Klaus the Carpenter
The man whom legend calls Santa Claus was born simply Klaus. He was the first and only child of a skilled carpenter and his good wife, both of whom, I am sorry to say, died when the Black Death came to their village at the foot of Mount Feldberg in the Black Forest in 1343. Little Klaus, barely out of babyhood then, had no other family, and so he was adopted by the Worshipful Guild of Foresters, Carpenters, and Woodworkers. It was very unusual for the Guild to adopt a child, but Klaus's father had been a much-loved member, and so they did it. Of course, the Masters of the Guild were extremely preoccupied with their work of making plows and houses and clock gears--many, many things were made of wood in those days--and they really did not have the time to rear Klaus. So, mostly, they didn't. They gave him plenty of food, which he liked very much. They gave him old carpenter's tools instead of toys. And they gave him genial, distracted pats on the head whenever he came within range--benign neglect. It was a very satisfactory arrangement.
It is not surprising that Klaus became a very fine worker of wood. He had the best carvers and joiners and carpenters to watch and learn from, even though they did not actually notice they were teaching him. What was surprising--even alarming to some in the Guild--was that by the age of seventeen he had quietly surpassed them all. The piece he made to prove that he deserved to be awarded the title Master--his master-piece--was an exceptionally lovely chair by any standard. It was expertly joined, intricately and richly carved, and inlaid with all fourteen hardwoods that grew on Mount Feldberg. It was immediately adopted by the Guild as the new Governor's chair. Klaus was given his Master Woodworker's badge--a gold pine tree--toasted with ale, and slapped on the back for congratulations.
"We must have raised you well, Klaus," the Masters said, "though we confess we didn't notice."
"Yes, you must have!" said Klaus and laughed. And all the Guild members present at his pinning ceremony joined in the laughter. And that was not surprising, because of the three extraordinary features of Klaus's extraordinary laugh. First, it was exceptionally loud and deep, even when he was a boy, coming from the very roots of his soul. Second, it was completely untainted by any sort of meanness--Klaus never laughed at anyone, always with them. And third, it tended to make whoever heard it start laughing, too. So, of course, everyone laughed now.
Almost everyone. There was one member who did not laugh. His name was Rolf Eckhof, and he was as thin and hard as an iron spike, with white-blond hair and a pursed mouth that looked as if it could never laugh. And though he was a competent woodsman with commissions enough for common items, he had been trying and failing to become a Master for six years. Now this laughing, carefree boy had done it on his first try--the youngest Master in the history of the Guild.
"But he is just a boy!" Rolf Eckhof sneered.
"Yes, he's our boy!" the Masters replied proudly. And they laughed and toasted and congratulated Klaus and themselves all over again.
Rolf Eckhof looked on Klaus's masterpiece and knew he could never make such a beautiful, clever thing. And that knowledge filled him with jealousy and hatred. But he was the sort of man who could wait to take revenge. For now, he said nothing further. But he did not slap Klaus's back, he did not toast him with ale, and certainly he did not laugh.
Klaus did not notice. And if he had, he would not have comprehended. His nature was open and magnanimous. If ever Jupiter predominated in a personality, it did in his: Klaus was, in every sense of the word, Jovial.
And so Klaus built himself a small cottage on the hill above the village and set up on his own as a carpenter and joiner and, especially, wood carver. It was soon well known that if you wanted something special--a stool with legs carved to look like those of a bear or a bridal bed with a headboard inlaid with scenes from the Black Forest--you went to Klaus. And so he prospered. He grew never tall, but deep-chested and very strong, and his hair and beard, when it came in, were the color of a fox's pelt.
But during the summer when Klaus was twenty, something happened that made him stop his fancy carving. The Black Death returned to his village. It did not tarry at his snug cottage, but many another house was visited. The villagers tasted death all that summer and fall and into the winter. Not until the midwinter wind blew down the lanes and snow covered thatch and stone did the Black Death walk on and leave the village in peace. As it happened--and this is one of those quirks a historian finds hard to explain--it never returned.
But it had turned the village into a Swiss cheese, with holes in most families. Here a father was taken and no one else in the household even sickened; there all but one died, a child of three, leaving her to be adopted by a childless aunt. Indeed, all the twenty-seven children who lost parents in that terrible year found homes of some sort, and none wandered alone; that is how the village was. Many went on to become replacement sisters or brothers, daughters or sons, to those who had lost them.
All this Klaus saw, and it wrung his heart. But then a splendid new idea occurred to him. It did not make him laugh, for it was not a time for laughing, but a smile creased his ruddy face and a sparkle came into his hazel eyes.
The next morning he put all his tools into a large flour sack, flung it over his shoulder, and made his way down the hill from his cottage. At the very first house he came to, a small place under a great larch tree, he knocked on the door. A sad-eyed woman holding a baby on her hip answered. "Dame Grusha," said Klaus. "What have you lost?"
Dame Grusha bit her lip. "I have lost my Jacob," she said.
He took her small hands in his red, calloused ones. "I am so sorry, Dame Grusha," he said. "I cannot help that. But"--he let go of her hands and heaved his great sack down onto the cold ground in front of her door; it opened, and she could see the tools inside--"what have you lost that these can replace?"
"I have no table. We burned it because Father Goswin thought it was plague-tainted."
"Let's go inside and measure," said Klaus.
For the next months Klaus scarcely saw his own cottage. He spent all his days in the houses of the village, making and mending, or going to the forest for wood and hauling it back. Door to door he went, and always he asked the same question: "What have you lost?" And he heard the same heartrending answers: "I have lost my Johann," "my Gretchen," "my little Conrad," "all my children," "my old father," "everyone but me."
What could he say to such losses? Only that he was sorry. But what could he do for those who were suffering? A little, he thought, and he did it.
He made chairs and butter churns and many tables, for many had been burned, like Dame Grusha's, after the sick and dying had lain on them. Soon all in the village were familiar with the sight of the strong young man with flaming red hair and beard coming and going, his sack of tools slung over his back; and all knew his question by heart: "What have you lost that I can replace?"
He did not think to charge money for his labors, but he ate and slept wherever he worked, and, despite their grief, or perhaps in relief of it, the villagers liked to tease him for his hearty appetite. "You'll grow fat if you keep eating like that," they jested.
"So be it!" Klaus answered back. "If that is the price I must pay for this good goose, then I say, so be it!" And though he didn't laugh because it wasn't a time yet for laughter, he would smile, and the villagers loved to see his smile in this time of mourning, because they knew it sprang from a heart that wanted only to do them good. It was simple: Klaus knew what to do, and the doing of it made him happy. And all the villagers looked out for him as he stumped down the lanes and across the fields with his flour sack filled with tools, and took a measure of comfort just from seeing him.
But one in the village did not. "He charges nothing for his labors!" Rolf Eckhof complained to the Governor of the Worshipful Guild of Foresters, Carpenters, and Woodworkers. "And nothing for materials! And this at a time when good business practice dictates we should set our prices higher because of the demand! You must do something! Else he will ruin us all!"
But the Governor only fixed Rolf Eckhof with a baleful eye. "For shame," he said. And indeed Rolf Eckhof felt a hot streak of shame run through him, and this, too, he blamed on Klaus. But, remember, he was the sort of man who could wait to take his revenge.
Klaus knew nothing of this. Instead, he brooded on another problem. There were fifty-two surviving children in the village under Mount Feldberg, and Klaus knew them all because he had made and mended in virtually every house. The Black Death had bitten deeper into their lives than those of the grown-ups because they had lived fewer years. They were sadder and quieter than children ought to be, and this troubled Klaus a great deal. Perhaps if they had something to do, he thought--for doing is what had helped to mend his heart. So he engaged as many as he could in his labors, teaching them simple woodworking skills. (And this, Rolf Eckhof would have said, had he known of it, was completely contrary to Guild laws.) And when a child grew too quiet and stared out into nothing for too long, and Klaus knew she was thinking of a lost mother or brother, he would say to her, "Will you go down to the millstream and cut rushes with me? We need them for the Linders' new roof." He could not mend their losses, but he could teach them to help, and the helping, he knew, would go a measure to healing them. And so, in this way, many of the children grew to be really quite useful in bringing the village back to life. And children who did not at first help saw that those who did were happier, and that grown-ups treated them with the respect accorded to all who help, young or old, and so they began to help, too. And then even those who did no work at all claimed they did, and so everyone was included. And the houses went up, and spirits lifted, and the golden days of September saw a better harvest than anyone had expected.
And that is when Klaus had another idea: a novel idea; a truly sensational, momentous Idea. It seemed to travel up from his toes and fill his body inch by upward inch until it came right up into his throat, and he laughed out loud--the first anyone had laughed for months and months. "Ha, ha, ha!" he laughed. "Ho, ho, ho!" And those who heard that laugh--which was most of the village because of how tremendously loud it was--stopped their raking or bread making, or sprang up from where they had been dozing in the afternoon sun, and smiled. And in that moment, though they were ever sad for their losses, the Black Death well and truly left the hearts of those who lived in the village under Mount Feldberg.
Klaus kept his sensational idea quiet. But the villagers noticed that he did not go out of his house nearly so much as October gave way to November. And when the snow began to fly in December, Klaus loaded his large flour sack--the very one in which he had packed his tools around town--and made his way to the fine stone church in the middle of the village to see the parish priest, Father Goswin.
"I'm not sure that I entirely understand," said Father Goswin when Klaus took an object from the sack and showed it to him. It was a carved wooden bear with legs that really moved.
"It's a toy!" Klaus said proudly. "I have fifty-three! Not all bears, of course." He rummaged around in his sack, filled with the toys he had been making almost without stopping to sleep or eat for the past weeks. "Look at this one! I've made fifteen of these!" He put into Father Goswin's hand a spinning top made of white ash. The priest turned it over in his hand; he could make nothing of it.
"Here," said Klaus. "You have to apply the string." And he wound up the top and sent it skipping and whistling up the nave. It crashed merrily into the choir screen.
"Klaus!" cried Father Goswin in alarm.
"Fifty-three!" said Klaus again, retrieving his top. "Just the number of children in the village, if you count little Lena born last week. Look! I made this for her." Rummaging around in his sack again, he produced a minuscule rattle and shook it. "I mean to take them to all the children's houses!"
"Ah," Father Goswin said. "Why?"
"They have lost so much this year. And then they helped when I needed it. It's their reward!" And at the thought of the children opening their doors and tripping sleepily over a bear or a top or a boat, his face lit up with a smile. "And the joke will be even greater for those who only pretended to help." His smile grew broader.
Father Goswin had seen these smiles before and knew what they portended. "Now, Klaus," he warned. "You must not laugh. This is a holy edifice."
And so Klaus did not laugh, but it was a near thing. "They won't see me," he said. "The toys will appear on their doorsteps in the night, and in the morning the children will wake up and find them there--as if by Magic!"
Father Goswin crossed himself quickly. "As if by an angel, you mean," he said.
From the Hardcover edition.