I step carefully onto the hearth rug, breathing in the pungent smell of wood smoke. The room is dark until I snap my fingers and the candles on the Christmas tree and the mantelpiece flare into life. As I swing the sack off my back, I cast a look over the tree. It’s a good one, decorated with love. You can always tell the difference between those and the ones that have just been tossed together for the sake of tradition.
The stockings hang from the mantelpiece, one at each end, toes pointing inward, and I can’t help smiling. An impatient stamping comes from the roof above. No time to lose. I push an orange into the toe of each stocking and add a generous handful of nuts. A few toffees go on top, some liquorice allsorts, and an apple. Lastly, I put a wooden train and Treasure Island into the top of the one on the left and a doll and What Katy Did into the one on the right, arranging them so that they poke tantalisingly out of the tops.
And that’s me about done here. I pick up a Christmas card – rather untidily painted, obviously by a child’s hand – and glance inside it, reading the careful, sloping words: To dear Madge and Dick, Merry Christmas, love from Jennie.
I put the card down and push a piece of holly back into place. This is why I love my job so much.
And as I settle myself on the sleigh and pick up the reins, I let my feelings get the better of me for a moment, loosing them in a great shout of laughter.
I’m already jumping off the sleigh as the reindeer skid to a halt. I grab the sack from behind me, plunge down the chimney and a moment later I’m brushing the soot off my knees. I don’t have much time to look around here. A shame, but there it is. There was a slight incident over Reykjavik involving a couple of dogs and a flock of seagulls. No-one was hurt, although I suspect there are a few shell-shocked cats wandering about. Still, I don’t have any time to waste.
I stride across to where the three stockings are hanging in a row; then I freeze. There are voices coming from just outside the door. Lowering my hand, I step back silently into the shadows, listening.
“Hilda Annersley! What do you think you are doing?”
“I just remembered – I should have put the glass snowflake on the tree.”
It’s a young girl’s voice, but it’s not filled with the usual excitement and anticipation of Christmas Eve. She speaks urgently, almost desperately. And when the young man answers her, his voice is sad.
“You can do it in the morning, Hilda. Come on, you should get back to bed. You’re cold.”
“But Mother always used to –” Her voice tails off.
“I know. She won’t mind, though, if you leave it.”
By the time I’ve filled the stockings until they bulge, the voices have faded away behind closed doors. I step out into the hall. Everything’s quiet again; all I can hear is their breathing. Even the young girl is almost asleep, and in her half-dreams I can feel her sadness.
Well, lots more stockings to fill. It’s time for me to leave. As I turn away I smile and flick my wrist. At least she’ll have good dreams for one night.
Here’s an interesting house. Last time I was here one of the Christmas tree branches was broken, as though someone had fallen over onto it, and at least half of the decorations had obviously been made by a child – the child whose stocking hung from the mantelpiece, felt letters straggling across it: G – R – I – Z – E – L. The rug was slightly worn and the teddy that lay close to the fireplace had an eye missing.
I haven’t visited this house for five years, yet I’m leaving presents for the same child. But I’ve no time to wonder about the complications of these people’s lives as I drop my sack on the floor and open it up. Still, I can’t help noticing that the house has changed quite a bit. The rug has gone and the carpet is new. The walls have been repapered too, so that the whole room matches. And the tree is very straight and tall, decorated so that it complements the colours of the room, every ribbon and bauble carefully placed. No child’s handiwork here!
I finish filling the medium-sized, recently-purchased stocking and hoist my sack back onto my back, turning to the fireplace, where the usual cards stand. Dear Grizel, I read, We wish you a happy Christmas, and best wishes for the year ahead. With love, Madge, Dick, Joey.
Time to move on.
I’ve just landed on the roof of a big house and as I descend it’s fairly obvious that Mother and Father haven’t long gone to bed. There’s a delicious smell of wood smoke and the hearth is warm. Owing to such heavy snowfall in Scotland that I can just slide from rooftop to rooftop in the sleigh, I’m making excellent time this year. I stand for a moment, then step onto the rug – and a moment later something large and heavy hurtles into my stomach.
I bang my head rather hard on the floor. When I’m able to focus again, I find that in fact it wasn’t one large object, but two smallish ones. Small girls, to be precise. The bigger of the two is sitting on my chest, her hand leaning heavily, though apparently carelessly, on my throat.
“Quick, Amy!” she hisses, and I hear the other one making rustling and knocking noises. “If you don’t hurry up he’ll get away!”
The little one rushes over carrying a coil of rope. I decide that although I’m a little ahead of schedule at the moment, I don’t have time for this sort of game. I get up, gently dislodging the small girl from my chest; she rolls off with a slight shriek.
“He’s getting away!” she cries.
“Don’t you know who I am?” I say. Occasionally someone does come across me, but they don’t, as a rule, treat me as a burglar.
“You’re a nimposter,” says Amy, narrowing her eyes at me. “Isn’t he, Margia?”
“Yes. Father says that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, so we knew if you came you wouldn’t actually be Santa Claus.” Margia glares at me accusingly and I smile back.
“Watch me,” I say and as they do, with open mouths and wide eyes, I open my sack and fill the stockings. Then I step back onto the hearth. Just before I vanish up the chimney, I turn back to them.
“Merry Christmas!” I say, and give them a wink. A moment later the sleigh swoops past the window and there they are, mouths still hanging open, waving violently as we disappear into the night.
There aren’t many people who’ve wandered the world as far and as long as I have. One child who truly believes in me can bring me to the deepest wilderness, and there is nowhere I can’t go or won’t go. But there are still some places that, to me, are the most special on Earth. And here I am, in one of them.
The roofs are white in the light of the moon. The lamp-lights glow, and the surrounding mountains rise, no metaphor sufficient to convey their still majesty. I’ve nearly finished here. The house I’m in at the moment is another of the tall, narrow buildings that look over the river; no chimneys, but that won’t stop me!
I’ve just set down my sack quietly in a room on the third floor; a typical Tyrolean room with polished wood floor and little furniture. I’m careful to tread on the mats so that my boots don’t make a noise and wake the sleepers. There are three of them – a young woman and a child in the big wooden bed, who are obviously sisters, and a little girl in the cot.
It doesn’t take me long to leave my gifts. I swing my sack onto my back and as I glance once more towards the cot, I see that the child’s eyes are open. She’s watching me, a tiny frown on her face. I start to back out of the room, once again careful to make no sound, and I put a finger to my lips. The little girl smiles sleepily and she covers her own lips with her finger as her eyes drift shut.
I can hear their breath; feel their dreams in my bones. I stand by the door for a moment, listening, soaking in the living feeling that comes from a full house. Even the pale girl lying in the tall white bed in the centre of the room is sleeping soundly, though she mutters and sighs occasionally. There’s an invalid couch by the window, and I wonder how long she’s been ill; she wasn’t here last year.
The reason I’m in this particular room, of course, is the stockings pinned in a long row to the top shelf of the bookcase, each one carefully labelled: David, Rix, Stacie, Robin, Peggy, Joey. The fair girl in the bed doesn’t stir as I pack the stockings with sweets and nuts. David gets a brown bear and Rix a toy train; I settle a curly-haired doll in the top of Peggy’s, a jigsaw in Robin’s and a book each into Stacie’s and Joey’s.
I’m just about to leave when I hear a tiny sound outside the door. I haven’t time to get out of the room without them seeing me, so I grab my sack and stand behind the door as it opens slightly. A small face peers through the crack.
“Well?” I hear a child’s whisper.
“He’s been, Peggy!” says the small boy. “Look, the stockings are all full. Let’s open one – just one – shall we?”
“No!” says Peggy, sounding horrified. “Uncle Jem said we weren’t to wake Stacie until seven o’clock. Come on Rix. We’ve seen and we’ll just have to wait now.”
The face vanishes suddenly, as though wrenched backwards, and the door closes with a gentle click. Chuckling to myself, I go on my way.
As I whirl through the Channel Islands, I find myself skidding to a halt on the roof of a small villa. Well, when I say small, I’m comparing with the houses around. At any rate, it has an excellent chimney, down which I jump, sack in hand.
As I emerge I sneeze blackly into the reindeer-bordered handkerchief Rudolph gave me last Christmas.
“Sorry, the chimney does rather need cleaning. I’ll get it done after Christmas” observes the young woman sitting in a big, comfortable-looking rocking chair in the corner of the room. I jump backwards in shock, banging my head against the wall. The woman goes on. “Would you mind brushing the soot off into the fireplace? I spent ages cleaning the hearth and carpet this afternoon.”
“Er – not at all,” I say, beginning to feel slightly wrong-footed. I peer at the young woman, who seems oddly familiar. Of course – that year in Innsbruck when the little girl spotted me. She was sleeping in the same room as this one. She smiles at me, and pauses briefly in her work to wave a friendly hand at my sack.
“Do carry on with whatever it is you have to do. And help yourself to sherry if you fancy it.”
“Thanks,” I say and pour myself a little. I fish in my sack for the presents to fill the three little stockings that are lying, flat and empty, under the tree, and wonder what to do. Last time someone spotted me – except the odd child, and they’re never sure whether it really happened or not – it was Emmeline Pankhurst, who gave me a half-hour lecture on women’s rights and only let me leave when I agreed to deliver a handful of pamphlets to Mrs. Claus.
I decide I ought at least to attempt some conversation.
“You’re up late,” I say, and the woman grins.
“I was determined to have a hat, scarf and mittens set for each of the girls for Christmas. Not that they’ll remember, but I’d like to give them something nice for their first one. I’m just finishing off Margot’s hat.”
She waves the half-finished item at me, and I stand up, hoisting the sack back onto my back.
“It’s nice. Well, I must be going. Lots to do.”
“I should think so,” she laughs. “My night will be nothing compared with yours.”
She smiles and waves as I depart up the chimney.
A big rectory in Yorkshire, with a huge, snowy garden. As I prepare to descend I feel a sudden pressure on my back and look round to find that a large white cat has settled itself there, curling itself around my shoulders. How it got onto the roof, I can’t imagine, but it doesn’t seem in the least bothered by the brief but uncomfortable journey down the chimney.
I’m in a wide, high-ceilinged room which hasn’t changed since I first began coming here a good few years ago, and looks as though it hasn’t been altered much in the last fifty years. Sometimes I find it odd, seeing so little of these people’s lives, guessing their ways from a few of their possessions.
I step onto the neat, circular rug and glance at the tree. It stands in the corner, tall and slender, beautifully covered with the sort of decorations that I rarely see these days. Tinsel, baubles and ornaments have been carefully preserved and I’m sure they’re all in exactly the same places on the tree that they’ve occupied every year.
I look at the stocking, which is pinned by the corner an inch in from the edge of the mantelpiece, and begin to fill it. I’m sure this child can’t be more than nine, and yet she’s stitched the stocking as beautifully as a really experienced needlewoman would. Her name, Verity-Anne, is picked out in gold thread entwined with red and I wonder how long it took her.
I’m even more taken aback when I reach the top of the stocking (I always like doing the bits that stick out tantalisingly). I fumble in my pocket for a moment, and bring out a piece of notepaper covered with small, tidy handwriting. No, it’s down there in black ink... I should very much like a new pair of scissors for my sewing kit, and a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which I understand is a most enjoyable book.... Oh, well. I shrug and arrange them in the top of the stocking.
As I ascend to the roof, the white cat settles itself on the round rug and watches me leave with green, unwinking eyes.
The advantage of these little houses all in a row is that you don’t have to take off and land every time you move on. I mean, we’ve more or less got that taped now – just enough lift to become airborne, then slam the brakes on (well, you know what I mean) and glide down to the next roof. There’s only a problem if you don’t get high enough off the ground – poor old Rudolph’s bruised his nose a couple of times – or if you end up too high and have to circle back down to the roof. But not having to do it always saves time, which I can do with after one of the runners fell off over the Taj Mahal.
I visit quite a number of houses along here. In one I fill a pillowcase in a small bedroom filled with cards addressed to Kath or Kathleen. A few doors down I find myself in a small but lavishly decorated living room which contains two large stockings labelled by Joan and her sister. I avoid the mistletoe as I return to the fireplace. Since the incident with Greta Garbo I always try to be careful. This is the one night in the year when I can’t afford to waste time.
My last call in this street takes me to another little living room, this one scrupulously neat and tidy, though the decorations have obviously been around for a good few years and the golden haired angel on top of the tree is in need of a new nose. There used to be a whole row of stockings here, but just one remains. Rosamund. I fill her stocking and wish her a silent merry Christmas as I depart for another year.
Thousands of stockings filled; thousands of happy children. And for me, thousands more memories. The house in Kenya, which they’ve tried to make as English looking as possible for Christmas, with just one child. The young girl whose stocking is packed to the brim with toy tools and books about cars. A delightfully traditional room, with three matching stockings hung from the mantelpiece, Win in the middle and Audrey and Celia on either side. The untidy little house in France which is filled with pictures and a sparkling tree in the corner of the living room, a pair of shoes set by the door and a few Christmas cards with Charles and Adrienne’s names in them. The big house on a sparsely populated mountainside, where a wide array of stockings hangs in a long line and a huge tree stands, obviously decorated by many enthusiastic hands.
It’s all over for another year now, and the reindeer, the elves and I can all relax for a few days. Not too long, though, or we won’t be ready for next year! But for now, I sit back in my big chair, put my feet up in front of the roaring fire and sip my glass of sherry. Outside a few flakes of snow are drifting down, adding to the carpet of white that spreads as far as I can see. And all across the world are children feeling a special sort of joy.