Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Tailor of Gloucester

According to Beatrix Potter, during the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, the animals can talk (perhaps the reason that so many Christmas stories feature talking animals). In her story The Tailor of Gloucester, the animals don't say too much, but they talk enough to help out the poor, hapless tailor experience his own kind of Christmas miracle.

The tailor of Gloucester is a poor, old man working very hard to make a coat of cherry-coloured embroidered silk for the Mayor of Gloucester's Christmas wedding. Four days before Christmas, the tailor has all 12 pieces for the coat and waistcoat cut and ready upon the table. Everything is in order for him to assemble his masterpiece (which he is hoping will bring him some fame and thus more orders) except one missing length of cherry-coloured twisted silk.

But the tailor is tired, and at the end of the day when he goes home he sends his cat Simkin to the store to buy some milk, bread and sausages for supper, and asks him to also fetch one skein of cherry-coloured twisted silk.

But while Simkin is out, the tailor hears little tapping noises coming from the sideboard. Curious, he goes over and notices several teacups all turned upside-down. Righting them, he frees a number of little mice (all appropriately dressed in little waistcoats and aprons). But when Simkin returns from the store and finds that the tailor has freed his super, he is angry and hides the twist in the teapot.

Then disaster strikes and the tailor gets sick from the worry of not having enough twist to finish the jacket and waistcoat or enough money to buy more. For three days and three nights he is bedridden while the lovely pieces of cherry-coloured silk lie ready for assembly on his worktable. But even in 19th Century Gloucester, karma has a way of making things happen.

While the tailor is tossing and turning in a feverish nightmare of no more twist, the little brown mice of the city are hunkered down in his shop, needles in hand, to sew the Mayor’s wedding jacket and waistcoat. They work all night, singing mousey little songs to tease poor hungry Simkin who sits watching through the window.

But then the mice hit a snag—no more twist! Off they scamper, leaving Simkin alone in the window and the coat ad waistcoat nearly finished on the table.

Simkin slinks home, feeling very ashamed of himself and his hiding of the twist. He fishes it out of the teapot and presents it to the tailor, who is still weak from his illness. Convinced he will never be able to finish the jacket on time, the tailor heads to his shop on Christmas morning, and there, lying on his worktable are the coat and waistcoat, beautifully finished and embroidered, with a tiny note pinned to the last unfinished buttonhole that reads “no more twist.”

But the tailor has enough energy and twisted silk to finish the pair of garments for the Mayor, who is most pleased with them when he arrives to pick them up. Never before has he seen such tiny stitches or perfect little details, and he his thrilled with his wedding finery.

Of course, the tailor becomes famous and, although he doesn’t get rich, he certainly manages to rent more than just the kitchen he and Simkin were living in.

Reading stories on Christmas Eve has always been one of our Christmas traditions and my dad reads us The Tailor of Gloucester every year. It isn’t a story about Santa, or presents, or even religion really. But it is undoubtedly a Christmas story. The generosity of the little mice and the lesson they teach Simkin about manners (among other things) fall perfectly in line with the values we trumpet during the holidays.

Less profound, perhaps, is the invocation of the magic of Christmas Eve—when animals can talk and mice can sew—which is something worth holding onto.


  1. I have a similar tradition on Christmas eve! And Beatrix Potter really is a must for story time, I completely agree!

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