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An essay by A. A. Milne

A Doubtful Character

Title:     A Doubtful Character
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

I find it difficult to believe in Father Christmas. If he is the jolly old gentleman he is always said to be, why doesn't he behave as such? How is it that the presents go so often to the wrong people?

This is no personal complaint; I speak for the world. The rich people get the rich presents, and the poor people get the poor ones. That may not be the fault of Father Christmas; he may be under contract for a billion years to deliver all presents just as they are addressed; but how can he go on smiling? He must long to alter all that. There is Miss Priscilla A---- who gets five guineas worth of the best every year from Mr. Cyril B---- who hopes to be her heir. Mustn't that make Father Christmas mad? Yet he goes down the chimney with it just the same. When his contract is over, and he has a free hand, he'll arrange something about THAT, I'm sure. If he is the jolly old gentleman of the pictures his sense of humour must trouble him. He must be itching to have jokes with the parcels. "Only just this once," he would plead. "Let me give Mrs. Brown the safety-razor, and Mr. Brown the night-dress case; I swear I won't touch any of the others." Of course that wouldn't be a very subtle joke; but jolly old gentlemen with white beards aren't very subtle in their humour. They lean to the broader effects--the practical joke and the pun. I can imagine Father Christmas making his annual pun on the word "reindeer," and the eldest reindeer making a feeble attempt to smile. The younger ones wouldn't so much as try. Yet he would make it so gaily that you would love him even if you couldn't laugh.

Coming down chimneys is dangerous work for white beards, and if I believed in him I should ask myself how he manages to keep so clean. I suppose his sense of humour suggested the chimney to him in the first place, and for a year or two it was the greatest joke in the world. But now he must wish sometimes that he came in by the door or the window. Some chimneys are very dirty for white beards.

Have you noticed that children, who hang up their stockings, always get lots of presents, and that we grown-ups, who don't hang up our stockings, never get any? This makes me think that perhaps after all Father Christmas has some say in the distribution. When he sees an empty stocking he pops in a few things on his own account--with "from Aunt Emma" pinned on to them. Then you write to Aunt Emma to thank her for her delightful present, and she is so ashamed of herself for not having sent you one that she never lets on about it. But when Father Christmas doesn't see a stocking, he just leaves you the embroidered tobacco pouch from your sister and the postal order from your rich uncle, and is glad to get out of the house.

Of his attitude towards Christmas cards I cannot speak with certainty, but I fancy that he does not bring these down the chimney too; the truth being, probably, that it is he who composes the mottoes on them, and that with the customary modesty of the author he leaves the distribution of them to others. "The old, old wish--a merry Christmas and a happy New Year" he considers to be his masterpiece so far, but "A righte merrie Christemasse" runs it close. "May happy hours be yours" is another epigram in the same vein which has met with considerable success. You can understand how embarrassing it would be to an author if he had to cart round his own works, and practically to force them on people. This is why you so rarely find a Christmas card in your stocking.

There is one other thing at which Father Christmas draws the line; he will not deliver venison. The reindeer say it comes too near home to them. But, apart from this, he is never so happy as when dealing with hampers. He would put a plum-pudding into every stocking if he could, for like all jolly old gentlemen with nice white beards he loves to think of people enjoying their food. I am not sure that he holds much with chocolates, although he is entrusted with so many boxes that he has learnt to look on them with kindly tolerance. But the turkey idea, I imagine (though I cannot speak with authority), the turkey idea was entirely his own. Nothing like turkey for making the beard grow.

If I believed in Father Christmas I should ask myself what he does all the summer--all the year, indeed, after his one day is over. The reindeer, of course, are put out to grass. But where is Father Christmas? Does he sleep for fifty-one weeks? Does he shave, and mix with us mortals? Or does he--yes, that must be it- -does he spend the year in training, in keeping down his figure? Chimney work is terribly trying; the figure wants watching if one is to carry it through successfully. This is especially so in the case of jolly old gentlemen with white beards. I can see Father Christmas, as soon as his day is over, taking himself off to the Equator and running round and round it. By next December he is in splendid condition.

When his billion years are over, when his contract expires and he is allowed a free hand with the presents, I suppose I shall not be alive to take part in the distribution. But none the less I like to think of the things I should get. There are at least half a dozen things which I deserve, and Father Christmas knows it. In any equitable scheme of allotment I should come out well. "Half a minute," he would say, "I must just put these cigars aside for the gentleman who had the picture post card last year. What have you got there? The country cottage and the complete edition of Meredith? Ah yes, perhaps he'd better have those too."

That would be something like a Father Christmas.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's essay: Doubtful Character