Once upon a time, in a land so far away they had heard neither of Google nor of the iPhone 5, there lived a Queen so beautiful it almost hurt to look at her. Her eyes were as clear as a mountain lake, her skin as white as milk, her hair as golden as, well, gold.
This Queen ruled over a land of perpetual Winter—indeed, of perpetual Christmas. The snow fell at opportune times, when everyone was prepared for it and felt ready to shovel, and it blanketed everything prettily, from the fir trees on the hilltops to the thatched roofs in the valleys. The snow was just right, too, for making snowmen and snowballs and tobogganing and sledding. And when everyone was tired of the snow it would magically stop snowing, and the sun would shine brightly (though not enough to melt the snow).
In this land of Forever Christmas there lived all kinds of talking animals, who did not realise they were special for being able to talk. And because they were talking animals, there was a strange glow around them, although they weren’t aware of this either. Mole and hare, deer and robin, badger, bear, horse and lion all chatted with each other, sharing news and harmless gossip. They were always merry and partied all the time, since the mood was always festive.
A year in Forever Christmas Land lasted thirteen days—Christmas Eve plus the twelve days of Christmas—then the celebrations started all over again. Hardly had the animals stopped exchanging gifts and exclaiming over what they had received, then it was time to unwrap presents once more. The Christmas tree in every home was always lit up, their fairy lights winking non-stop. There were always stockings hung up at the chimney place, chestnuts roasting by the open fire and sleigh bells ringing.
Nobody ever got unhappy in Forever Christmas Land, because whenever they felt just a wee bit sad, everyone would start singing carols to cheer them up. And then they would make and pass round hot mugs of cocoa, or eat chicken tikka masala by the light of the moon.
You might think that the beautiful Queen watched over all this with joy, but she did not. Her heart grew heavier and heavier as each Christmas flew by. Every Christmas card she received—signed with paw print or hoof seal or claw mark—drove her into deeper and deeper despair. For in her heart the Queen held a dark secret, one that she had divulged only to her closest special animals advisors, or Spaads.
When the land of Forever Christmas had been created, the Great King himself had assigned the Queen a terrible task: she would have to stop Christmas one day. On her befell the onerous burden of calling a halt to the incessant cracker-pulling and egg-nog drinking. She would have to put an end to all the merry-making when she felt the time was right.
Only the time never seemed right, for the Queen could not bring herself to terminate Christmas. On Christmas Eve she would harden her resolve, on Christmas Day she would see the animals frolicking about in joy and her will would wobble, and on Boxing Day, when they all sat down to watch telly, she felt as if her heart would break. By the third day of Christmas, when the French hens fluttered in, all her determination was spent.
The Queen was reluctant to end Christmas because she had seen in her magic mirror what the world would become without it. Oh, the animals would still celebrate Christmas, just not in perpetuity—only once every 365 days, imagine that!—and not in the same way. To them, Christmas would not be a way of being, but of running around and doing. They would scurry around, ticking off one to-do task after another, and worry about how they looked and what they wore. They would fret about the presents they gave and whether these were good enough.
In this new world, during the long months when it wasn’t Christmas, the animals had lots of things to do. She saw rabbits hopping to set up restaurants on the Edgware Road. Leopards loped to sell cigars on Bond Street. Cats made all kinds of crafts in the East End; dramatic dogs staged shows at the West End. Wolves hung around the Stock Exchange. Sheep rounded up each other in the Highlands while melancholy newts took interminable walks in the Lake District.
Some animals became Tories, others took to Labour, while still others perched on the fence in between. Weasel MPs, convincing themselves that this was still the land of perpetual gifts, fiddled with their expenses.
But the Queen had seen something altogether more worrying in her magic mirror. A land that was not Forever Christmas was a different land altogether. No longer living under round-the-clock yuletide magic, the animals would change. Their heads would hang lower, their shoulders droop. Their manes would be less majestic, their crowing less cocky, their neighs quieter. The most terrifying thing the Queen saw was that some animals – indeed, many animals—would stop talking altogether.
This was why the beautiful Queen tarried, and took her time over drawing an end to Christmas. Until one day, in desperation, her Spaads urged her to execute her task and be done with it. ‘It is an edict from the Great King!’ they cried. ‘You can’t ignore an edict from the Great King.’
So, with a great and painful sigh, on a tenth day of Christmas as she tried to dodge the lords a-leaping, the Queen waved her wand—
And all of a sudden and all at once—Forever Christmas stopped.
Just like that.
And the Queen decided to take a long sabbatical.
The winters came and went, year after year, in this new land where there were 364 days between each Christmas. Besides winter, there came three other seasons—spring, summer and autumn—all more or less as beautiful as winter, but none containing Christmas. The animals, to cope with the fact that Christmas now had an end, invented something called New Year’s Day, where they drank themselves silly. And then they made resolutions never to drink again.
As the decades and centuries flew by the animals became busier and busier, with more and more Important and Urgent things to do, their annual Christmas rite being only one of them. Fir trees were bought at the last minute, and were sometimes plastic. Christmas cards were often forgotten, credit cards swiped more and more. Presents were no longer about giving and receiving, but buying and selling. Shopping malls became the places of congregation, as churches stood empty.
It was at such a time that the Queen returned from her sabbatical and summoned her Spaads to her. They gave her a detailed (if overlong and somewhat conflicting) report of all that had happened since her departure. Then, at her bidding, they rushed off and scampered back with her magic mirror, being careful to dust it off thoroughly, for it had been many a year.
And when the Queen gazed into her magic mirror she felt much anger and sorrow. Everything was as her Spaads had told her—only worse, much worse. The commercialisation of Christmas was the least of her worries.
Up and down the land, and all over the vast world, animals had stopped talking. Some would choose to stop; others plain forgot they had been gifted with the powers of speech.
There were still animals who spoke with great clarity and purpose, of course, but it was precisely this that made the Queen’s heart sink. For the fate that befell some of these animals filled her with horror. In many places, animals were caged for merely speaking up. Many were bullied so that they would never talk again, others maimed and killed. Across the world, creatures lay in dungeons for merely telling the truth as they saw it. Tigers were chained, pandas spirited away, chimpanzees whimpered as they were lashed and beaten.
Animal slaughtered animal in the fear that somebody, somewhere would say something nobody wanted to hear.
And this happened during Christmastime, and all throughout the year.
The Queen trembled. So great was her shock she could hardly speak.
‘Take away the mirror,’ she finally cried to her Spaads. ‘Take away the mirror while I think of something I can do.’
The Spaads quickly made to U-turn with the mirror—
‘Oh Your Majesty, wait,’ suddenly said a Spaad called Plugg, who was a bit more clued in than the rest. ‘Something strange is happening to the animals who speak. Look!’
The Queen gazed at the mirror, and indeed something curious was happening to the animals who spoke loudly and bravely. They glowed with a light that just grew bigger and bigger. It was the same glow that all the animals had back in the land of Forever Christmas, only brighter and more powerful.
‘Spaads,’ said the Queen, making a snap decision. ‘Make haste to the land of Regular Christmas. Bring back as many talking animals as you can, especially those who have paid the most terrible price for speaking. I wish to question them, and after that I must cast a spell so they will forget they ever saw me. For now that they no longer dwell in the land of Forever Christmas, they must not know I exist.’
So the Spaads rushed off to Regular Christmas Land, and gathered as many talking animals as they could. And the talking animals all hustled into the Big Hall of the Queen, wondering why they had been called and what in the world would happen next. Many waited with trepidation, for they were used to being punished.
The Queen entered the Hall and looked at all of the animals who made a habit of speaking, and who now stood in front of her. They came in all shapes and sizes. Some were big and some small, some looked rich and others poor. All were scarred in some way.
‘Talking animals,’ said the Queen. ‘I have observed your troubles with grief and helplessness. Yet something has struck me as very strange. In my magic mirror, I have seen that you glow with a bigger and brighter light than I have ever seen. Do you know why that is so?’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ growled a large ox with gashes on his side. ‘We glow brighter because we chose.’
‘You… chose?’ said the Queen.
‘Yes,’ trilled a nightingale with a broken wing. ‘We chose to speak. And when you actively choose to do something, that something means so much more.’
‘It’s a fact of life,’ piped up a white mouse who had only one eye.
And all the other animals nodded, and their light burned even better and stronger.
‘And… aren’t you ever afraid?’ asked the Queen.
‘Never,’ said a stoat stoutly, puffing out his chest. ‘I just do what I have to do, because I know I have to do it.’
‘I’m afraid all the time,’ whispered a mare who looked much older than her years. ‘All the time.’
‘Yet you still do it,’ said the Queen quietly.
By now the animals were glowing so brightly the entire Hall seemed to glow along with them. The Queen saw that the light from some creatures seemed to spark off an even larger light in the others, so that soon every being, including she herself, was as luminous as suns. In this light none of the animals’ wounds could be seen. And some of the animals started crying, because they had wanted the light for so long.
Finally, after a long time, the Queen drew her wand and cast her spell of forgetfulness over the talking animals. Before sending them back to the land of Regular Christmas, she sprinkled magic potions over each of them, just to make their journeys that little bit easier. Then her Spaads brought the animals back to the world, where the creatures met whatever fates befell them.
After that the Queen pondered deeply what the talking animals had said. She hoped, in her heart of hearts, that soon there would be more and more animals who chose to use their voices, and that their lights would grow ever and ever brighter, until one day it would be like the land of Forever Christmas again—only better.
And that is how we all live, to this day.