“The Elves and the Shoemaker” is a charming fairy tale about a poor shoemaker who gets some unexpected help from some elves around Christmas time!
The story was one of many that were published in “Children’s and Household Tales” (Kinder und Hausmärchen) by the the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (the Brothers Grimm) in 1812. This book contained three elf stories, all given under the 39th entry named “The Elves” (Die Wichtelmänner).
Margaret Hunt translated the story from German into English in 1884. However, the English version given below was translated from German by Lucy Crane. This version was published in “Household Stories” in 1886. The illustrations in the book were done by Lucy’s brother, Walter Crane.
There was once a shoemaker, who, through no fault of his own, became so poor that at last he had nothing left but just enough leather to make one pair of shoes. He cut out the shoes at night, so as to set to work upon them next morning; and as he had a good conscience, he laid himself quietly down in his bed, committed himself to heaven, and fell asleep. In the morning, after he had said his prayers, and was going to get to work, he found the pair of shoes made and finished, and standing on his table. He was very much astonished, and could not tell what to think, and he took the shoes in his hand to examine them more nearly; and they were so well made that every stitch was in its right place, just as if they had come from the hand of a master-workman.
Soon after a purchaser entered, and as the shoes fitted him very well, he gave more than the usual price for them, so that the shoemaker had enough money to buy leather for two more pairs of shoes. He cut them out at night, and intended to set to work the next morning with fresh spirit; but that was not to be, for when he got up they were already finished, and a customer even was not lacking, who gave him so much money that he was able to buy leather enough for four new pairs. Early next morning he found the four pairs also finished, and so it always happened; whatever he cut out in the evening was worked up by the morning, so that he was soon in the way of making a good living, and in the end became very well to do.
One night, not long before Christmas, when the shoemaker had finished cutting out, and before he went to bed, he said to his wife,
“How would it be if we were to sit up to-night and see who it is that does us this service?”
His wife agreed, and set a light to burn. Then they both hid in a corner of the room, behind some coats that were hanging up, and then they began to watch. As soon as it was midnight they saw come in two neatly-formed naked little men, who seated themselves before the shoemaker’s table, and took up the work that was already prepared, and began to stitch, to pierce, and to hammer so cleverly and quickly with their little fingers that the shoemaker’s eyes could scarcely follow them, so full of wonder was he. And they never left off until everything was finished and was standing ready on the table, and then they jumped up and ran off.
The next morning the shoemaker’s wife said to her husband, “Those little men have made us rich, and we ought to show ourselves grateful. With all their running about, and having nothing to cover them, they must be very cold. I’ll tell you what; I will make little shirts, coats, waistcoats, and breeches for them, and knit each of them a pair of stockings, and you shall make each of them a pair of shoes.”
The husband consented willingly, and at night, when everything was finished, they laid the gifts together on the table, instead of the cut-out work, and placed themselves so that they could observe how the little men would behave. When midnight came, they rushed in, ready to set to work, but when they found, instead of the pieces of prepared leather, the neat little garments put ready for them, they stood a moment in surprise, and then they testified the greatest delight. With the greatest swiftness they took up the pretty garments and slipped them on, singing,
“What spruce and dandy boys are we!
No longer cobblers we will be.”
Then they hopped and danced about, jumping over the chairs and tables, and at last they danced out at the door.
From that time they were never seen again; but it always went well with the shoemaker as long as he lived, and whatever he took in hand prospered.
A slightly modified version of the story was beautifully portrayed in the 1962 movie “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm”, starring Karlheinz Böhm and Laurence Harvey. In this version, the shoemaker spends Christmas Eve carving toy elves for some local orphans. Although he then tries to repair his customers’ shoes, he is just too tired and dozes off. When the clock strikes midnight, the toy elves come to life and complete his unfinished work whilst singing “Ah Umm”.