Yuletide was approaching, and the elven helpers of the Yulefather, who goes by many names (Old Father Christmas, Captain Christmas, the Lord of Misrule, Joulupukki, St Nicholas, and other names unknown to humankind) were preparing the magic to send out gifts of magic to human children.
Contrary to popular folklore, it is not the actual Christmas presents that are delivered by the old man with the sleigh, but more intangible gifts: the ability to see magic and mystery in the world; the ability to play, to laugh, to sing, and to be merry.
A sparkling, tangled, constantly shifting and changing cloud of magical energy was forming around Korvatunturi, the magic hill in Finland where Old Father Christmas lives. Occasionally it would get out of control, and the sky over much of the Northern hemisphere would be filled with great sweeping curtains of green and purple light. It is said that Korvatunturi is shaped like an ear, so that Old Father Christmas can hear the wishes of children.
The elves were getting ready to carry the magic to all parts of the Earth when they heard a terrible rumour. The children of North America were being beset with a hideous interloper, designed to crush the curiosity and magic out of children: the Elf on the Shelf. This simpering red impostor would move around the house, keeping an eye on the children’s behaviour, and reporting their behaviour back to “Santa Claus” – a red-clad impostor representing the spirit of consumerism and capitalism, who seeks to supplant Old Father Christmas in human hearts.
When this news reached the ears of Old Father Christmas, he was furious. “That red-clad impostor!” he roared. “That stalker, that peeping Tom! Not content with tormenting children with his voyeuristic tendencies, now he sends his minions out to do it! That is the final dollop of reindeer poop! It’s war.”
The elves all cheered wildly. At last they would see off those horrible impostors, the Elfs on the Shelf. For of course, a real elf doesn’t have a simpering expression and a little red suit. A real elf is a lithe wisp of energy, and can manifest in many different forms, so the elves were deeply offended at these interlopers, and worried that human children would stop believing in elves and faeries as a consequence of these caricatures.
Joulutonttu was the youngest elf – the one all the others regarded as a bit flighty and irresponsible. He decided to do something special to prove himself to the others. He would liberate human children from those little red monsters once and for all.
He went into the restricted section of Old Father Christmas’s library of magical tomes. He clearly needed something special. He worked his way through several tomes, getting quite dusty and cobwebby in the process. The stack of discarded volumes grew bigger: the section of the Kalevala dealing with the forging of the Sampo was stacked regretfully on the discard pile along with several long-lost grimoires that human magicians would dearly love to get their hands on.
At last he gave up on the library, and wandered off in search of Krampus – who, contrary to popular belief, rewards children for having an independent spirit and not being blindly obedient. He wandered all around the underground caverns of Korvatunturi, where the elves were hard at work massaging the dollops of magic and mystery into manageable packages which could be sent along the ancient trackways through the forests. Finally he found Krampus in the observatory on the peak of Korvatunturi.
“I don’t like it,” muttered Krampus to himself. “Those children are getting forgetful of the old magic. Not enough freedom to wander about and find things out for themselves, I reckon.”
Joulutonttu waited patiently while Krampus finished his observations.
“Ah, hello there, small elf,” said Krampus, looking over the spectacles on the end of his nose.
“Hello, Krampus,” said Joulutonntu. “I was looking for a way to save the human children from those horrible Elfs on the Shelf. I was thinking you might have an idea.”
“There are indeed some disturbing currents in the magic,” said Krampus. “The humans are too cruel, too greedy, too focussed on things. Most of them don’t care about the old ways any more. Those Elfs on the Shelf are a manifestation of their overwhelming desire to control everything.”
“But surely the children still have a tiny spark of magic?” asked Joulutonttu.
“Some of them do,” said Krampus. “But I believe I might have just the thing. Come with me.” He got up from behind the vast array of brass telescopes, finely calibrated sensors equipped with red feathers for measuring kindness and justice levels (many indicated critically low levels of either), and stomped off towards the door. Joulutonttu half-ran, half-flitted along behind him.
They walked down many winding stairs, through ornately carved doors, down into the deep caverns below Korvatunturi. They went through three doors bound with wrought-iron sigils (something of a trial for Joulutonttu, as elves hate iron), which had signs written in Runic, Old Gothic, and Finnish reading “High energy magic area – enter at your own risk”.
Finally, behind the last door, Joulutonttu beheld a vast cauldron full of shimmering, twisting energy, constantly changing colour from purple to green to blue. “What is it?” he asked.
“This, my friend, is pure vintage eighteenth-century naughtiness,” said Krampus. “The finest distilled essence of the childhood naughtiness of revolutionaries, the Luddites, William Blake, the Romantic poets, the Lunar Men, the early feminists – their moments of rebellion, their high-spirited games, their visions, and their flights of fancy.”
“Are we going to release this into the wild?” asked Joulutonttu excitedly.
“That’s exactly what we will do,” said Krampus. “Humans need a wake-up call – they are sleepwalking into an apocalypse on a tide of consumerism. This ought to stir things up a bit.”
“How do we release it?” asked Joulutonttu. “And how do we know it will get to the right children?”
“Ah, that’s the clever part,” said Krampus. “Each of these wisps of naughtiness will waft around on the winds until they find the human heart that will make a warm and welcoming nest for them – and then they will make that heart glow with merry wildness.”
“Let’s get to work!” said Joulutonttu.
So they carefully carried the cauldron up to the topmost peak of Korvatunturi. They summoned the spirits of the four winds, Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Durathrór.
“But it’s not Yule yet,” protested Dvalinn. “Why have you summoned us?” So Krampus and Joulutonttu explained what they wanted.
The four winds sniffed the contents of the cauldron appreciatively. “Ah, haven’t smelt naughtiness like that in many a long year,” said Durathrór. “It takes me right back to the Luddite rebellion, that. Heady days.”
“Oh yes,” agreed Duneyrr. “This is no ordinary naughtiness – this is the true spirit of freedom and creativity. Almost Promethean, that is.”
“Oh yes, Prometheus. They don’t make ‘em like that any more,” said Dáinn.
The winds agreed to carry the glimmers of naughtiness to everywhere they were needed, and soon the sky was full of many-coloured glittering threads, like sparks being carried aloft from a bonfire.
If you see a tiny wisp of light, perhaps out of the corner of your eye, it might be one of those very special glimmers – and maybe it’s just for you. So open your heart and hope that it makes its nest there.
Update: Part 2 of this story, The Taste of Magic, is now published.