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Winter  20  Father Christmas’s children

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  20  I figli di Babbo Natale)

For the world of industry and commerce, there is no kinder or more charitable season of the year than Christmas and the weeks preceding it. The quavering sound of bagpipes echoes in the streets; and big businesses, which until the day before were coldly intent on calculating turnover and dividends, open their hearts to tender feelings and smiles. The only thought of their boards of management is that of bringing joy to their neighbours, sending gifts accompanied by messages of good wishes both to sister firms and to individuals; each firm feels an obligation to buy a large stock of products from a second firm to send as presents to other firms; these firms in their turn buy other goods from another firm as presents for yet other firms; the windows of the businesses stay lit until late, especially in the warehouses, where staff work overtime to wrap up packages and boxes; beyond the misted window panes, on pavements encrusted with ice, the bagpipe players, descended from dark mysterious mountains, advance, stop at the crossroads in the centre, a bit dazzled by too many lights, by excessively decorated shop windows, and with bowed heads give breath to their instruments; at which sound the wearisome contests of interest amongst men of affairs subside and give place to a new competition: who can offer, in the most elegant manner, the most conspicuous and original gift.

At SBAV that year, the public relations department suggested that Christmas gifts should be delivered to the houses of distinguished customers by a man dressed as Father Christmas.

The idea received the unanimous approval of the management. A complete Father Christmas costume was purchased: white beard, red cap and greatcoat edged with fur, top boots. Trials were initiated to see which of the workers it would best fit, but one man was too short and the beard touched the ground, one was too fat and couldn’t get the coat on, another was too young, while another was too old and it wasn’t worth the trouble of making him up.

While the head of the personnel department was summoning other possible Father Christmases from various quarters, the assembled directors were seeking to develop the idea further: the human relations department wanted the Christmas boxes for the workers to be presented by Father Christmas in a collective ceremony; the commercial department wanted him also to make a tour of the shops; the publicity department was concerned that the name of the firm should stand out, even suggesting that four balloons be attached to a string with the letters S, B, A, V.

Everyone was caught up in the busy, convivial atmosphere which spread across the festive, productive city; nothing is nicer than to sense the flux and flow of material goods combined with the goodwill each person feels towards others; and this, this more than anything — as the skirling sound of the bagpipes reminds us — is what counts.

In the warehouse, the goodwill — material and spiritual — passed through Marcovaldo’s hands as goods to load and unload. And it wasn’t only in loading and unloading that he took part in the general festivity, but also in thinking that at the bottom of that labyrinth of hundreds of thousands of packages one package was waiting for him alone, prepared for him by the human relations department; and, even more, in working out how much he was due at the end of the month, what with the Christmas bonus and his overtime hours. With that money, he too would be able to tour the shops, buying, buying, buying, so as to give, give, give presents, as his own sincerest feelings and the general interests of industry and commerce required.

The head of the personnel department came into the warehouse with a false beard in his hand. ‘Hey, you!’ he said to Marcovaldo. ‘Let’s see how you look in this beard. Excellent! You are Father Christmas. Come upstairs, quick. You’ll get a special bonus if you do fifty home deliveries a day.’

Disguised as Father Christmas, Marcovaldo drove across the city in the saddle of the three-wheeler delivery van, loaded with packages wrapped in multi-coloured paper, tied with beautiful ribbons and decorated with little sprigs of mistletoe and holly. The white cotton-wool beard was a bit itchy but served to protect his throat from the air.

His first trip was to his own apartment, because he couldn’t resist the temptation of surprising his children. ‘To begin with,’ he thought, ‘they won’t recognise me. How they’ll laugh, after that!’

The children were playing on the stairs. They barely turned round. ‘Hi, Daddy.’

Marcovaldo was disappointed. ‘But… don’t you see what I’m wearing?’

‘What should you be wearing?’ asked Pietruccio. ‘You’re Father Christmas, aren’t you?’

‘And you recognised me straight away?’

‘Of course! And we recognised Signor Sigismondo whose get-up was better than yours!’

‘And the concierge’s brother-in-law!’

‘And the twins’ father from across the road!’

‘And Ernestina’s uncle; she’s the girl with the ponytail!’

‘All dressed as Father Christmas?’ asked Marcovaldo, and the disappointment in his voice wasn’t only for the failed surprise to his family, but because he felt that the prestige of his firm had in some way been injured.

‘Yes, just like you,’ answered the children. ‘The usual boring Father Christmas with the false beard.’ And, turning away, they resumed their games.

It so happened that the public relations departments of numerous firms had simultaneously had the same idea; and they had recruited a large number of people, mainly the unemployed, pensioners or pedlars, and dressed them in the red coat and cotton-wool beard. The children, who to begin with had enjoyed recognising acquaintances and local characters in disguise, got used to it after a while and paid no more attention.

It seemed that they were deeply absorbed in the game they were playing. They were assembled on a landing, sitting in a circle. ‘May I know what you’re plotting?’ asked Marcovaldo.

‘Leave us in peace, Daddy. We have to get the presents ready.’

‘Presents for who?’

‘For a poor child. We have to find a poor child and give it presents.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘It’s in our reading book.’

Marcovaldo was about to say, ‘You are poor children!’ but during that week he had been so persuaded to think of himself as an inhabitant of the land of Cockaigne, where everyone buys things and enjoys themselves and exchanges presents, that he didn’t think it well-mannered to speak of poverty, and he preferred to declare, ‘Poor children don’t exist any more!’

Michelino got up and asked, ‘And is that why you don’t bring us presents, Daddy?’

Marcovaldo’s heart bled. ‘I’ll be getting overtime pay,’ he said hurriedly, ‘and then I’ll bring you some.’

‘How are you getting that?’ asked Filippetto.

‘Delivering presents,’ said Marcovaldo.

‘For us?’

‘No, for other people.’

‘Why not for us?’ You should bring us presents first…’

Marcovaldo tried to explain. ‘Because I am definitely not the Father Christmas of the human relations department; I’m the Father Christmas of the public relations department. You understand?’


‘Never mind.’ But since he wanted in some way to be forgiven for having arrived empty-handed, he had the idea of taking Michelino with him, carrying the boy behind him on his delivery round. ‘If you’re good, you can come and watch your father taking presents to the people,’ he said, bestriding the saddle of the three-wheeler.

‘Let’s go! Maybe I’ll find a poor child,’ said Michelino, and he jumped aboard, clinging onto his father’s back.

Touring the streets of the city, Marcovaldo could not avoid meeting other red-and-white Father Christmases, exactly like him, driving vans or three-wheelers or opening shop doors for customers loaded with packages or helping them carry their packages to the car. And all these Father Christmases displayed a focussed and business-like air, as if they were committed to the task of maintenance of the enormous machinery of the festive season.

And Marcovaldo, just like them, rushed from one address to another, as marked on his list, got down from the saddle, sorted through the packages on the back, took one, offered it to whoever opened the door, reciting the phrase, ‘SBAV wishes you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year,’ and took his tip.

This tip could in fact be considerable, and Marcovaldo might have thought himself satisfied, but something was lacking. Each time, before ringing the bell, with Michelino behind him, he had a premonition of the amazement of whoever opened the door at seeing Father Christmas there in person; he was expecting a warm welcome, curiosity, gratitude. And each time he was greeted like the postman who brings the newspaper every day.

He rang at the door of a sumptuous dwelling. A governess opened it. ‘Oh, yet another package. Who’s it from?’

‘SBAV wishes…’

‘All right, bring it in here,’ and she preceded Father Christmas along a carpeted corridor adorned with tapestries and majolica vases. Michelino, wide-eyed, followed his father.

The governess opened a glass door. They entered a room with an enormously high ceiling, so high that a great fir tree stood within it. It was a Christmas tree lit with glass baubles of all colours, and its branches were hung with presents and sweets of all shapes and sizes. Heavy crystal lamps hung from the ceiling, and the highest branches of the tree were tangled in the sparkling pendants. On a great table was arrayed glassware, silverware, tins of candied fruits and boxes of bottles. Toys, scattered across a large carpet, looked as if they belonged in a toy shop; most of them were complicated electronic gadgets and models of spaceships. On that carpet, in an uncluttered corner, was a child of about nine, lying flat on his face, with a sulky and bored look. He was leafing through a picture book, as if everything around him had nothing to do with him.

‘Gianfranco, Gianfranco, get up,’ said the housekeeper. ‘Have you seen? Father Christmas has come back with another present.’

‘Three hundred and twelve,’ sighed the child, without raising his eyes from the book. ‘Put it there.’

‘It’s the three-hundred-and-twelfth present to arrive,’ said the governess. ‘Gianfranco is such a clever boy; he keeps count; he doesn’t lose track of one. Counting is his great passion.’

Marcovaldo and Michelino left the house on tiptoe.

‘Daddy, is that child a poor child?’ asked Michelino.

Marcovaldo was concentrating on reorganising the load on the three-wheeler, and didn’t answer straight away. But after a moment he quickly exclaimed, ‘Poor? What are you saying? Do you know who his father is? He’s the president of the United Company for Enhancing Christmas Sales! He’s Commendatore…’

He stopped, because he couldn’t see Michelino. ‘Michelino, Michelino, where are you?’ He had disappeared.

‘I bet he saw another Father Christmas going by, muddled him up with me and climbed on the back…’ Marcovaldo continued his round, but he was a bit thoughtful, and he couldn’t wait to get home.

At home, he found Michelino, good as gold, along with his brothers.

‘Now tell me; where did you rush off to?’

‘Home, to get the presents… Yes, the presents for that poor child…’

‘Eh? Who?’

‘The child who looked so sad… The one in the villa with the Christmas tree…’

‘Him? But what presents could you give him?’

‘Oh, we’d done them up nicely… Three presents, wrapped in silver paper.’

The younger brothers added, ‘We all went to take them to him. You should have seen how happy he was!’

‘Well I never!’ said Marcovaldo. ‘He needed your presents to be happy!’

‘Yes, yes, ours… And he rushed to tear off the paper to see what they were…’

‘And what were they?’

‘The first one was a hammer: that big round wooden hammer…’

‘And what did he do?’

‘He jumped for joy! He grabbed it and began to use it!’


‘He smashed all the toys! And all the glasses! Then he got the second present…’

‘What was that?’

‘A catapult. You should have seen him, how pleased he was. He shattered all the glass baubles on the Christmas tree. Then he started on the lamps…’

‘Enough, enough, I don’t want to hear any more! And… the third present?’

‘We didn’t have any more presents to give, so we wrapped a box of kitchen matches in silver paper. It was the present he liked the most. He said, “They never let me touch matches.” He began to light them, and…’


‘He set light to everything!’

Marcovaldo was pulling his hair out. ‘I’m ruined!’

The next day, arriving at work, he felt a storm brewing. In great haste he put on his Father Christmas costume, loaded the packages for delivery onto the three-wheeler, amazed that up to now no one had said anything to him, when he saw three bosses coming towards him: the head of public relations, the head of publicity and the head of the sales department.

‘Stop!’ they said. ‘Unload everything immediately!’

‘This is it!’ Marcovaldo said to himself, already seeing himself being sacked.

‘Quick! We have to change the packages!’ said the sales boss. The United Company for Enhancing Christmas Sales has opened a campaign to launch the Wrecking Gift!’

‘It’s a bolt from the blue…’ remarked one of them. ‘They should have thought of it sooner…’

‘A spur-of-the-moment discovery by the company president,’ explained another. ‘It seems that his child has received some hyper-modern presents, Japanese I think, and for the first time he was seen enjoying himself…’

‘And what is more,’ added the third boss, ‘the Wrecking Gift can be used to destroy articles of all kinds; which means that it speeds up the pace of consumption and restores vigour to the market… All this in the twinkling of an eye and within a child’s capability… The president of the United Company has seen a new horizon opening, and he’s in the seventh heaven of enthusiasm…’

‘But,’ asked Marcovaldo in a thin voice, ‘did this child really destroy a lot of stuff?’

‘It’s difficult to say, even approximately, given that the house burnt down…’

Marcovaldo went back into the street lit up as if it were night, crowded with mothers and children and uncles and grandparents and packages and balloons and rocking horses and Christmas trees and Father Christmases and chickens and turkeys and panettoni and bottles and bagpipe players and chimney sweeps and chestnut sellers making pans of chestnuts jump on their blazing black stoves.

And the city seemed smaller, gathered into a luminous glass phial, buried in the dark heart of a wood, amongst centuries-old trunks of chestnut trees and an endless mantle of snow. From somewhere in the darkness could be heard the howling of a wolf; young hares had a sett buried in the snow, in the warm red earth under a layer of chestnut husks.

A white leveret emerged in the snow, twitched its ears, and ran about under the moon, but it was white and couldn’t be seen, as if it wasn’t there. Only its paws left imprints in the snow, like little clover leaves. Nor could the wolf be seen, because it was black and it stayed in the deep darkness of the wood. Only if it opened its mouth could its sharp white teeth be seen.

There was a line where the completely black wood stopped and the completely white snow began. The young hare ran on one side, the wolf on the other.

The wolf saw the leveret’s paw prints in the snow and followed them, but staying always in the black, so as not to be seen. At the point where the prints stopped, the leveret should be, and the wolf emerged from the black, opened wide its red throat and sharp teeth, and bit the wind.

The leveret was a little further on, invisible; it rubbed an ear with a paw, and escaped leaping.

Is it here? Is it there? No, is it a bit further on?

All that could be seen was the expanse of snow, as white as this page.