Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1701/The Feast of the Roofs

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From The Daily Evening Telegraph.




Oh! how beautiful the Paris roofs looked that night! What silence, what calm, what a supernatural brightness hung over them! Below, the streets were black with mud, the river ran heavy-ladened with its ice, and the gaslights burned dimly in the frosty air. Above, as far as one could see, over the palaces and towers, the terraces and cupolas, on the slender spire of the Sainte Chapelle, and those myriad roofs crowded and leaning together, the snow glistened white, casting its cool, blue shadows, so that it seemed like a second city, an ethereal Paris suspended between the gloom of the darkness and the fantastic moonlight.

Although it was yet early in the evening, all the fires were out; not the smallest smoke-cloud floated over the roofs. Only the happy chimneys wherein wood burned and cracked every day could be quickly distinguished by a dark circle which the smoke still left about them, and by the warm air which ascended from them into the frozen night, like the breath of the sleeping house. The others, stiff and crowded together in the the thick snow, kept still their last spring's nests, and were, like them, void of warmth and life; and in this upper city, enveloped in whiteness, which the Paris streets crossed in every direction like immense precipices, the shadows of all its crooked chimneys, broken and black, like trees in winter, crossed each other on the deserted avenues, where no one save the Paris sparrows had ever trod, whose tiny footprints could be clearly defined every here and there on the crystalline snow.

At this hour even, a band of these impertinent little Bohemians were hopping about on the edge of a gutter, and their cries alone disturbed the religious silence and solemn watching of the city of the roofs, which, entirely covered with a vast carpet of ermine, seemed as though prepared for the passage of a child-king.

The Paris Swallows. By all the saints, how cold it is! There is no possible way of sleeping; one may make oneself into a ball, and spread out one's feathers all one can, but the frost will wake and bite one!

A Sparrow (further off). Halloa there! you sparrows, halloa! Come quickly here. I've found an old chimney, with a brass coping, where they have made a fire late and we can all keep nice and warm, leaning close to it.

All the Band (flying towards him). Hold! it's true, how good it is here, and how warm! Let us laugh and sing. All hail, joy! piou, piou, piou; cui, cui, cui.

The Chimney. Will you pray hold your tongues, you little wretches! It is surely only yourselves who would dare to sing at such a time; when everything is quiet and keeps silence. See, the wind even holds its breath, not a weathercock is moving.

The Sparrows (lower). Mercy! what's the matter?

The Chimney. Dear me, don't you know that it is the feast of the roofs to-night? Don't you know that Christmas is coming to make his distribution of gifts to the children?

The Sparrows. King Christmas?

The Chimney. Why, yes. If you could but see below there in the houses all the little shoes[1] arranged before the warm ashes. There are some of every shape and size, from the wee, little blue slippers that belong to tottering tiny feet, to the small boots that sound so loud, filling the house with their noise, from the small shoe lined with fur to the little sabots that do so many weary wanderings, and even to the larger shoes that by some chance of fate are made to cover small, naked feet, as though the poor had no age, or any right to be a child.

The Sparrows. And when, then, is he to arrive, this marvellous little king?

The Chimney. Why, directly — at midnight. Hush! listen

A Clock (with a solemn voice). Dang, dang, dang!

The Chimney. Look ! don't you see down there, all the heavens are lightening up?

The Sparrows (with the excitement of Parisian gamins looking at fireworks). Oh!

The Clock (continuing to strike). Dang, dang, dang!

Twelve o'clock! Hardly had the last stroke of twelve sounded, when a great ringing of all the bells was heard on every side at once. Under the belfries covered with snow they rang merrily high up in the air, as if they rang for the roofs alone, alternating and confounding their voices, mingling deep tones with light ones, dying away, and then returning again, with those crescendos and diminutions of sound, which come and go with the wind, giving the effect of a belfry turning like a lighthouse tower.

The Bells. Boom! boom! Behold him! It is he; it is little King Christmas!

The Wind. Whew, whew! Ring loud, my good bells, with all your might; louder still! Christmas is near — he is following me. Don't you smell the good odor of green holly, of incense, and perfumed wax that I bring on my wings?

The Belfries. Ding, din, dong! Ding, din, dong! Christmas! Christmas!

The Wind. Come, you chimneys, what is the matter with you, staying there with your mouths wide open? Come sing to Christmas with me. Come on, you roofs — come, you weathercocks!

The Chimneys. Hi, hi! — Christmas! Christmas!

The Weathercocks. Creak, creak! — Christmas! Christmas!

A Tile (too enthusiastically). Christmas! Chris — (in its joy it made a leap and fell down into the street) — bong, bang, bing!

The Sparrows. What a noise!

The Chimney. Well, you sparrows, you say nothing at all. Now is the time to sing.

The Sparrows. Piou, piou, piou. Cui, cui, cui — Christmas! Christmas!

The Chimney. Jump up on my shoulder, you can see better then.

The Sparrows (on the chimney). Oh! how pretty it is, how pretty it is! All those pink, green, and blue lights that are dancing on the roofs!

The Chimneys. And that procession of baskets full of toys and ribbons, flowers and bonbons. All a Parisian winter's novelties going by surrounded by golden light and bright colors!

The Sparrows. Tell us, then, who are those little men that carry the baskets? Are they all King Christmases, all those?

The Chimney. Why no! Those are the kobolds.

The Sparrows. What did you call them? the ——

The Chimney. The kobolds; that means the familiar spirits of each house who lead Christmas to all the chimneys where there are little shoes waiting.

The Sparrows. And Christmas, where is he?

The Chimney. It is the last one of all, the little blonde child with such sweet eyes, and his hair in golden rays flying around him like the wisps of straw from his little cradle, and his cheeks so pink with the cold air. Look at him walking; his feet only brush the snow without leaving any traces.

The Sparrows. How beautiful he is! One would say he was a little wax image.

The Chimney. Hush! listen! At this moment a young and solemn voice full of sweet tones, like a baby's laugh, resounded in the crystalline atmosphere that cold and moonlight always create on heights.

The child-king stopped on a terraced roof, and there standing surrounded by all his little basket-carriers, he spoke thus to his people.

Christmas. Yes, my friends, it is I, it is Christmas. Good-morning, roofs, good morning, my old belfries! The night is so clear that I see you all scattered around me in this large Paris that I love. Oh, yes! my Paris, I do love you, because you who laugh at everything, you have not yet laughed at little Christmas because you believe in him, you who hardly believe any more in anything. So, you see, I come to visit you every year. Never have I missed. I came even during the siege, do you remember? How very sad it was indeed! No fires, no lights, the chimneys all cold, and the bombshells whistling around my head; tearing up the roofs and knocking down chimneys. And, then, so many little children missing! I had too many toys that year, and I brought away whole baskets full. Happily to-night I shall have none left, for they told me I would have a great many shoes to fill. So, I have brought the most marvellous playthings, and all French ones.

A Parisian Sparrow. Bravo! I take to him passing well, that little one there!

All The Sparrows. Piou, piou! Cui, cui! Long live Christmas!

A Flock of Storks (flying through the heavens in a long triangle). Qua, qua! All hail, Christmas!

The Wind (blowing up the snow). Sing, then, to Christmas, if you please, you also!

The Snow (in a whisper). I cannot sing to him, but I offer him incense. Look at the cloud of soft white dust that I throw around the baskets and in the blonde curls of my little king! Ah! we have known each other for a long while, we two! Think! I saw him born down there in his little stable.

The Wind, the Bells, and Chimneys (singing together with all their might). Christmas! Christmas! Long live Christmas!

Christmas. Not so loud, my friends — not so loud; we must not wake up all our little ones down there. It is so good, the happiness that comes to one while sleeping, and when one does not expect it! Now, good kobolds, come with me on the roofs; we will begin our distribution. But listen to this. I have determined to try something new this year. All that we have of prettiest in playthings, the gilded Punchinellos, the satin bags full of pralines, the large dolls all dressed in lace, I want all those to go to the poor little sabots in the chimneyplaces where there is no fire, and in the cold garrets, and we will put in the happy houses, on the velvet carpets and thick fur rugs, all these little toys that cost only a sou, and which smell so strongly of glue and pine wood.

The Sparrows. That will be famous, famous! Now, that is a good idea.

The Kobolds. Pardon us for making an observation to you, little Christmas; but see, with your new system the poor will be happy, but the little rich ones will weep. And my faith! a child who cries is neither rich or poor, it is a child that weeps and there is nothing sadder.

Christmas. Never you mind. I know better than you. The poor will be so enchanted even to touch those complicated toys which look so tempting to them behind the window-panes of the shops on the Boulevard, and whose glided splendor adds really nothing to the value of the toys and their means of giving pleasure. But I will bet anything that the little rich ones will be delighted to have for once in their lives jumping-jacks and wooden dolls or springs; in fact all those temptations at thirteen sous apiece of which the bazars, where they are never allowed to enter, are full. Come on, then; it is all arranged. And now, en route and let us hasten! There are so many chimneys in Paris and the night is so short.

Thereupon the little lights dispersed themselves in every direction, looking as though all the small pine branches from the Christmas-tree had been lighted and thrown on the snow. Not a chimney was forgotten, from those of palaces surrounded by terraces and trees all white with the hoarfrost, to the poor roofs heavy-ladened with poverty, and which seemed to lean together in order not to fall beneath its sad weight. Soon on all the Paris houses one could hear the ringing of the little bells, and all those odd and various sounds to be heard in toy-shops. The baa-ing of little woollen sheep, the lisping of speaking dolls, the rustling of embroidered satins, rattles, trumpets, small wheels on wooden post-horses, the postilions cracking whips, and the whirring of tiny windmill wheels. All this was in commotion, flying over and disappearing down the chimneys. Where there were no children, Christmas, guided by his kobolds, passed quickly, never making a mistake. But, sometimes, just as he was approaching a chimney with his hands full, a kobold would tremblingly say, "He is dead; it is useless. There are no more little shoes in the house. Keep your playthings, my little king; it would make the poor mother weep to see them."

For a long, long time the small lights wandered about in this wise. Then all at once a cock with a bad cold sang out in the fog; a streak of daylight appeared in the heavens, and immediately all the mysterious charm of Christmas was over. The feasts of the roofs had finished, and that of the houses had begun. Soon a soft, sweet sound ascended from the chimneys at the same moment with the smoke of the newly-lighted fires. It was the cry of joy or shout of laughter in children's voices, who now in their turn cried out, "Christmas! Christmas; Long live Christmas!" and over the deserted roofs the sun, a fine winter's sun, artificial though rosy-tinted, ascended, and threw its first rays on the glittering snow, and looked like the spangles, the mother-of-pearl, the golden fringes which had fallen from the baskets of the little king!

  1. In France the children place their shoes on the hearths instead of hanging up their stockings.