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Karl-Bertil Jonsson's Christmas Eve
Taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
Every Christmas eve since 1975 Swedish national television have shown the animated short about Karl-Bertil Jonsson, the fourteen year old rich man's son who wants to take from the rich and give to the poor. The story was originally a Christmas greeting sent out in 1964 by the publishers Wahlström & Widstrand. It was later printed in the book 'Fairy Tales for Children over 18' and finally published on its own, illustrated with pictures from the film, in the year 2000.
This is probably the most beloved animated film ever produced in Sweden. Author Tage Danielsson himself narrates with typical bravura, thoughtfulness, and warmth. Of his work animating the story Per Ahlin says: 'it felt like a challenge to animate a film to be shown on Christmas eve, the same day the block of Disney films are shown'.
There was a Christmas long ago in a time when poor people could still be found roaming the streets. Back then it wasn't disgraceful to be poor, so the bums and other unfortunate citizens didn't have to keep out of the public eye but were allowed to freely wander about.
When the Christmas of this fairy tale drew nearer everyone set about baking and making sausages, there was a great activity cleaning and polishing things, making patés and buying things, clearing out rooms and wrapping presents, and an insane increase in commerce which meant those rich bastard businessmen got richer and their poor hapless customers got poorer.
Karl-Bertil Jonsson stood in one of the post offices in the capital city sorting incoming packets. Karl-Bertil Jonsson was fourteen years old and was still in school, but right then he was, as has been explained, standing in a post office and sorting incoming packets. In these days before Christmas the postal service hired on school children to work through the night because their regular staff went home at 5:00 PM.
And perhaps you feel sorry for Karl-Bertil Jonsson because he was standing there all night long sorting incoming packets. But let me tell you that there was no reason to feel sorry for him. He came from a wealthy family and his father had a huge department store and got richer by the day selling Christmas decorations and sparklers. But Karl-Bertil Jonsson thought it was fun to make a little money on his own, for this story took place in an era when people still thought making money could be fun.
And while Karl-Bertil Jonsson stood and threw a packet marked 'FRAGILE GLASS' to the stone floor in the fragile department he thought about Robin Hood. Robin Hood was Karl-Bertil Jonsson's hero, for this was in a time when the heroes of fourteen year old boys weren't necessarily of a sexual nature. Heroics, brotherhood, fat monks who with the fear of god in them fought with their canes for a just cause, a healthy outdoors life, chaste virgins to help over brooks and rivers, respect for the lawful king and who cured reindeer thighs for dinner - those were some of the things which for Karl-Bertil Jonsson were amongst the loftiest life had to offer. And of course the outlaw principle of justice: take from the rich and give to the poor.
At 4:00 AM with a sigh Karl-Bertil Jonsson crushed the last crystal vase wrapped in pasteboard against the concrete wall of the Royal Postal Authority and headed home through the empty streets. His steps echoed against the house facades, a steady rhythmic echo that hammered against his tired ears. To take from the rich and give to the poor - that hammered rhythmically!
A forlorn prostitute floated past him, nodding to herself with a slightly disappointed look that he was too young. A poor drunk sat on the steps outside a gate and stared at him with a half bottle of vodka in his eyes. A young woman whined quietly on the sidewalk with an infant on her arm, thrown out of her home by the child's cruel father. A juvenile delinquent sped past like a sad gust in a stolen Opel.
Christmas was nigh!
These unhappy people for whom the Salvation Army's kettles were kept warm. Peace to all of good will. Time to light the thousand Christmas candles. Who lights a candle for someone wandering in the dark? Dancing around the tree. The holiday of joy. The star of Christmas shines coldly on those who have no home. To take from the rich and give to the poor.
To take from the rich and give to the poor.
And it was now Karl-Bertil Jonsson arrived at his decision.
The next evening at 12:30 AM Karl-Bertil Jonsson was wakened by his delicate mother. He rose, got his two fried eggs with Falun sausage, snuck into his father's study and stole the income tax almanac, and left for the post office.
He started sorting incoming packets with the somnambulist confidence of a child who has learned something by rote. But his eyes alertly scanned the address on each packet. It was especially the title before the name which he found interesting. Titles such as welder, student, builder, Mr, seamstress, nurse, and surveyor he let go by without interfering, but when he found a packet with the title 'director' he let the packet slide unnoticed into a special sack he had to the side. The same thing happened with packets addressed to civil engineers, colonels, bankers, managing directors, and real estate agents.
By dinnertime the sack at his feet was rather full of packets. He remained behind when the others went out to eat, and as soon as he was alone he pulled out his special sack. Bureau Director HK Bergdahl Oscars Road 30, declared income SEK 67,500. Back in the special sack. The same thing happened with all packets with addressees with a declared income over SEK 50,000. He took the few packets with addressees who despite their affluent titles had declared incomes under SEK 50,000 out of the sack and let them continue to their destinations. But he did make one exception to the 50,000 rule. It concerned a dentist who'd only declared SEK 36,000. That stayed in the sack anyway, for Karl-Bertil Jonsson's father had said, after getting a root canal, that all dentists lied on their tax statements and made obscene amounts of money.
And well before his comrades returned from lunch Karl-Bertil Jonsson had put away his sack in one of the many corners of a post office where no one ever looks. Karl-Bertil Jonsson didn't eat his dinner - noble acts take higher precedence over food in this world.
The rest of the night he worked happily and despite his hunger and did not take any more packets. Well actually he did take one more: it was addressed to his own father and sent by his aunt Märta. When conducting a charitable enterprise one may not spare one's own relatives, he reasoned. The same rules apply for everyone. Father makes more than 50,000 a year; thus father's packet must be put in my sack. He snuck off and put it in the sack. The sack was now completely full.
But now there was a problem: how was he to smuggle his sack out of the post office? A schoolboy temp who drags his own post sack around at the end of the work day doesn't look good. People will start to talk.
Late at night, right before the end of his shift, Karl-Bertil Jonsson snuck over to his sack, pushed down the packets so he could tie the sack up, put one of the postal service's address cards in the rope and wrote his own name and address on the card. Then he dragged the sack out to the huge pile of sacks that were to be transported out into town in the morning.
The following day was Christmas eve. Karl-Bertil Jonsson was wakened at 12:00 by his delicate mother who stood at his bed with glitter in her hair and a coffee tray with ginger cookie pigs in her hands and said:
'Karl-Bertil, an entire postal sack has arrived with your name on it!'
'Oh!' said Karl-Bertil suddenly fully awake. 'That's some extra sorting work for me! Homework in other words!'
'Poor boy!' said his delicate mother. 'He's going to be working and slaving on Christmas eve!'
'One has duties here in life, mother must understand!' said Karl-Bertil and tried to look extra tired. 'A well performed job gives one an inner satisfaction and is simultaneously the fundament upon which our society is founded!'
Karl-Bertil's delicate mother left him, moved as she was by his words.
Karl-Bertil got dressed and went down to the entrance where the sack was waiting, carried it up to his room, and emptied it on the floor. He sat at his desk and took out a bundle of adhesive labels he'd already bought - labels such as one is used to finding on homemade jam jars. On each label he wrote with red ink:
HAPPY CHRISTMAS WISHES FROM AN UKNOWN BENEFACTOR!
He glued the labels over the addresses on each packet. The sender addresses he covered with golden Christmas stars. Then he put the packets back in the sack and carried the sack back to the entrance.
Christmas was in full swing in the sitting room. Mother and the younger siblings were decorating the tree with the twinkling eyes of mothers and younger siblings. Father was in the kitchen making the glögg. The stew dip was on the stove and smelled fatty and wonderful. The radio played Christmas songs in a never ending stream. The television played other Christmas songs in a never ending stream. Everyone was nice and good right to the marrow of their Christmas souls. In other words: Christmas was here!
'An especially happy Christmas I wish you, my well behaved son!' shouted father who had been testing the glögg.
'The tree's ready now!' said mother. 'Isn't it pretty? Come, Tyko, and put the star at the top!'
This was father's honour at Christmas. Proudly he climbed up on a chair and at the top of the tree fastened the big glittery star which normally cost 14.50 but which he'd taken home for free from his own department store.
And then there was the dipping in the stew amidst a jesting in the family's womb.
After they'd eaten Karl-Bertil said:
'Excuse me, but I have to think about my post sack!'
Karl-Bertil had prepared this exact phrasing carefully, for one may not lie for one's parents on Christmas eve. His utterance was no lie - he really did think about his post sack.
'Poor boy! I can take the car and drive you there!' said father.
'Out of the question. Tyko, you've been drinking glögg!' said mother.
Karl-Bertil drew a sigh of relief.
'OK, but here's a tenner for a taxi then', said Tyko, cheered on by the glögg.
'Thank you, kind father!' said Karl-Bertil, ordered a taxi, went down in the cubbyhole in the cellar where his father kept his Father Christmas suit, brought it up, dragged the sack out to the taxi, and told the driver:
'To the slums please!'
The driver glanced suspiciously in the rear view mirror as if he was dealing with a presumptuous taxi robber. Karl-Bertil's orderly appearance and honest look quieted him down however, and he drove to the miserable slum area in the capital city at the time this fairy tale takes place.
Karl-Bertil climbed out of the taxi with his sack, paid the driver, went into a gateway, and dressed in father's way too big elf costume. And then he went out on his humanitarian Christmas promenade.
The streets were almost empty. A few family fathers who'd been out saying 'Happy Christmas' to other family fathers weaved their way home full of Christmas spirit. Karl-Bertil approached one of them.
'Do you have any nice children at home?'
The man jolted, terrified. Maybe he thought he was dealing with an undercover policeman.
'W-w-what? Yeah... Why?'
'Take this packet and go directly home to your poor family. Happy Christmas!'
The man stood there a while, speechless and with the packet in his hand and then went sober and straight home to his family.
Karl-Bertil continued with heightened spirits to brighten society's dark side with his small sparklers of friendliness. He knocked on the most dilapidated of doors, accosted the trashy street wanderers, conversed with the loneliest of elders, and put packets amongst the bottles before the eyes of the sad manual labourers in the beer café. When he'd finished at the café his sack was empty. He broke into song and his customers joined in.
And now Christmas is coming!
Now Christmas is here!
A little dark and a little cold
Yet so very dear!
A brutish man in a cap pushed away a tear in the corner of his eye, raised his body which with time had taken the form of a beer barrel, went up to Karl-Bertil and took his hand silently. He then went back to his table, opened his packet, and began with moved eyes reading the book he'd received, the autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Les Mots', in its original French edition.
Karl-Bertil went home and put the elf costume back in the cubbyhole in good time before his father would come to get it.
And Christmas continued for Karl-Bertil in that feeling of joy which all good deeds reward their heroes. Presents were passed out, everyone laughed at the amusing rhymes on the packets, and Christmas eve went towards a common feeling of solemnity which only an old feature film on the television could grant people.
Aunt Märta called right in the middle of the movie. Mother answered.
'Good day, aunt Märta! Happy Christmas! What? Hand painted porcelain? No we haven't got any porce... What? Flower patterns? Potted carnations... I'm sorry, aunt Märta, but we haven't... Yes, do that, aunt Märta! Goodbye then! Happy holi...'
Karl-Bertil sat with his heart in his throat.
'Aunt Märta sent us a hand painted porcelain plate, Tyko!'
'And what a relief it didn't arrive! And be quiet now - I'm watching television!'
'But Tyko, she slammed the receiver down on me! She's going to call the general director of the postal service!'
'Poor man! He's probably watching television too! Quiet now!'
'But dear me', said mother, 'how could it get lost? Can you understand that, Karl-Bertil, you who are working at the post office?'
For a fraction of a second Karl-Bertil went through an inner crisis. Lie to your mother on Christmas eve? No! Stand up straight and tell her the truth? Yes!
'I took the packet and gave it to a poor person', said Karl-Bertil.
Father jumped up and pulled his eyes from the television screen.
'What did you say you did?'
'I gave aunt Märta's porcelain plate to a poor person.'
'ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND, BOY?'
'I've taken a lot more packets from rich people and given them to poor people.'
'What?! I've held a communist to my bosom!' Tyko Jonsson was one of those who thought anyone who freely gives things away is a communist.
'But father', protested Karl-Bertil, 'you said yourself you didn't want aunt Märta's porcelain plate!'
'Said and said! It was MY plate! And what do you think all the rest are going to say? Who else have you stolen from aside from me?'
'Their names are marked off in your income tax almanac', said Karl-Bertil.
'DO YOU REALISE WHAT YOU'VE DONE? YOU CAN GO TO PRISON FOR THIS!'
'I'm prepared to take my punishment, father. I have given a little happiness to these unhappy people who don't own a department store, that's what I've done.'
Tyko Jonsson found it difficult to breathe, so consumed was he by his Christmas anger.
'TOMORROW YOU WILL GO WITH ME TO EVERYONE YOU'VE STOLEN A PACKET FROM AND APOLOGISE! AND NOW YOU WILL MARCH TO BED! YOU DON'T GET TO SEE HOW THE MOVIE ENDS!'
Karl-Bertil went to bed. He'd already read in the newspapers how the movie ended. He fell asleep and dreamt that he was sleeping under the stars in Sherwood Forest.
Let's pause here and pose a few questions.
Wouldn't Karl-Bertil's cruel father's heart have softened if he'd been able to witness with his own eyes the happiness his son spread over society's lowest layer? If he'd seen the prostitute Beda Larsson press her striped silk tie to her breast on Christmas night, wouldn't his eyes have then softened? Would he have been able to maintain his anger if he'd been able to cast a glance in the home of unemployed Harald Ljungström where the children played gleefully with their six Japanese napkin rings of pear tree wood? Or how could he have resisted if he'd been present when the lonely widow Lisbeth Blomkvist opened her packet and with tear filled eyes regarded a bottle of Aqua Vera aftershave?
These questions remain unanswered. We can only assess the probability that if the cheerful tones from the toy trumpet of former barrel maker Ernst Haraldsson reached into the home of Tyko Jonsson, so had the latter not slumbered this Christmas night in anger.
Not even the television's early morning Christmas service's joyful message of peace on earth to all people of good will could make the temperament of Tyko Jonsson more pious. He was a righteous man who didn't want to be associated with thievery. Later that day he took his income tax almanac and his son and started on his pilgrimage to a number of fellow human beings with an annual income over 50,000.
Bureau Director HK Bergdahl's maid opened the mahogany door.
'Can we speak with the bureau director?' said Tyko Jonsson. 'It's about a Christmas present.'
They were shown into the salon where the Bergdahl family were sitting cracking nuts.
'Good day!' said an embarrassed Tyko Jonsson. 'My son has given one of your presents to a poor person!'
'I should like to apologise!' said Karl-Bertil. 'But you're so rich and happy, even without that packet, and so I saw that it instead spread a little Christmas joy in society's lowest layer!'
Bureau Director Bergdahl stood and gawked.
'HOT DAMN! If that isn't the nicest thing I've heard since my confirmation!' he blurted out. 'Care for a fig?'
'Oh, that must be uncle Artur's matchstick picture of Boden castle, he called and asked about it yesterday', said Mrs Bergdahl. 'I hope it was beautiful - I told him it was!'
'Yeah we usually say that when they call', said the bureau director. 'We can't keep track of all the dumb things all our crazy relatives send us. Thanks, my boy! For helping us escape the Boden castle matchstick picture!'
Karl-Bertil's expedition of apologies formed itself more and more into a pure victory parade. Wherever he went he was received as a hero, and the victimised families' joy that home knitted woolen scarves and fashioned letter presses ended up with people who needed them more knew no bounds. Tyko Jonsson's embarrassed regard of his son was gradually transformed into a proud smile. At the last address they visited he himself proposed a toast to his son, and they toasted him, and father and son departed under an intensive ovation.
When they went home dusk had already settled and the Christmas star lit their path.
'Our son is a good human being!' was Tyko Jonsson's happy message to his family when they stepped over the threshold to their home.
'It's been a blessed Christmas!' said Karl-Bertil's delicate mother with a curiously religious look in her eye, for this fairy tale took place, as explained, in an era when Christmas was still celebrated for the birth of Christ.