A Christmas Tale

by David E. Barber

Ash settled in a fine dust on the hearth below as small, feral feet made their way down the narrow shaft of the chimney. Then the creature itself, covered in soot from its shiny nose to the tip of its bushy tail, dropped onto the grate and looked about with dark, inquisitive eyes. A pine tree decorated with colorful lights, strands of silvery rope, and bright, shiny bulbs stood watch by the living room window. Alternating shades of red, yellow, blue and white winked on and off.

The squirrel reared up on its hind legs and ruffled its fur to remove as much of the soot and ash as possible. It darted a short distance into the room, crouched low and wary. It listened to the grandfather clock tick off the seconds in a slow, purposeful rhythm like the pulse of a human heart.

The air crackled with fire. The squirrel’s features blurred as it grew larger, metamorphosing into a man. He stood over six feet in height with a round red face and long flowing hair and beard. He flexed his thick arms and stretched his strong, nimble fingers. Blue-gray eyes surveyed the room. On a table near the kitchen sat a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. Three red stockings hung from the mantle. The smell of pine, ginger and vanilla teased his nose. The man wore hues of green, brown and yellow. He turned toward the tree with a sweep of his fur-lined cloak. Tall leather boots creaked as he moved. A great floppy hat, like a mushroom, covered his head. He examined the face of a large watch hung from a gold chain around his neck.

“Right on time,” he whispered.

From his pocket he took a silver bell and shook it gently. It emitted a faint, musical sound. He checked his watch. A minute passed. He shook the bell again, harder this time.

Two small faces appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. They entered dragging a huge burlap bag with gold rope trim. The little men grunted, groaned and mumbled under their breath as they pulled the bag across the living room floor. They wore tunics and baggy pants with floppy hats like their master; one in red and the other in green. They stood only three feet tall with enormous pointed ears and noses.

“There you are,” the man said. “Where’s the sleigh?”

“We parked it out back,” the one in green said. “Dasher wouldn’t land on the roof — said it was too steep.”

“Ach! That fool of a reindeer. He knows the drill. I’ll roast his rebellious hide if he doesn’t behave. You tell him I said so.”

“Yes, Santa,” the little men shrank back.

“We had to jimmy the lock to get in, but we’ll fix it on our way out,” said the one in red.

“They’ll never know we were here,” added the other.

“See that you do. And no mess ups or you, my merry little elves, will be soldering computer chips for the next hundred years.”

“We’ll make sure, Santa,” they replied.

“Put Comet in charge. He may be a bit slow but at least he’ll follow orders.”

The elves nodded.

Santa reached into the bag and took out a massive scroll wrapped around wooden spindles. He looked it over with a practiced eye.

“Ah, here we are,” he said, “the very thing.” He reached into the bag and began to pull out one package after another; all of varying sizes and shapes, wrapped with ribbons and bows of red, blue, green, yellow and purple. He handed these to the elves who set the presents beneath the tree.

The trio then moved to where the stockings hung from the mantle. Santa’s assistants leapt high into the air depositing the smaller gifts. When they finished they huffed and puffed, exhausted after all their leaping and running about.

“Okay, my fine elves, off you go. And mind that you leave no trace behind. I’ll meet you at the next stop.”

“Yes, Santa.”

“And don’t forget to replace Dasher. I want no more screw-ups.”

“We will.”

“And don’t be late. We have a schedule to keep.”

“Yes, Santa,” they said, dragging the cumbersome bag out through the kitchen.

“One last duty to perform,” Santa said. He crossed the room to the small table where the plate and glass sat along with a linen napkin.

“Oh bother, sugar cookies again.” He breathed with a sigh like wind through the treetops.

“And skim milk, no less.” He eyed the thin liquid with suspicion. “Do these mortals think me on a diet?”

He lifted the plate of cookies and sniffed at them. “What I wouldn’t give for a nice bit of venison or a ripe, shiny apple…I may have to roast Dasher after all.”

Santa ate the cookies in slow repetition, then washed them down with the tepid milk.

“Ach, this liquid has no substance…and tastes no better than pond water,” he wiped his lips with the napkin. “Perhaps it is that growth hormone these so-called men of science use on that most sacred of beasts. Ah, the world has changed much over the centuries.”

He set the glass down and moved past the fireplace. The tree’s lights blinked merrily.

“I’ve grown tired.” he said to the night. “What I need is some excitement, a break in the routine.”

He thought of Olympus and the lofty throne he once occupied. “I miss the old days…when I rained lightning on the earth and meted out justice as I saw fit. But those days are gone.” He shook his head slowly. “Mortals no longer pray to the old gods. We are only a memory reduced to fairy tales.”

He shivered. “And even this existence must eventually fade.”

The lights grew dim and the room swam in a gray mist.

“What’s this?” the big man asked in surprise. “Why, suddenly I am weak as a kitten.” He took an awkward step forward. His vision blurred. He couldn’t breath.

“What manner of trickery is this?” he gasped in confusion, then stumbled and fell to the floor in a giant heap. As consciousness fled Santa noted a little boy in blue and gray Batman pajamas coming towards him carrying a length of nylon rope and a Polaroid camera. Then sleep took him and he snored contentedly.

* * *

When he woke, Santa found himself bound hand and foot. He lay on his massive stomach with his face buried in the thick matte of the living room carpet. Someone shook him. With an effort he rolled onto his side, spitting bits of fuzz out of his mouth. His head throbbed with pain while visions of sugar plums wheeled back and forth before his eyes. He looked at his captor.

“What? Who?”

“It’s about time you woke up. I was getting sleepy.”

“What manner of devil are you?” the big man asked.

“I’m Alexander,” the boy replied. “And you, Santa Claus, are my prisoner.”

Santa shook his head and blinked his eyes. He guessed the boy to be no more than ten or twelve. Alexander wore thick, round glasses and a belt with a holstered BB pistol on his right hip.

Santa struggled at his bonds but they held. He tried to shift into another form but nothing happened.

“Clever lad,” he said. “You’ve caught me fair and square. I am bound to your will according to the ancient laws. But I pray you, release me at once! I have errands to attend to and no time to spare.”

“You’re not goin’ nowhere.” Alexander, legs set wide, met his prisoner with a malicious smile.

“Now see here. I have work to do. I have no time to play games with little boys. Set me free at once!”

“I don’t think so, Mr. Claus, or Kringle, or whatever your name is. I got a few questions for you.”

“Questions! Questions about what? You’re not being very good, young man. I may have to take you off my list.”

“Like you haven’t already,” the boys face became a frown. “I never get the toys I ask for. I didn’t even think you were real…until now. I want all my friends to see how I captured you.” Alexander grabbed the camera off the end table.

“Just what did you put into that milk, my little Napoleon?”

“I used mom’s little yellow pills, the ones Doctor Hank gives her ‘cause she’s nervous all the time. And I already told you my name is Alexander.”

“…the Great, no doubt.”

Alexander aimed the camera.

“Now see here!” Santa protested. “You can’t just keep me tied like this while you take pictures and ask a bunch of foolish questions. I’ve a schedule to keep and because of you I’m late.”

“Aw, keep your shorts on,” Alexander said.

The camera whirred and a bright flash exploded in Santa’s eyes. He winced at the sudden brightness and saw nothing but fiery dots for several seconds. When his vision returned, he saw the angry boy gazing at the photo.

“Hey, you’re not in the picture. Where’d you go?”

“I can’t be photographed, young man. I’m a god! You can’t just take my picture…especially like this. I am a spirit of power and quite outside the influence of such mechanical devices.”

“Well, for a god you’re awful easy to trick.” The boy giggled. “Where’s your red suit, anyway? You’re supposed to be wearing a red suit and white gloves and a floppy hat with a fuzzy ball at the end.”

Santa sighed. “That wouldn’t be very practical for climbing up and down chimneys, now would it? That’s just the way I’m depicted in your mythology. Every country has a different interpretation of me. None of them, of course, is very accurate.”

Alexander looked puzzled. He laid the camera and the blank picture on the table.

“Where do you live? Is it really the North Pole? Do you have elves who make toys and reindeer that fly? And who is St. Nicholas? I want to know everything.”

A plan formed in Santa’s muddled thoughts. He tried to be pleasant. “If I answer your questions you must promise to free me. And I will need your help, of course, to get back on schedule.”

“You want me…to help you?”

“Absolutely essential,” Santa said.

“Boy, that’d be great? Can I ride in your sleigh?” Alexander asked.

“Of course. All part of the deal. Have we a bargain, then?” Santa smiled.

“Sure!” Alexander said. Then his face became serious. “But you gotta answer all of ‘em. And you gotta tell the truth.”

“Very well. What would you like to know?”

Alexander thought for a moment. “Who the heck is this Nicholas guy? Are you him?”

Santa considered the question. “No, not really. Your myth of Santa Claus is based on a Christian saint, St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century bishop.”

Alexander scratched his head. “Then why do people call you St. Nicholas?”

“Well…” The big man pulled himself into a sitting position. “These ropes are rather tight. I don’t suppose you could loosen them a bit?” Alexander thought about it. “I don’t know…” “Perhaps just my feet. I won’t run away. You have my word on that.”

The boy hesitated. “Well…Okay…but just your feet.”

“Good lad. Where was I then? Oh yes.” He cleared his throat. “There is a legend that St. Nicholas threw bags of gold down the chimney of a house where three sisters lived. Each bag fell into a stocking hung by the fire to dry. The gold allowed the sisters to marry. Nicholas’s generosity and compassion grew into the legend of Santa Claus, sometimes referred to as St. Nicholas or old St. Nick.”

Alexander pulled the ropes free from the big man’s ankles. “Well, if you’re not him why do you go to people’s houses on Christmas Eve and give them presents?”

Santa stretched his legs and leaned against the wall. “The 24th of December is the beginning of the month of Beth, representing new beginnings and purification.”

“My mother has a friend named Beth,” Alexander said.

“I’m sure it’s not the same one. Please try not to interrupt.”

“Sorry.”

“December 25th is the last day in the Goddess month of Astraea. Christians celebrate it as the birthday of Christ. Christmas is, in fact, a melting pot of religious traditions; Pagan, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Mithraic and Christian. It is my responsibility to travel the night in-between these two days keeping the spirit of Christmas alive in the hearts of all people.”

Alexander yawned. “I don’t even know what a Pago- Zorostirgin is.”

“Perhaps you should have asked for a book instead of a Super-Nintendo set,” Santa responded.

Alexander’s face grew red. He pulled the BB pistol from its holster and aimed it between Santa’s outstretched legs. “Don’t mess with me, fat man, or you’ll get hurt.”

Santa watched the little boy, all freckles and disheveled hair, but with a gun in his hand and fire in his eyes. “What else would you like to know?” he asked politely.

Alexander lowered the pistol. He looked at the ceiling. “Well, how come Christmas is in the middle of winter? Why not summer?”

“Many religious festivals occur during December. In the sixteenth century, after the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church combined elements from a variety of religious sources into what you now know as Christmas.” “Well, then, how come we have Christmas trees and holly and mistletoe and all that stuff?” Alexander continued to look at the ceiling. His left index finger drifted towards his nose.

“The pagans and druids of pre-Christian Britain believed in the power of plants and animals; that each possessed magical properties. Particularly evergreen plants that withstood the bite of winter. Say, I don’t suppose you have anything to drink. All this talking is making me mighty thirsty.”

Alexander shifted his attention back to his captive. “Not ‘til you’ve answered my questions.”

“Just a thought.” Santa licked his lips.

“You say lots of funny words and talk about really old stuff. How do you know all that?”

“I was there, of course. I am very old, older than you might guess. I have been a witness to much that has happened in the course of your world.”

“You still haven’t told me if you live at the North Pole or not,” Alexander said.

“If that’s a question,” Santa began, “then the answer is yes. I was banished there long ago by the ancient gods of the forest because they did not abide my conduct or my use of magic. As for reindeer that fly, the elves use them more than I, since I am able to move like the wind through the heavens.”

“And what about the elves?” Alexander asked.

“There are many, mostly those I rescued from the land of Fairie. They are my servants and my charges.”

“And do they make toys?”

Santa shrugged. “No. But they’re responsible for acquiring them. It’s difficult in a growing global community—with countries at war, trade embargoes and fluctuating markets—the acquisition of toys and other material goods is a struggle. Children no longer want dolls, toy soldiers or wooden blocks. The current generation wants computers, CD-ROM video games and high-end electronics. It takes a great deal of effort just to stay on top of the changing technology.”

Alexander laughed. “You’re not what I expected.” He sat down in front of the huge figure, cradling the BB pistol in his hands.

“What about those guys at the mall? Are any of them really you?”

“I should say not! I told you I’m a god…with great power and great responsibility. I’ve no time to sit around shopping malls and listen to the unreasonable requests of five-year-old tyrants. I do, however, have elves stationed at all the prime shopping areas to record and disseminate information. All part of my global underground network. I have eyes and ears everywhere.”

Alexander yawned again. “So how can you get to all the houses of all the children in all the world in just one night.”

“That’s difficult to explain,” Santa said. “You see, time doesn’t move the same way for me as it does for you. To me, every night is Christmas Eve. They’re all the same, and I go about my appointed rounds as I’ve been charged to do. The idea of linear time is a foreign concept to me. I neither live in it nor abide by it.”

Alexander shook his head. “You’re really weird.”

“Weird? I’m not weird. I’m one of the old gods of long ago, the very image of Odin, of Thor and of Saturn. I am a benevolent spirit of great power and mirth. I existed long before there was a Christmas. I’m the embodiment of the beliefs of billions of people across the world; outside the laws of nature, yet forever enslaved to this single task.”

Alexander stood up. He removed the belt and holster and threw them, along with the BB pistol, onto the sofa.

“Any more questions?” Santa asked.

“No. I guess not.”

“Then you’ll release me?”

“Yeah. I’ll let you go.” His face brightened, “but I still get to help you, don’t I?”

“Why, of course,” Santa replied, “That was the bargain.”

Alexander kneeled down beside the large man and reached for the knotted ropes when suddenly Santa disappeared. The ropes fell to the floor with their knots still tied, and the smiling figure appeared in the middle of the room.

“Thank you, Alexander, for releasing me from my bond.”

Alexander picked up the rope and stared, speechless for the moment, at the mighty figure of Santa Claus.

The big man reached into his pocket and brought out a glass vial. He uncorked the bottle and looked down at the stunned youth.

“You’ve been very naughty, Alexander. It is only right that you should become one of my helpers.” He winked, and in the same instant Alexander became a ball of white light that hovered several feet above the floor. Santa motioned to the glowing sphere and it drifted across the room, diminishing in size as it came. The big man held out the vial in one giant fist, and the ball of light sank into it like a setting sun. Santa stopped it shut, then held the vial up to peer inside.

The ball of light reformed into a much smaller version of Alexander. The astonished boy yelled at the top of his tiny lungs and drummed his fists against the walls of his prison, the sound barely a whisper.

“Oh, don’t make such a fuss. Being an elf’s not so bad,” Santa chuckled. He walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. He reached inside and grabbed a can of beer from the bottom shelf, popped the top with his free hand and took a long, slow drink.

“Thank you again, Alexander,” Santa smiled. “It’s been a very long time since I enjoyed myself so much.” Santa glanced at his watch. “Now I really am late.” He set the empty can in the refrigerator, dropped the glass vial in his pocket, and left the same way he came.