Old Father Christmas
by J.H. Ewing
"The custom of Christmas-trees came
from Germany. I can remember when they were first introduced
into England, and what wonderful things we thought them. Now,
every village school has its tree, and the scholars openly
discuss whether the presents have been 'good,' or 'mean,' as
compared with other trees in former years. The first one that
I ever saw I believed to have come from Good Father Christmas
himself; but little boys have grown too wise now to be taken
in for their own amusement. They are not excited by secret
and mysterious preparations in the back drawing-room; they
hardly confess to the thrill--which I feel to this day--when
the folding doors are thrown open, and amid the blaze of tapers,
mamma, like a Fate, advances with her scissors to give every
one what falls to his lot.
"Well, young people, when I was eight
years old I had not seen a Christmas-tree, and the first picture
of one I ever saw was the picture of that held by Old Father
Christmas in my godmother's picture-book.
'"What are those things on the tree?'
"'Candles,' said my father.
"'No, father, not the candles; the
"'Those are toys, my son.'
"'Are they ever taken off?'
"'Yes, they are taken off, and given
to the children who stand around the tree.'
"Patty and I grasped each other by
the hand, and with one voice murmured; 'How kind of Old Father
"By and by I asked, 'How old is Father
"My father laughed, and said, 'One
thousand eight hundred and thirty years, child,' which was
then the year of our Lord, and thus one thousand eight hundred
and thirty years since the first great Christmas Day.
"'He LOOKS very old,' whispered Patty.
"And I, who was, for my age, what Kitty
called 'Bible-learned,' said thoughtfully, and with some puzzledness
of mind, 'Then he's older than Methuselah.'
"But my father had left the room, and
did not hear my difficulty.
"November and December went by, and
still the picture-book kept all its charm for Patty and me;
and we pondered on and loved Old Father Christmas as children
can love and realize a fancy friend. To those who remember
the fancies of their childhood I need say no more.
"Christmas week came, Christmas Eve
came. My father and mother were mysteriously and unaccountably
busy in the parlour (we had only one parlour), and Patty and
I were not allowed to go in. We went into the kitchen, but
even here was no place of rest for as. Kitty was 'all over
the place,' as she phrased it, and cakes, mince pies, and puddings
were with her. As she justly observed, 'There was no place
there for children and books to sit with their toes in the
fire, when a body wanted to be at the oven all along. The cat
was enough for HER temper,' she added.
"As to puss, who obstinately refused
to take a hint which drove her out into the Christmas frost,
she returned again and again with soft steps, and a stupidity
that was, I think, affected, to the warm hearth, only to fly
at intervals, like a football, before Kitty's hasty slipper.
"We had more sense, or less courage.
We bowed to Kitty's behests, and went to the back door.
"Patty and I were hardy children, and
accustomed to 'run out' in all weathers, without much extra
wrapping up. We put Kitty's shawl over our two heads, and went
outside. I rather hoped to see something of Dick, for it was
holiday time; but no Dick passed. He was busy helping his father
to bore holes in the carved seats of the church, which were
to hold sprigs of holly for the morrow--that was the idea of
church decoration in my young days. You have improved on your
elders there, young people, and I am candid enough to allow
it. Still, the sprigs of red and green were better than nothing,
and, like your lovely wreaths and pious devices, they made
one feel as if the old black wood were bursting into life and
leaf again for very Christmas joy; and, if only one knelt carefully,
they did not scratch his nose.
"Well, Dick was busy, and not to be
seen. We ran across the little yard and looked over the wall
at the end to see if we could see anything or anybody. From
this point there was a pleasant meadow field sloping prettily
away to a little hill about three quarters of a mile distant;
which, catching some fine breezes from the moors beyond, was
held to be a place of cure for whooping-cough, or kincough,
as it was vulgarly called. Up to the top of this Kitty had
dragged me, and carried Patty, when we were recovering from
the complaint, as I well remember. It was the only 'change
of air' we could afford, and I dare say it did as well as if
we had gone into badly drained lodgings at the seaside.
"This hill was now covered with snow
and stood off against the gray sky. The white fields looked
vast and dreary in the dusk. The only gay things to be seen
were the berries on the holly hedge, in the little lane--which,
running by the end of our back-yard, led up to the Hall--and
the fat robin, that was staring at me. I was looking at the
robin, when Patty, who had been peering out of her corner of
Kitty's shawl, gave a great jump that dragged the shawl from
our heads, and cried:
"I looked. An old man was coming along
the lane. His hair and beard were as white as cotton-wool.
He had a face like the sort of apple that keeps well in winter;
his coat was old and brown. There was snow about him in patches,
and he carried a small fir-tree.
"The same conviction seized upon us
both. With one breath, we exclaimed, 'IT'S OLD FATHER CHRISTMAS!'
"I know now that it was only an old
man of the place, with whom we did not happen to be acquainted
and that he was taking a little fir-tree up to the Hall, to
be made into a Christmas-tree. He was a very good-humoured
old fellow, and rather deaf, for which he made up by smiling
and nodding his head a good deal, and saying, 'aye, aye, to
be sure!' at likely intervals.
"As he passed us and met our earnest
gaze, he smiled and nodded so earnestly that I was bold enough
to cry, 'Good-evening, Father Christmas!'
"'Same to you!' said he, in a high-pitched
"'Then you ARE Father Christmas?' said
"'And a happy New Year,' was Father
Christmas's reply, which rather put me out. But he smiled in
such a satisfactory manner that Patty went on, 'You're very
old, aren't you?'
"'So I be, miss, so I be,' said Father
"'Father says you're eighteen hundred
and thirty years old,' I muttered.
"'Aye, aye, to be sure,' said Father
Christmas. 'I'm a long age.'
"A VERY long age, thought I, and I
added, 'You're nearly twice as old as Methuselah, you know,'
thinking that this might have struck him.
"'Aye, aye,' said Father Christmas;
but he did not seem to think anything of it. After a pause
he held up the tree, and cried, 'D'ye know what this is, little
"'A Christmas-tree,' said Patty.
"And the old man smiled and nodded.
"I leant over the wall, and shouted,
'But there are no candles.'
"'By and by,' said Father Christmas,
nodding as before. 'When it's dark they'll all be lighted up.
That'll be a fine sight!'
'"Toys, too,there'll be, won't there?'
"Father Christmas nodded his head.
'And sweeties,' he added, expressively.
"I could feel Patty trembling, and
my own heart beat fast. The thought which agitated us both
was this: 'Was Father Christmas bringing the tree to us?' But
very anxiety, and some modesty also, kept us from asking outright.
"Only when the old man shouldered his
tree, and prepared to move on, I cried in despair, 'Oh, are
"'I'm coming back by and by,' said
"'How soon?' cried Patty.
"'About four o'clock,' said the old
man smiling. 'I'm only going up yonder.'
"'Up yonder!' This puzzled us. Father
Christmas had pointed, but so indefinitely that he might have
been pointing to the sky, or the fields, or the little wood
at the end of the Squire's grounds. I thought the latter, and
suggested to Patty that perhaps he had some place underground
like Aladdin's cave, where he got the candles, and all the
pretty things for the tree. This idea pleased us both, and
we amused ourselves by wondering what Old Father Christmas
would choose for us from his stores in that wonderful hole
where he dressed his Christmas-trees.
"'I wonder, Patty,' said I, 'why there's
no picture of Father Christmas's dog in the book.' For at the
old man's heels in the lane there crept a little brown and
white spaniel looking very dirty in the snow.
"'Perhaps it's a new dog that he's
got to take care of his cave,' said Patty.
"When we went indoors we examined the
picture afresh by the dim light from the passage window, but
there was no dog there.
"My father passed us at this moment,
and patted my head. 'Father,' said I, 'I don't know, but I
do think Old Father Christmas is going to bring us a Christmas-tree
"'Who's been telling you that?' said
But he passed on before I could explain that we had seen Father Christmas himself, and had had his word for it that he would return at four o'clock, and that the candles on his tree would be lighted as soon as it was dark.
"We hovered on the outskirts of the
rooms till four o'clock came. We sat on the stairs and watched
the big clock, which I was just learning to read; and Patty
made herself giddy with constantly looking up and counting
the four strokes, toward which the hour hand slowly moved.
We put our noses into the kitchen now and then, to smell the
cakes and get warm, and anon we hung about the parlour door,
and were most unjustly accused of trying to peep. What did
we care what our mother was doing in the parlour?--we, who
had seen Old Father Christmas himself, and were expecting him
back again every moment!
"At last the church clock struck. The
sounds boomed heavily through the frost, and Patty thought
there were four of them. Then, after due choking and whirring,
our own clock struck, and we counted the strokes quite clearly--one!
two! three! four! Then we got Kitty's shawl once more, and
stole out into the backyard. We ran to our old place, and peeped,
but could see nothing.
"'We'd better get up on to the wall,'
I said; and with some difficulty and distress from rubbing
her bare knees against the cold stone, and getting the snow
up her sleeves, Patty got on to the coping of the little wall.
I was just struggling after her, when something warm and something
cold coming suddenly against the bare calves of my legs made
me shriek with fright. I came down 'with a run' and bruised
my knees, my elbows, and my chin; and the snow that hadn't
gone up Patty's sleeves went down my neck. Then I found that
the cold thing was a dog's nose and the warm thing was his
tongue; and Patty cried from her post of observation, 'It's
Father Christmas's dog and he's licking your legs.'
"It really was the dirty little brown
and white spaniel, and he persisted in licking me, and jumping
on me, and making curious little noises, that must have meant
something if one had known his language. I was rather harassed
at the moment. My legs were sore, I was a little afraid of
the dog, and Patty was very much afraid of sitting on the wall
'"You won't fall,' I said to her. 'Get
down, will you?' I said to the dog.
"'Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall,' said
"'Bow! wow!' said the dog.
"I pulled Patty down, and the dog tried
to pull me down; but when my little sister was on her feet,
to my relief, he transferred his attentions to her. When he
had jumped at her, and licked her several times, he turned
around and ran away.
"'He's gone,' said I; 'I'm so glad.'
"But even as I spoke he was back again,
crouching at Patty's feet, and glaring at her with eyes the
colour of his ears.
"Now, Patty was very fond of animals,
and when the dog looked at her she looked at the dog, and then
she said to me, 'He wants us to go with him.'
"On which (as if he understood our
language, though we were ignorant of his) the spaniel sprang
away, and went off as hard as he could; and Patty and I went
after him, a dim hope crossing my mind--'Perhaps Father Christmas
has sent him for us.'
"The idea was rather favoured by the
fact he led us up the lane. Only a little way; then he stopped
by something lying in the ditch--and once more we cried in
the same breath, 'It's Old Father Christmas!'
"Returning from the Hall, the old man
had slipped upon a bit of ice, and lay stunned in the snow.
"Patty began to cry. 'I think he's
dead!' she sobbed.
"'He is so very old, I don't wonder,'
I murmured; 'but perhaps he's not. I'll fetch father.'
"My father and Kitty were soon on the
spot. Kitty was as strong as a man; and they carried Father
Christmas between them into the kitchen. There he quickly revived.
"I must do Kitty the justice to say
that she did not utter a word of complaint at the disturbance
of her labours; and that she drew the old man's chair close
up to the oven with her own hand. She was so much affected
by the behaviour of his dog that she admitted him even to the
hearth; on which puss, being acute enough to see how matters
stood, lay down with her back so close to the spaniel's that
Kitty could not expel one without kicking both.
"For our parts, we felt sadly anxious
about the tree; otherwise we could have wished for no better
treat than to sit at Kitty's round table taking tea with Father
Christmas. Our usual fare of thick bread and treacle was to-night
exchanged for a delicious variety of cakes, which were none
the worse to us for being 'tasters and wasters'--that is, little
bits of dough, or shortbread, put in to try the state of the
oven, and certain cakes that had got broken or burnt in the
"Well, there we sat, helping Old Father
Christmas to tea and cake, and wondering in our hearts what
could have become of the tree.
"Patty and I felt a delicacy in asking
Old Father Christmas about the tree. It was not until we had
had tea three times round, with tasters and wasters to match,
that Patty said very gently: 'It's quite dark now.' And then
she heaved a deep sigh.
"Burning anxiety overcame me. I leaned toward Father Christmas, and shouted--I had found out that it was needful to shout--"'I
suppose the candles are on the tree now?'
"'Just about putting of 'em on,' said
"'And the presents, too?' said Patty.
"'Aye, aye, TO be sure,' said Father
Christmas, and he smiled delightfully.
"I was thinking what further questions
I might venture upon, when he pushed his cup toward Patty saying,
'Since you are so pressing, miss, I'll take another dish.'
"And Kitty, swooping on us from the
oven, cried, 'Make yourself at home, sir; there's more where
these came from. Make a long arm, Miss Patty, and hand them
"So we had to devote ourselves to the
duties of the table; and Patty, holding the lid with one hand
and pouring with the other, supplied Father Christmas's wants
with a heavy heart.
"At last he was satisfied. I said grace,
during which he stood, and, indeed, he stood for some time
afterward with his eyes shut--I fancy under the impression
that I was still speaking. He had just said a fervent 'amen,'
and reseated himself, when my father put his head into the
kitchen, and made this remarkable statement:
"'Old Father Christmas has sent a tree
to the young people.'
"Patty and I uttered a cry of delight,
and we forthwith danced round the old man, saying, 'How nice;
Oh, how kind of you!' which I think must have bewildered him,
but he only smiled and nodded.
"'Come along,' said my father. 'Come,
children. Come, Reuben. Come, Kitty.'
"And he went into the parlour, and
we all followed him.
"My godmother's picture of a Christmas-tree
was very pretty; and the flames of the candles were so naturally
done in red and yellow that I always wondered that they did
not shine at night. But the picture was nothing to the reality.
We had been sitting almost in the dark, for, as Kitty said,
'Firelight was quite enough to burn at meal-times.' And when
the parlour door was thrown open, and the tree, with lighted
tapers on all the branches, burst upon our view, the blaze
was dazzling, and threw such a glory round the little gifts,
and the bags of coloured muslin, with acid drops and pink rose
drops and comfits inside, as I shall never forget. We all got
something; and Patty and I, at any rate, believed that the
things came from the stores of Old Father Christmas. We were
not undeceived even by his gratefully accepting a bundle of
old clothes which had been hastily put together to form his
"We were all very happy; even Kitty,
I think, though she kept her sleeves rolled up, and seemed
rather to grudge enjoying herself (a weak point in some energetic
characters). She went back to her oven before the lights were
out and the angel on the top of the tree taken down. She locked
up her present (a little work-box) at once. She often showed
it off afterward, but it was kept in the same bit of tissue
paper till she died. Our presents certainly did not last so
"The old man died about a week afterward,
so we never made his acquaintance as a common personage. When
he was buried, his little dog came to us. I suppose he remembered
the hospitality he had received. Patty adopted him, and he
was very faithful. Puss always looked on him with favour. I
hoped during our rambles together in the following summer that
he would lead us at last to the cave where Christmas-trees
are dressed. But he never did.
"Our parents often spoke of his late
master as 'old Reuben,' but children are not easily disabused
of a favourite fancy, and in Patty's thoughts and in mine the
old man was long gratefully remembered as Old Father Christmas."