The Elf Who Almost Bungled Christmas
by Walter Harter
Ernest was a new elf in the employ of Santa Claus. He tried hard. But no matter where Santa put him to work in the factory, he managed to get into trouble.
Take trelecopters, for example. Ernest thought he could improve them. He pushed several buttons, but then the trelecopters came tumbling off the assembly line without landing wheels.
Ernest had trouble with thrumgobbins, too. He thought thrumgobbins would look better in yellow than blue. So he adjusted the machinery, and soon only yellow thrumgobbins rolled out of the funnel. But because he pushed the paint button so hard, every elf on that floor had yellow hair for months!
During the busy weeks before Christmas, Ernest was put to work at other jobs in the toy factory. He always managed to do things wrong.
Finally he was made the “odd-job elf”.
Each year there was a big party for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, just before he started his long journey around the world. The elves always had a big dinner and then trimmed the tree.
The tree was always a special one. For weeks the elves would wander through the woods, searching for the tallest and most beautiful fir. This year they had found one that was far from the factory. It would be a long trip to drag it home.
During the last few days before Christmas the toy factory was busier than ever. And by Christmas Eve afternoon the elves had a problem. If any of them left their work to go for the tree, some orders would not be finished in time, and hundreds of children would be very disappointed.
Then the elves thought of Ernest.
They knew they’d be taking a big chance. Ernest would get lost. Or he’d cut down the wrong tree. He’d do something wrong. But there was no one else to send.
They found him polishing the big red sleigh Santa always used on his journey. And, of course, he eagerly consented when they told him to go for the tree.
Other years the elves had made getting the tree a festive outing, pushing and pulling the work-sleigh and singing all the way. This year, because only a single elf would be going, they hitched a reindeer to the sleigh.
The reindeer they selected wasn’t one that Santa used. His were specially chosen for their speed. This little reindeer’s name was Hans. Someday he might be in Santa’s team, but for now he was only learning how to pull a sleigh.
Soon after Ernest and Hans left the village, it began to snow. Ernest marched happily beside the little deer and sang at the top of his voice.
The directions the elves had given were easy to follow, and he eventually found the tree. It stood alone, tall and straight, its topmost branches almost hidden by the swirling snow.
It was a splendid tree. Ernest stood and admired it. But he didn’t dare waste too much time. The snow had become so deep that, even if he hurried, he wouldn’t be able to get back to the village until early evening.
He took a sharp ax from the sleigh and approached the tree. Then he stopped.
Something was moving in the high branches. Ernest went closer to look. It was a nest. A nest full of baby robins.
Ernest knew about robins. They flew far north in the summertime. But in the fall and winter they returned south. Many other birds, however, stayed north all winter – snow buntings, for example. But it was unusual to see robins so late in the winter.
Then suddenly two lovely white birds swooped over Ernest’s head and settled on the edge of the nest. They were snow buntings. In their beaks were worms for the baby robins.
Ernest realized that something must have happened to the mother and father robins. The snow buntings had adopted the tiny orphans and were taking care of them.
Ernest didn’t know what to do. If he cut down the tree, the nest would fall into the snow and the little birds would freeze. But he knew that no other tree would please the elves back in the village.
He looked at Hans, who was shivering beneath his thick coat of fur. He thought he saw the little reindeer nod, as though in agreement.
He turned the sleigh around, and they began the long journey back.
Ernest was amazed at the great numbers of birds that flew around him and Hans on the return trip. He couldn’t always see them because of the falling snow, but he could hear their wings beating in the air.
The snow was so heavy that at one point they got lost. Ernest and Hans floundered in the drifts until a large eagle swooped down and pushed them back onto the trail.
It was dark when they finally got back to the village. The dinner for Santa was over.
As Ernest and Hans plodded into the courtyard, a large number of elves were waiting for them. When the elves saw that Ernest hadn’t brought the tree, they were angry. He tried to tell them what had happened, but they were shouting so loudly they didn’t hear a word he said.
Finally they held a conference. Someone would have to break the news to Santa.
They all pointed to Ernest. He was the one who hadn’t brought the tree. He would have to tell Santa there would be no tree-trimming this year. Ernest was frightened. Although he had worked in the factory for several months, he had never seen Santa Claus. He had heard about him all his life, of course. But he had never come face to face with him.
The elves dragged Ernest through the door of the great hall. They pushed him to the center of the huge room and backed away.
Ernest stared around him. The room was beautiful. Along the walls, colored candles burned, making the room gleam and glisten as though it were hung with garlands of precious stones.
Then, when he looked toward the far end of the room, he almost lost his breath. There, in a gold chair, sat Santa Claus.
Santa motioned with his hand for Ernest to come nearer. The room was silent except for the sound of Ernest’s boots squishing as he slowly walked forward.
Suddenly, he noticed the empty space beside Santa’s chair. It was his fault no tree stood there. His fault that for the first time ever there would be no Christmas Eve party to send Santa on his journey around the world. He hung his head.
But when he looked up into the man’s kind face, he was no longer afraid.
Ernest opened his mouth to explain, but before he could say a word, there was a strange noise behind him. He turned to look.
It was the sound of hundreds of fluttering wings. Through the doorway birds of all sizes and colors were swooping: large birds and small birds, black birds and white birds, red birds and blue birds—birds of all the colors of the rainbow.
And every one of them seemed to know just what to do.
In their excitement the birds flew around the room, then glided to the empty space beside Santa’s gold chair. There, hovering in the air, they formed a tree.
It was just as tall and straight as the one Ernest had left standing in the forest. And this tree had decorations more lovely than any tree the elves had ever trimmed.
Large birds, the hawks and the eagles, formed the trunk and branches. (Ernest recognized the large eagle that had shoved him and Hans back onto the trail.)
Then small birds of every color settled on the moving branches, their beating wings making the entire room dance and shine.
The elves in the back of the room roared with delight. Santa’s face lit up with a wonderful smile.
Finally two white birds flew through the door. They circled Ernest several times, as though wanting him to notice them.
Ernest did recognize them. They were the two snow buntings who had brought food to the baby robins in the tall tree he had left standing in the forest.
And Santa, the elves and Ernest watched with delight as the two birds fluttered to the very top of the dazzling tree.