For the most part, the tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm avoided any mention of specific holidays. Even those holidays somewhat associated with the supernatural or fairies, such as Midsummer’s Eve, one of the few days where, faerie authorities assure us, you might—might—be able to see a fairy. They did make one exception, however: Christmas, which forms an important part of their tale of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”
“The Elves and the Shoemaker” is actually one of three tales about elves, all usually grouped together in most editions of the Grimm tales under the title of “Elves,” when, that is, the last two tales appear at all. The three stories were originally told to the Grimms by Dortchen Wild, who eventually married Wilhelm Grimm. All three are quite short—the third story is barely a paragraph long, probably why they end up grouped together, and why the last two are so frequently left out.
The middle story, generally called, helpfully, “Second Story,” tells of a servant girl who receives an invitation from the elves to attend a christening. Her masters, either aware that declining these sorts of invitations never goes well, or delighted at the thought of getting rid of their servant, advise her to go. She spends three days under a mountain, and emerges to find that seven years have passed—and her employers are dead.
It’s a fairly typical tale of those who travel—willingly and unwillingly—into the fairy realms, where time runs strangely. (I like to think that these sorts of stories helped Einstein realize that time is relative, though as far as I know, there’s no evidence for this.) What distinguishes it from other versions are the tiny details. For instance, the servant girl does not know how to read, thus why she needs to turn to her employers for aid. Second, she works in a household that has never put locks on the doors—thus her ability to walk right into the home of her now-dead employers. And third, although given pockets full of fairy gold, she heads right back to work—fully in the Grimm tradition of celebrating work, and particularly housework, but I couldn’t help thinking that just possibly she should have considered buying her own house, first, and then cleaning that—though that, of course, would have spoiled the twist of the tale, finding strangers in her old, well, let’s call it a place of employment.
Indeed, the entire thing does smack just slightly of a bit of a scam. “No, really! I didn’t just walk into your house without permission and start sweeping it! IT WAS ELVES, REALLY, ELVES! Look, they gave me some coins! No, I can’t exactly explain why I wanted to go back and work as a servant even though I now have some fairy cash!” And that’s of course leaving out the starting bit, where this girl says that she found a letter on top of the day’s sweepings—something she alone sees and touches, and says she can’t read. Isn’t it possible—or at least equally possible—that she had someone write a letter for her, signing it “Elves! No, really, trust us! Real Elves!” as an excuse to get out of the house for a bit?
Or maybe we should just believe in elves.
The third story—helpfully called “Third Story”—is about a mother who realizes that her child is a changeling: her neighbors advise boiling some water in some eggshells to force the changeling to laugh. This works, and the elves remove the changeling, restoring her child. I can’t help but feel that this is less a fairy tale, and more a confused retelling of some advice for stressed out young mothers: at the very least, having to boil water in eggshells gives the mother something else to focus on. And it could make an otherwise grumpy baby laugh, turning the child from an unpleasant changeling to a delight.
Or again, maybe we should just believe in elves.
Not surprisingly, of the three, the story that lingered was the first, a Christmas tale about the shoemaker and some elves. The shoemaker has fallen into poverty, with only enough money left to make one more pair of shoes. Exhausted, he decides he’ll leave the work until the morning. I feel many of us can sympathize with this. It’s also a reasonable decision since, with little leather around, he won’t exactly have that much to do. He is rewarded for his decision to choose rest over working well past midnight: in the morning, the shoes have been made for him.
Sidenote: reading this now, I would just like to note that as of yet, not a single magical entity has ever finished writing a story for me, even when I’ve left the computer and Word document temptingly open, or cleaned the bathroom, even when I’ve left cleaning supplies right out for their use. Life is so unfair. Moving on.
The shoemaker immediately sells the shoes for a profit, and, to his credit, immediately sets to work with two more pairs, cutting out the leather and preparing to make them, too, the following day. By the morning, those shoes are made. The shoemaker gets more leather. On the third morning, he has four pairs of shoes. The numbers, the story tells us, continue to double each night, which suggests that within two weeks, well over a thousand pairs of shoes appear within a single night. Which brings up some important questions: How big is this guy’s store, and just how many potential shoe customers does he have, anyway?
Eventually, the shoemaker decides that it might not be a bad idea to figure out where these shoes come from—I would have started asking after night two, but that’s me. So, he and his wife stay up late, for once, to find out that two small elves—or brownies, depending upon the translation—have been making the shoes. The wife suggests making them some clothes as a thank you present; the shoemaker agrees. It seems a small payment for several nights of work, even given the magical assistance part which presumably makes it a bit easier to make shoes, but the delighted elves put on the clothing and scamper off, ending the magic.
But although the magic ends, the satisfaction of the tale does not. Sure, I felt kinda sorry that the elves were gone—and that the shoemaker and his wife would never get to go to fairyland, something that in the very next story is described as one amazing party, so amazing that you really don’t realize just how much time has passed. That’s sad, but I also never read about it until I was all grown-up, thanks to the tendency mentioned above of leaving “Second Story” and “Third Story” out of most collections. And sure, I couldn’t help but feel that the human-made clothing was going to either fall apart, or become unfashionable, or both, over time—possibly sending the little elves back to work, this time for less grateful humans. And also, sure, I found myself wondering just how many shoes the elves had made, and if the customers would notice the difference between human made and elven made shoes. Sure, the story assures us that the shoemaker continued to prosper for the rest of his days—after all, half the point of the tale is to urge listeners to treat supernatural entities kindly—but I can’t help but wonder if someone who bought an elven made pair of shoes came in later, found a human made pair, and couldn’t help feeling ever so slightly disappointed.
All this aside, “The Elves and the Shoemaker” is a rarity among Grimm tales: one without dismemberment, betrayal, rejection, overly harsh punishments, or a single evil character. I suppose it’s possible that the elves have some untold background saga of exile and betrayal that explains why, exactly, they are making shoes instead of attending endless parties in underground realms. That might explain their lack of clothing. Or maybe they were servants in those realms, and chose to leave their livery behind when they escaped. The point is, they don’t seem all that traumatized, and they seem to enjoy making shoes—even if they dance as they depart.
And sure, the shoemaker does spend at least a few days enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labor before taking the time to figure out what, exactly, is going on in his shop at night. But he doesn’t quite just sit back and profit from their work: he cuts and prepares leather each night, and spends the day serving customers—something most retail workers will tell you is not as easy as it sounds. Sure, he ends up becoming wealthy because he’s selling magic shoes—but he also helped earn that money. And sure, rewarding the elves is his wife’s idea, not his—but he participates enthusiastically, creating tiny little shoes for his otherwise unpaid workers.
That’s still considerably less than minimum wage, I hear some of you argue, and, well, you have a point, but this is early 19th century Germany, before many labor laws were codified, and he didn’t exactly hire the elves. At least he’s proving more grateful than many fairy tale characters. And the tale has more than a hint that yes, domestic servants and other laborers do deserve compensation for their work—not an element found in many fairy tales.
Which makes this both a classic tale of deserving protagonists and a classic wish fulfillment tale. After all, who among us hasn’t dreamed about waking up to find that our work for today is completely, magically, done before we’ve even made it to the first cup of coffee? Especially in winter, when, let’s face it, staying in bed often feels like the better option. (Ok, that can also happen in summer, but it’s especially true in winter.) And, of course, a classic holiday tale, of wish fulfillment, and getting just what you want for a present: a successful business, if you are a shoemaker; tailor made clothes, if you are an elf. And amazing shoes, if you are just a shopper.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.