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Father Christmas by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Father Christmas is an extract from Winter, Knausgaard's collection of short essays on the wonders of life. Translated from Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey and illustrated by Lars Lerin, it's perfect for a winter night in

Lars Lerin illustration

Yesterday evening I was standing on a gravel road, it was drizzling, I was dressed in a red coat, on my feet I wore long woollen stockings over my best shoes, and on my head I wore a mask which seemed to stare up into the damp and compact darkness of the sky. In one hand I held a jute sack, in the other an old-fashioned lantern. As I approached the lit-up house at the end of the road, I stopped, opened the lantern, lit the tea light, closed the little hatch, pulled the mask down over my face, slung the sack over my shoulder, bent my back and walked with the short steps of an old man over to the window.

Up until now I had felt a little nervous, but the nervousness disappeared the moment I bent over, it was as if I had become an old man and was no longer playing the part. I rapped on the window. There was the sound of running steps from within, and I drew back a little. A child’s face was pressed against the windowpane. I lifted my hand in trembling greeting and continued over to the entrance door, which shortly after was flung open. Merry Christmas to all, I said in a piping voice. The boy stared at me intensely for a few seconds, clearly prepared to expose me, before he rather anxiously withdrew. His parents appeared, they looked smilingly at me and asked whether I wanted something to fortify myself. I shook my head. I'm driving, I said, looking at the boy. What is your name, then? I asked. He said his name. I repeated it, mumbling to myself as I rummaged through the sack. When I handed him his present, he tore off the wrapping in an explosion of movement. Shortly after I was standing outside again, by the short wall of the house, with the mask pulled up over my head and a glowing cigarette in my mouth.

The father came out, peering around him. Over here! I said in a low voice. Well, that went pretty well, he said, stopping in front of me. Yes, I said. It seems he fell for it this year too. Can I bum one off you? the father asked. Sure, I said. We walked along the road to my car, which was parked at the end of it, at the crossroads where the main road went by. We got in. Smart move to park here, the father said. He was sure he was going to find you out because of the car. Yes, I said, and drove into the countryside. The road was completely deserted, even as it passed through the village, there wasn’t a person in sight. I parked near the school, and we got out into the rain. Would you like a whisky? I asked. He nodded, and I got out the glasses and the bottle I had in the car, poured us drinks. It was unusually quiet; on any other evening a car would have passed occasionally. When our glasses were empty, I put mine back in the car, took off my coat and handed it to him. He stuck one arm into the sleeve, took the whisky glass in his other hand and stuck his other arm in. The coat-tails flapped in the wind. I handed him the mask. So you ́ll be along in a couple of minutes then, I said and started towards the house. Two of the children came out when they heard the door open. They had refused to believe that I had really gone out to buy cigarettes, so I held the packet out to them as proof.

Father Christmas

I'm not Father Christmas, and I’ve been to the petrol station to buy cigarettes, just like I said, I said.

 I'm not Father Christmas, and I’ve been to the petrol station to buy cigarettes, just like I said, I said. They didn’t know quite what to believe. Just then there was a knock on the door. Who can it be? I said. The older child gave me an ironic look. I opened the door, and there was Father Christmas with the lantern in his hand and the sack over his shoulder. Are there any good children here? he said. He didn’t have a piping voice, but spoke with a Finland-Swedish accent. Mum, Mum, Father Christmas is here! the youngest shouted. The others at the party came out, and the hall filled with people, we stood in a semicircle staring at Father Christmas, who rummaged slowly through his sack and pulled out presents one by one, handing them solemnly to the children, who stared at him as if in a daze. Would you like something to fortify yourself? I asked, and he nodded, downing the glass of cognac in one go.

After he left, the children were far too engrossed in the presents to notice that I went out after him. He was standing by the car waiting for me, still wearing the mask.

It struck me how sinister he looked, in those familiar surroundings, with the grotesque mask covering his face.

I took out the bottle again and poured two drinks, handing him one.

Well, merry Christmas, he said, raising his glass. Merry Christmas, I said.

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