James and Tristan are the Tinman and the Scarecrow, Siegfried is the Lion, and instead of a bad witch there are two good ones, Mrs. Hall and Helen. So writes the precocious young Eva to her parents about her temporary home at Skeldale House, to which she has been evacuated during the war. Which means Eva must be Dorothy, although she’s missing a Toto.
She finds one when she joins James on a visit to Mrs. Pumphrey’s manor to check on a stray cat that has been hanging around. The cat has had a kitten, and now seems to be exhausted. The kitten is healthy, but needs to be taken away from its mother for a bit so that she can rest and the kitten will still eat. It will come back to Skeldale, where Eva names it Toto and takes charge of feeding it.
Siegfried also brings back an animal to treat at Skeldale. River, the frightened horse whom he has done so much to help, has an issue with his foreleg. He’s due to run in a race soon, which Siegfried thinks is unwise, lest it worsen the injury. But then Major Sebright Saunders, River’s owner and Siegfried’s old army comrade, offers Siegfried a deal. Saunders has heard from a colonel who is an investor in River’s racing career that Tristan is due to be called up to the army soon; Saunders and the colonel could probably prevent it from happening if Siegfried can get River healthy enough to race. Siegfried doesn’t want Tristan to leave, or for anything to happen to him.
If Tristan did receive a call-up letter, having signed up with James, he would go. He’s bored at the surgery, with barely any patients and a feeling of guilt that he’s not doing more. His work is light enough that he can have a beer with his old friend Maggie at the pub—where he learns that he has a large outstanding bill.
Gerald is leaving Darrowby, but not for the army. He has gotten a job in Hull, and will leave after Christmas. Mrs. Hall is shocked and chagrined by the news, and impulsively invites him over on Christmas Eve, pretending that Skeldale is having several people over, even though they had planned not to have a party, given the war.
The house also belatedly celebrates Hanukkah, in an effort to make Eva, who is Jewish, feel more at home. Eva sings the blessing for them; she’s also learning to play Christmas carols on the piano, and is excited to experience Christmas.
Something less welcome than a holiday present arrives in the mail: Tristan’s call-up letter. Siegfried takes it.
Looking for something to do, Tristan joins Siegfried at Saunders’ to watch River, whose leg seems to be doing better. Saunders tells Siegfried that he talked to the colonel, and Tristan can ignore the call-up letter. But then Tristan sees River stumble—the horse can’t race.
Siegfried tells Saunders he could try giving River an injection to numb the pain for the race, but Tristan objects: that could cause serious injury. Siegfried sends Tristan home, then quietly apologizes to River.
Back at Skeldale, Tristan tells James about Siegfried’s ill-advised decision to race River—and then realizes why Siegfried is so determined. Tristan calls the racecourse’s veterinarian and tells him River is unfit to race.
Saunders storms over to Siegfried before he leaves, accusing him of calling the racecourse. Siegfried realizes what Tristan has done. He sets off home to furiously scold his younger brother.
But the Christmas Eve “party” is already going on. Helen’s father has grumpily replaced Siegfried as Santa. Maggie has brought people along from the pub, to fill out the guest list since the party was so last-minute. Mrs. Hall is nervous, especially because Gerald hasn’t arrived yet. Unlike at a previous Christmas where she awaited her son in vain, however, this time her guest shows.
But as soon as Gerald appears, Mrs. Hall hears Siegfried shouting for Tristan and goes to head off any trouble—asking Jenny to keep Gerald from leaving the party. She tries to keep Siegfried and Tristan’s argument from spiraling, but for once Tristan will not back down to his brother. Siegfried admits to resenting Tristan because he was their parents’ favorite, and he knew he’d never be able to replace their father for Tristan after they died. “I bloody love you, you damn fool,” Siegfried says.
He reluctantly hands over the call-up letter, telling Tristan that he doesn’t have to go, as a member of a reserved occupation. Yes, I do, Tristan responds; he has to become his own man, and he’ll never be able to do that around Siegfried, who is a constant reminder of who he is not. Siegfried understands, but is torn up about it.
Tristan has grown up a lot. He doesn’t try to take advantage of the mistletoe as he once did to kiss Maggie; he simply thanks her for being a good friend before she leaves.
Gerald doesn’t even have the chance to thank Mrs. Hall before he leaves. She’s sitting with Siegfried in the kitchen, comforting him. She finally decides she must speak to Gerald, but she’s too late. She dejectedly sits on the stairs—and then hears the door open. It’s Gerald. She runs to him and kisses him. He came back because he grabbed the wrong coat, but both of them are quite glad he did.
Eva eagerly wakes everyone up on Christmas morning and rushes to look at the presents left in her stocking and one made by Mrs. Hall, gifted her by the whole house: ruby slippers. Eva clicks her heels and wishes for home—but it doesn’t work. She’s still not with her family, no matter how kind everyone at Skeldale is.
Siegfried goes to console her, and she tells him that Toto should be with his mother and Mrs. Pumphrey, who has generously allowed Eva to keep him. Families shouldn’t be separated.
Siegfried tells Eva that she’s allowed to be sad and cry. She tells him the same thing: it’s okay for him to cry over Tristan’s departure.
At Christmas dinner, Tristan makes a toast. He thanks Siegfried for filling his father’s role, and for never giving up on him, no matter how many excuses Tristan gave him. I love you, Siegfried, he tells his brother, borrowing his customary holiday toast: “Merry bloody Christmas.”
Tristan gives Helen his beloved car before being driven to the train station by Siegfried. His older brother makes him promise not to do anything stupid and surprises him with a hug as they part. “I’m so damn proud of you,” Siegfried tells Tristan as he boards the train with tears in his eyes.
Some things don’t change, though. Tristan hitches a ride in the mail car of the train rather than buy a ticket—just how he returned home to the Dales in the first place. And Siegfried will need to pay that bar bill.