Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 20 Dec 2021

The Good Little Christmas Tree by Ursula Moray Williams

I now have quite a large collection of books relating to Christmas which I tend to browse through fondly at this time of year. I bought this one a long time ago, impressed by the bold artwork on the cover which is surpassed by the several double page spreads inside. Ursula Moray Williams (1911- 2006) wrote and illustrated over 70 books and is best known for ‘Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse' (1939) and ‘ 'Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat’ (1942). ‘The Good Little Christmas Tree’ (1943) has sumptuous illustrations that are described on the title page as ‘Scissor Cuts and Line Drawings by the Author'.

I have enjoyed looking at these which are all are vividly coloured and include borders or margins which give them a dramatic atmosphere.

Until now, I have never taken the time to read the story which is charming, if a little strange. A poor peasant father brings home a little Christmas tree as a surprise for his family. When the children are asleep, he and his wife decorate it with home baked cookies tied with scarlet thread because they have no money for fancy decorations or presents. Once they have gone to bed, the little tree ‘stood for a long while thinking deeply’ and then gently pulls his roots out of the pot, peeps out of the door and decides to explore the forest and hopefully make himself more pleasing to the eye.

He is determined to get himself decorated splendidly but soon realises that this will cost him. He exchanges twenty-two green needles for diamonds from gnomes and goblins busily digging in the snow. They try to persuade him to give up one of the cookies but he refuses. Next he has to bargain with fierce wolves who insist that he can’t take away any scarlet toadstools unless he pays with twenty green needles, and preferably some cookies too. He is determined to save the cookies for the children because their mother made them especially. Next he talks to a boy fishing who politely suggests that he takes some sparkling icicles for the branches. He gives him a few green needles to make hooks and this time allows one bite from a cookie. And so the quest for decorations continues with a procession of people going to church and a pedlar sitting by his dying fire.  As you might guess, the tree is starting to look rather dishevelled despite the beautiful decorations adorning his branches.

I was expecting some restorative magic at this point which happens in a religious way as partying Baby Angels take the rest of the needles and cookies. When the tree catches his reflection in a pool of water, he is very miserable. Fortunately, St Nicholas is travelling through the forest (it is Christmas Eve after all) and puts everything right again. He follows the now gorgeous little tree back through the forest and is joined by the Angels, the pedlar, the people from church, the wolves , the goblins and gnomes. I love the last pages which show them processing towards the house as the children look out of the window.

This is beautifully illustrated timeless fable with all the right ingredients for a successful Christmas story – hope, generosity of spirit, magic and a happy ending.       

Karen Argent

December 2021