The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter

Christmastime is the homiest holiday: firesides, feasting, family… and fairy folk. The richest Christmas traditions concern down-to-earth things; which only makes sense as they celebrate the single greatest Down-To-Earth Thing: the Word made Flesh. This is precisely why it also makes sense to find fairies, goblins, and elves as a part of Christmastide’s union of the ordinary and the extraordinary.

In her thoroughly charming fairy-tale, The Tailor of Gloucester, Beatrix Potter reminds us that the Nativity brought two realities together, and she makes this point by reminding us of the elvish things at work in our world—as commonplace and busy as mice.

Plato introduced the idea of there being two worlds, and they were worlds of contradiction—one of shadows and the other “the land from whence the shadows fall,” as George MacDonald called it. The Incarnation marked the elimination of a primary boundary between the shadows and their reality, between the natural and the supernatural; filling up the gulf between the ordinary and the extraordinary. This is clearly signalized in the joyful juxtaposition of angels and shepherds, peasants and kings, man and God. What we are happily left with is Dr. Moore calling the sainted Bishop of Myra “a right jolly old elf.” And so he is!

In keeping with the expression of this harmonious Mystery, Christmas lore often deals with those mysteries that now surround us as a result—most commonly depicted as fairies, goblins, and elves. Not to say, mind, that these creatures are not real. There is simply some doubt and disputation as to what their exact natures are. But that they are real is certain—they are actual, and not simply allegorical. What is more to the point is that such stories casually present them as part of the household. They are as ordinary as an aunt or an uncle, and whatever they are, taken as part of everyday life. It is at Christmastime, though, that their presence is more poignant as they give strong reflection to the fact that the supernatural is not above mingling with the natural.

The Brothers Grimm preserved a famous and beloved instance of this cosmic cohabitation in the Christmas tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” The story presents a miracle as though it were a plain matter of fact, and simply because the teller of the tale is a believer of this other reality that moves through our own. With that belief comes the position that elves are not really that peculiar, though what they do in the night over a cobbler’s bench may be surprising. And we do, for that matter, live in a world where the extraordinary just happens, which renders it ordinary in a certain sense. At least it is nothing to be made too much of. Let us not forget that greater miracles have taken place. We do, after all, live in a world where God became man. Let us not overreact. A pair of fine clothes left out on Christmas Eve will do.

But just as Jacob and Wilhelm made us all more comfortable with the idea that elves are quite normal, Beatrix Potter took the bones of that tale and piled them even higher. The Grimm brothers would have us understand that elves are like mice. Mrs. Potter would have us understand that mice are like elves. She would also make clear that the queerest thing about her tale is that she “heard it in Gloucester, and that it is true.” Christmas provides the best context to accustom us to truth that is queer.

The framework of her tale, however, is pleasantly familiar: an old and ailing tailor is to make a coat and waistcoat for the Mayor of Gloucester to wear for his wedding on Christmas Day in the morning. He lays out the rich cuts of cloth only to find that he is short one skein of cherry-colored silk twist for the last buttonhole. He retires and sends his cat, Simpkin, out to secure provisions and the needed skein. As he falls into a fever, the tailor discovers and releases several mice Simpkin has trapped beneath teacups for his dinner, and then takes to his bed, too sick to rise. From his delirium the mice learn of the unfinished coat and waistcoat and set off to his shop, not needing keys to move through the abodes of men. Simpkin delivers the twist to his master, who is only able to leave his bed on Christmas morning. The tailor hobbles to his shop, clutching the twist, to face the impossible task of completing the coat and waistcoat before the Mayor’s wedding. He finds the clothes completed, save for the last buttonhole, which has a tiny note pinned to it: “NO MORE TWIST.”

Christmas Day in the morning is the time to awake to a miracle that has been accomplished by unseen powers that are a part of our lives. Everyone who has been a child will remember such miracles performed by parents who, on Christmas Eve, secretly donned the mantle of angels—or elves. Beatrix Potter’s book maintains a traditional extraordinariness, but enthrones it in things as ordinary as mice and cats and, well, Christmas Day. Her story reminds us that Christmas is a time for miracles, for things like mice making the “most beautifullest coat and embroidered satin waistcoat that ever were worn by a Mayor of Gloucester.” Or things like beasts being able to talk in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning. Or that a Thing has happened to let us, like the Tailor of Gloucester, grow quite stout and quite rich.

The Tailor of Gloucester is a tale that keeps alive the belief that there are ordinary things in the world that can accomplish extraordinary things. With God all things are possible. This is the principal theme of Christmastime, making it a time to faithfully hang our stockings by the fire with care in the hopes that elves will soon be there—because they are there, under the wooden wainscots, (“though there are very few folk that can hear them, or know what it is that they say.”)

But if we listen, we will hear “a thousand merry voices singing the old Christmas rhymes—all the old songs that ever I heard of, and some that I don’t know, like Whittington’s bells.”


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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