The Great Walled Country
by Raymond Mac Donald Alden
Away at the north end of the world, farther than men have ever gone with their ships or their sleds, is a land filled with children. It’s filled with children because nobody who lives there ever grows up. The king and queen, the princes and courtiers, may be as old as you please, but they are children for all that. They play a great deal of the time with dolls and tin soldiers, and every night at seven o’clock have a bowl of bread and milk and go to bed.
There are all sorts of curious things about the way they live in the Great Walled Country, but this story is only of their Christmas season. One can imagine what a fine thing their Christmas must be so near the North Pole, with ice and snow everywhere; but this is not all. Grandfather Christmas lives just on the north side of the country, so that his house leans against the great wall and would tip over if it were not for its support. Grandfather Christmas is his name in the Great Walled Country; no doubt we would call him Santa Claus here. At any rate, he is the same person, and best of all the children in the world, he loves the children behind the great wall of ice.
One very pleasant thing about having Grandfather Christmas for a neighbor is that in the Great Walled Country they never have to buy their Christmas presents. Every year on the day before Christmas, before he makes up his bundles for the rest of the world, Grandfather Christmas goes into a great forest of Christmas trees that grows just back of the homes and fills the trees with candy and books and toys and all sorts of good things. So when night comes, all the children wrap up snugly, and they go into the forest to gather gifts for their friends. Each one goes by himself, so that none of his friends can see what he has gathered, and no one ever thinks of such a thing as taking a present for himself. The forest is so big that there is room for all the people and no one sees the secrets and presents, and there are always enough nice things to go around.
But there was once a time, so many years ago that they would have forgotten about it if the story were not written in their Big book and read to them every year, when the children in the Great Walled Country had a very strange Christmas. There came a visitor to the land. He was an old man, and was the first stranger, for very many years, who had succeeded in getting over the wall.
When this old man inquired about their Christmas celebration, and was told how they carried it out every year, he said to the king, “That is very well, but I should think that children who have Grandfather Christmas for a neighbor could find a better and easier way. You tell me you all go out on Christmas Eve to gather presents to give to one another the next morning. Why take so much trouble, and act in such a round-about way? Why not go out together, and everyone get his own present? That would save the trouble dividing them again, and everyone could pick out just what he wanted for himself!
They decided it was a very practical idea and so the proclamation was made, and the plan seemed as wise to the children of the country as it had to the king and his counselors. Everyone at some time had been a little disappointed with his Christmas gifts, and now there would be no danger of that.
On Christmas Eve they always had a meeting at the palace, and sang carols until the time for going to the forest. When the clock struck ten, everyone said, “I wish you a Merry Christmas!” to the person nearest him, and then they separated to go on their way to the forest. On this particular night it seemed to the king that the music was not quite so merry as usual, and that when the children spoke to one another their eyes did not shine as gladly as he had noticed them in other years; but there could be no reason for this, since everyone was expecting a better time than usual. So he thought no more of it.
There was only one other person at the palace that night who was not pleased with the new proclamation about the Christmas gifts. This was a boy named Inge, who lived not far from the palace with his sister. Now his sister was a cripple, and had to sit all day looking out of the window from her chair; and Inge took care of her, and tried to make her life happy from morning to night. He had always gone to the forest on Christmas Eve and returned with his arms and pockets full of pretty things for his sister, which would keep her amused all the coming year. And although she was not able to go after presents for her brother, he did not mind at all, especially as he had other friends who never forgot to divide their good things with him.
But now, said Inge to himself, what would his sister do? For the King had ordered that no one should gather presents except for himself, or any more than he could carry away at once. All of Inge’s friends were busy planning what they would pick for themselves, but the poor crippled child could not go a step toward the forest. After thinking about it for a long time, Inge decided that it would not be wrong, if, instead of taking gifts for himself, he took them altogether for his sister. This he would be very glad to do; for what did a boy who could run about and play in the snow care for presents, compared to a little girl who could only sit still and watch others having a good time? Inge did not ask the advice of anyone, for he was a little afraid others would tell him not to do it, but he silently made up his mind not to obey the proclamation.
And now the chimes had struck ten, and the children were making their way toward the forest, in starlight that was so bright that it almost showed their shadows on the sparkling snow. As soon as they came to the edge of the forest they separated, each one going by himself in the old way, though now there was really no reason why they should have secrets from one another.
Ten minutes later, if you had been in the forest, you might have seen the children standing in dismay with tears on their faces, and exclaiming that they had never seen such a Christmas Eve before. For as they looked eagerly about them to the low-bending branches of the evergreen trees, they saw nothing hanging from them that they had seen other Christmas Eves. No presents. No one could guess whether Grandfather Christmas had forgotten them, or whether some dreadful accident had kept him away.
As the children were trooping out of the forest after hours of weary searching, some of them came upon little Inge, who carried over his shoulder a bag that seemed to be full to overflowing. When he saw them looking at him he cried, “Are they not beautiful things? I think Grandfather Christmas was never so good to us before.”
“Why, what do you mean?” cried the children. “There are no presents in the forest!”
“No presents!” Inge said. “I have a bag full of them,” but he did not offer to show them, because he did not want the children to see that they were really all for his sister, instead of him.
Then the children begged him to tell them in what part of the forest he had found his presents, and he turned back and pointed them to the place where he had been.
“I left many more behind than I brought away,” he said. “There they are! I can see some of the things shining on the trees even from here.”
But when the children followed his footsteps in the snow to the place where he had been, they still saw nothing on the trees, and thought Inge must be walking in his sleep, and dreaming that he had found presents. Perhaps he had filled his bag with the cones from the evergreen trees.
On Christmas Day there was sadness all through the Great Walled Country. But those who came to the house of Inge and his sister saw plenty of books and dolls and beautiful toys piled up about the little cripple’s chair, and when they asked where those things came from were told, “Why, from the Christmas tree forest.” And they shook their heads not knowing what it meant.
The king held a council and appointed a committee to go on a very hard journey to visit Grandfather Christmas and see if they could find out what was the matter.
They had to go down Father Christmas’s chimney and when they reached the bottom of it they found themselves in the very room where Grandfather Christmas lay sound asleep. It was very difficult to wake him, but when they finally did, the prince, who was in charge of the committee said, “Oh, sir! We have come from the king of the Great Walled Country, who has sent us to ask why you forgot us this Christmas, and left no presents in the forest?”
“No presents?” said Grandfather Christmas. “I never forgot anything. The presents were there. You did not see them, that’s all.”
The children told them they had searched long and hard and found nothing. “Indeed!” said Grandfather Christmas.
“And did little Inge, the boy with the crippled sister find none?” The committee had heard about that and didn’t know what to say.
“The presents were there, but they were not intended for children who were looking only for themselves. I am not surprised that you could not see them. Remember, that not everything that wise travelers tell you is wise.”
The Proclamation was made next year that everyone was to seek gifts for others!