. She was very frightened, because without thinking what she was doing, she had come all this way to see Father Christmas. What if he was angry at her?
“Well come in, then”, said a stern voice – and who should open the door but Father Christmas himself, looking very severe.
“You must have come on a very important errand, if you have dared to interrupt my Christmas rush by visiting me here at my home, where no child ever comes”, Father Christmas said, looking searchingly at Leena.
“Dear Father Christmas”, Leena stammered, handing him Sanna’s letter, which had got badly crumpled in her pocket. “Here is a letter to you from Sanna from the cotter’s cabin. I had to bring it myself, because you didn’t find it.”
Father Christmas’s face grew a little less stern.
“Wait until I put my glasses on”, he said in a friendly tone.
While he was reading the letter, Leena looked around her. Father Christmas’s residence was a very strange place indeed. All along the stone there were shelves, all full of Christmas presents! There were dolls, fairy-tale and picture books, big and small, wooden horses, balls, trains, ships and doll’s clothes, Noah’s arks, cows, sheep, dogs and cats. I can’t list them all in detail, because there would be no end to this story, it would continue right through to next Christmas. Some of the presents already had names on them – Leena could read some of them: Antti, Marjatta, Heikki, Liisa, Olavi. And, what a surprise – over there was a yellow-haired doll with an address on its apron reading for Leena. And there was a book of fairy-tales by Topelius, which also had her name on it. Leena felt so happy that she wanted to laugh out loud. But she didn’t dare to, she just clapped her hands together and wondered in amazement at all the things she could see.
On the floor in the middle of the room was a huge pot, being stirred by a wrinkle-cheeked old Mother Christmas, with a white hat on her head, and wearing a white apron. Under the pot burned a bright fire, sparking and spluttering away. And the cover on the pot kept on lifting, and out jumped a doll, wooden horse, ball or some other toy. A team of little Christmas sprites was on hand to gather them into baskets. You could see the sweat on their faces as they bustled about, some packing the gifts into bundles, others labelling them with the names of the children they were for. One little elf had a varnishing brush in his hand, two or three cubits long, and was varnishing the bundles one by one. Leena watched all this open-mouthed. Then suddenly she heard Father Christmas give a deep sigh. She turned around, and saw him sitting with a forlorn look on his face.
“This letter isn’t actually to me, but to my brother, Sad-faced Father Christmas”, he said.
“What!”, Leena exclaimed in amazement, “are there two Father Christmases? And why does he have such a funny name?”
“Come and see for yourself”, Father Christmas replied: “If you like, I’ll take you to visit him”.
“Oh, yes”, Leena said.
Father Christmas put his boots on, wrapped Leena in his big fur coat, and in two strides they had reached the mountain opposite. He knocked on the rock wall, the door opened, and Father Christmas and Leena walked into a dark cave, dimly lit only by a small tallow candle. A stooped little old man stood up from within the cave and came towards them. But was this really a Father Christmas? This scrawny, grey-haired old hunchback? He didn’t have Father Christmas’s ruddy cheeks, or his cheery bright eyes or jaunty walk. Leena felt frightened as she looked at him. Father Christmas handed Sanna’s letter to his brother. He read it in silence, and sadly shook his head. “I haven’t got a yellow-haired doll or a book of fairy-tales”, he said.
Tears came to Leena’s eyes. She stood right in front of Sad-faced Father Christmas and said, with trembling lips: “Why don’t you have any presents? Why are you so cruel and hard-hearted? My Father Christmas has a whole room full of toys and books, but on your shelves there are only a few ramshackle toys. It’s not fair.”
Then Sad-faced Father Christmas, smiling oh so sadly, said bitterly: “You don’t know what you’re saying, child. You call me those things, but it is you people out there who are cruel and hard-hearted. For many, many years I have sat here in my lonely cave, waiting for someone to take pity and remember the poor folk’s children. But only rarely does some merciful soul come by with a toy or two. Yet that’s nowhere near enough, because there are thousands of poor children, and while the other children are gleefully opening their presents, they are going without.”
Sad-faced Father Christmas fell silent, but Leena turned to the other Father Christmas, with tears in her eyes: “Dear Father Christmas, you’ve got so many gifts to give away. Give half of them to Sad-faced Father Christmas!”
“I’d be glad to”, he answered in a serious tone, “if the children would voluntarily give them up, otherwise I can’t. It’s up to the people out there to make the decision, and we can’t change it, however much we might want to.”
Leena grasped Father Christmas’s hand, and whispered, blushing slightly in embarrassment: “In your cave I saw a beautiful yellow-haired doll and a book of fairy-tales by Topelius. Both had my name on them. Give them to Sanna! I’ve already got some dolls and books of fairy-tales.”
Then Father Christmas stroked Leena’s head, and Sad-faced Father Christmas looked kindly at her. Now Leena could see that he too was actually a nice little old man, and very similar to his brother, the other Father Christmas.
But Father Christmas exclaimed: “If that’s what you want, my girl, we’d better be going home. I’ll have to get straight back to work”.
Leena waved goodbye to Sad-faced Father Christmas: “When I get home”, she said, “I will tell the other children what I have seen and heard, and maybe next year the poor children will get more presents”.
“Thank you, my child”, said Sad-faced Father Christmas, patting her on the head. But now Father Christmas was already lifting her up out of the cave. And what a quick ride that was! Leena just had time to catch a glimpse of the little Christmas elves careering around on the backs of their billy-goats. They were already at work on their Christmas chores, sitting firmly on the backs of billy-goats decked in sleigh-bells, with bags stuffed full of Christmas presents on their back. They were in a merry mood, nodding their heads as they sang their own Christmas carols. Because Christmas is their favourite time of year too, when they can ride around from place to place, sampling the Christmas porridge in people’s houses, and playing harmless little tricks. And elves really like that, they are a merry crew.
Before Leena knew what was happening, she was back by the window in the children’s room at home. And the amazing thing was that her hands and feet were not cold at all, even though she had been out there in the ice and snow. But her eyes were dazzled by the bright light of the lamp, and she kept having to rub them all the time.
The next day, which was Christmas Eve, Leena got busy talking to all the other children on the sleigh run. And by evening there was a whole bunch of letters in the hole in the fir tree by the gate. They were addressed to Father Christmas, and all said the same thing: “Dear Father Christmas, please give half of my presents to Sad-faced Father Christmas”.
I don’t know, but I am pretty sure that no-one had ever seen Father Christmas as happy as he was that Christmas Eve. His cheeks were as bright and red as the apples on the Christmas tree, his eyes were lit up like candles, and he even found time to join the group of children around the tree. So little wonder that the children also had a wonderful time, even though a lot of their presents had ended up in Sad-faced Father Christmas’s sack. But there were still all sorts of gifts for Leena and her brothers and sisters. And Father Christmas also brought her a little basket with this message on it: “Many thanks and greetings to Leena, from Sad-faced Father Christmas”.
Curious to see what was inside, Leena opened it, and what do you think? Out jumped a little bright-eyed squirrel sprite! It leapt straight up onto the Christmas tree, and to the children’s delight started gnawing away at the nuts on the tree.
And in the cotter’s cabin there was such joy and merriment that words cannot describe it. Sanna didn’t know where to look, at her yellow-haired doll or the book of fairy-tales. And Sad-faced Father Christmas went jauntily from one cottage to the next with a heavy bag on his back, throwing little bundles in as he passed, to the children’s great delight.
He had never had such a wonderful Christmas Eve!
By Anni Swan, from Satuja [Fairy-tales], 1933