A.A. Milne is best known today as the creator of Winnie the Poo and all of his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods. But before he became known as a children’s author, Milne was a humorist. In this story, the narrator blames a streak of extravagant gift-buying on a wooden Santa. Who do you really think is to “blame”?
Father Christmas – A. A. Milne
Outside in the street the rain fell pitilessly, but inside the Children’s Shop all was warmth and brightness. Happy young people of all ages pressed along, and I had no sooner opened the door than I was received into the eager stream of shoppers and hurried away to Fairyland. A slight block at one corner pitched me into an old, white-bearded gentleman who was standing next to me. Instantly my hat was in my hand.
“I beg your pardon,” I said with a bow. “I was–Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were real.” I straightened him up, looked at his price, and wondered whether I should buy him.
“What do you mean by real?” he said.
I started violently and took my hat off again.
“I am very stupid this morning,” I began. “The fact is I mistook you for a toy. A foolish error.”
“I AM a toy.”
“In that case,” I said in some annoyance, “I can’t stay here arguing with you. Good-morning.” And I took my hat off for the third time.
“Don’t go. Stop and buy me. You’ll never get what you want if you don’t take me with you. I’ve been in this place for years, and I know exactly where everything is. Besides, as I shall have to give away all your presents for you, it’s only fair that–“
An attendant came up and looked at me inquiringly.
“How much is this THING?” I said, and jerked a thumb at it.
“The Father Christmas?”
“Yes. I think I’ll have it. I’ll take it with me–you needn’t wrap it up.”
I handed over some money and we pushed on together.
“You heard what I called you?” I said to him. “A thing. So don’t go putting yourself forward.”
He gazed up innocently from under my arm.
“What shall we get first?” he asked.
“I want the engine-room. The locomotive in the home. The boy’s own railroad track.”
“That’s downstairs. But did you really think of an engine? I mean, isn’t it rather large and heavy? Why not get a–“
I smacked his head, and we went downstairs.
It was a delightful room. I was introduced to practically the whole of the Great Western Railway’s rolling stock.*
“Engine, three carriages and a guard’s van. That’s right. Then I shall want some rails, of course…. SHUT up, will you?” I said angrily, when the attendant was out of hearing.
“It’s the extra weight,” he sighed. “The reindeer don’t like it. And these modern chimneys–you’ve no idea what a squeeze it is. However–“
“Those are very jolly,” I said when I had examined the rails. “I shall want about a mile of them. Threepence ha’penny a foot? Then I shan’t want nearly a mile.”
I got about thirty feet, and then turned to switches and signals and lamps and things. I bought a lot of those. You never know what emergency might not arise on the nursery floor, and if anything happened for want of a switch or two I should never forgive myself.
Just as we were going away I caught sight of the jolliest little clockwork torpedo boat. I stopped irresolute.
“Don’t be silly,” said the voice under my arm. “You’ll never be asked to the house again if you give that.”
“Wait till the children have fallen into the bath once or twice with all their clothes on, and then ask the mother why not.”
“I see,” I said stiffly, and we went upstairs.
“The next thing we want is bricks.”
“Bricks,” said Father Christmas uneasily. “Bricks. Yes, there’s bricks. Have you ever thought of one of those nice little woolly rabbits–“
“Where do we get bricks?”
“Bricks. You know, I don’t think mothers are as fond as all that of BRICKS.”
“I got the mother’s present yesterday, thanks very much. This is for one of the children.”
They showed me bricks and they showed me pictures of what the bricks would build. Palaces, simply palaces. Gone was the Balbus-wall of our youth; gone was the fort with its arrow-holes for the archers. Nothing now but temples and Moorish palaces.
“Jove, I should love that,” I said.” I mean HE would love that. Do you want much land for a house of that size? I know of a site on the nursery floor, but–well, of course, we could always have an iron building outside in the passage for the billiard table.”
We paid and moved off again.
“What are you mumbling about now?” I asked.
“I said you’ll only make the boy discontented with his present home if you teach him to build nothing but castles and ruined abbeys and things. And you WILL run to bulk. Half of those bricks would have made a very nice present for anybody.”
“Yes, and when royalty comes on a visit, where would you put them? They’d have to pig it in the box-room. If we’re going to have a palace, let’s have a good one.”
“Very well. What do your children hang up? Stockings or pillow-cases?”
We went downstairs again.
“Having provided for the engineer and the architect,” I said, “we now have to consider the gentleman in the dairy business. I want a milk-cart.”**
“You want a milk-cart! You want a milk-cart! You want a – Why not have a brewer’s dray? Why not have something really heavy? The reindeer wouldn’t mind. They’ve been out every day this week, but they’d love it. What about a nice skating-rink? What about – “
I put him head downwards in my pocket and approached an official.
“Do you keep milk-carts?” I said diffidently.
He screwed up his face and thought.
“I could get you one,” he said.
“I don’t want you to build one specially for me. If they aren’t made, I expect it’s because mothers don’t like them. It was just an idea of mine.”
“Oh yes, they’re made. I can show a picture of one in our catalogue.”
He showed it to me. It was about the size of a perambulator, and contained every kind of can. I simply had to let Father Christmas see.
“Look at that!” I exclaimed in delight.
“Good lord!” he said, and dived into the pocket again.
I held him there tightly and finished my business with the official.
Father Christmas has never spoken since. Sometimes I wonder if he ever spoke at all, for one imagines strange things in the Children’s Shop. He stands now on my writing-table, and observes me with the friendly smile which has been so fixed a feature of his since I brought him home.
* The Great Western Railroad is in Great Britain – remember, Milne was English. “Rolling stock” means literally, anything that rolls on the track, usually cars, but also locomotives. The narrator is buying an abundance of toy trains, ostensibly to give “Father Christmas” a hard time. And remember, when Milne wrote this, toy trains were huge, as large as garden trains (like LGB) are today.
** A milk-cart is a delivery vehicle for moving large milk cans. They may be pushed or drawn by a goat, donkey, or horse. Toy milk-carts were also made during the time this article was written, so that might have been what Milne meant, but whatever it was, it was the size of a “perambulator,” one of those big old baby carriages you see in Victorian times.