Weíre going back to a dark time in my life now. Some of you may have experienced a similar time. Those of you who have not yet experienced itĖfear it. Itís a time that you think you will never get out of alive; a time when the coldest of winds pierce every vagrantís soulĖand if you listen closely, you can hear the cries of every motherless child echoing behind the horrid jingling of bells and crunching of snow under boots. Itís a time when youíre forced to remember every family member alive and deceased, most of whom you have not spoken to for at least a year, who in fact, couldnít care less whether you were alive or deceased.
This nightmare is Christmas. Alone.
One year ago on this very day I was walking around downtown doing some last minute Christmas shopping. I had already accepted that my family wasnít going to receive their presents until after Christmas due to my blatant procrastination. So I took my time. The stores were too crowded to enter, so I window-shopped and watched bags of commerce with people attached to them hurry into the slushy streets after their cars, cold and crystalized. I looked at the displays of absurd "hand painted" vases, toys that no child in their right mind would ever want to play with, and various other Knickknacks cleverly arranged and stacked according to color or size. As I was affectionately eyeing a silly unicorn statuette, someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind.
Startled, I jumped and turned around.
Before me stood a tall man with hair and eyes black as coal, skin as pale as the snow, wearing a long black trenchcoat. "Hello, Claire," he said in a deep, scary voice.
"Can I help you?" I asked assertively. I was new to the city at the time and not yet accustomed to strange men approaching me, especially strange men knowing my name.
"I have a package for you," he smiled, "A Christmas present, if you will." He reached into his trenchcoat and pulled out a small brown paper package.
"Who the hell are you?"
The giant man grinned briefly, then his face turned serious. "That is not of your concern now. Please accept the gift and take it home. Do not open it before tomorrow."
"Why not?" I asked as I took it in my hands.
"It will be utterly useless unless you open it on Christmas day."
"Is this a joke?"
"No, Iím afraid not."
Then he turned and walked away, disappearing into the decadent, shivering crowd of shoppers.
I returned home them, forgetting about my shopping, feeling an odd sense of urgency in getting the present home safely.
My one bedroom apartment felt smaller and colder that evening, for it was Christmas Eve and I was all alone. My parents were always away on some exotic island, never bothering to invite me. I had no siblings to speak of, and no one that I really called friends. And donít even talk to me about men.
I placed the package underneath my miniature Christmas tree on the coffee table. I must have stared at the lifeless, plain brown package for hours, fighting with myself not to open it. What if itís like Pandoraís box, and terrible things would happen if I opened it? I asked myself. And so I decided to wait. I turned on the television. Laughing faces, loving families, big pink hams, bright shiny things, Jimmy Stewart, and horrid jingling bells taunted me, dancing across the screen. Depressing. So I switched it off. I sat there in the darkness for a while, feeling sorry for myself, when I got an idea. There have to be other lonely souls, like myself, out at the bars tonight, right? I thought. Maybe Iíll meet someone special. You never know. . ."
So I brushed my long, auburn hair and got in my beaten up Mustang and drove around the city. Most places were closed, as I expected, but I kept searchingĖjust in case. After hours of driving, I happened upon one. A flashing neon sign said that it was called Bobís. I parked my car, hurried through the cold night and opened the steam covered glass door. A bell chimed as it opened, alerting the customers. Not that there were many. Inside sat but three people: A sandy colored bartender man, an old bum sitting at the corner table playing Solitaire, and Santa Claus-- fat and red. I wearily decided to sit next to Santa. I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea, the least Christmasy drink one could order, and turned to Santa, bearing a cynical grin on my face and said, "So what brings you here on Christmas Eve? Shouldnít you be delivering presents to the millions of Children in the world?"
"Iíll get to it shortly," he sighed, "But first, I must drink a few more of these exquisite Margaritas."
I thought he was joking so I laughed. But he just gave me a cold stare, so I quietly drank my Long Island Iced Tea for a few momentsĖbut only a few.
"But arenít they waiting for you Santa?"
"Who?" he said with a gruff voice.
"The Children!" I exclaimed, already feeling a buzz kicking in.
"No." He gave me a rather disgusted look. "Donít you know that I stop time for that? How else could I deliver presents to millions of Children in one night?"
"I donít know," I said sarcastically, "I suppose I hadnít thought of that."
Santa sipped his Margarita for a few moments and then looked up. "So what brings you here on Christmas Eve?"
"Loneliness," I sighed, "Pure loneliness."
"I see," said Santa, "Are your parents away on some tropical island . . . say Maui?"
I was stunned. "How did you know that?"
"Iím Santa Claus for Chrissakes! I knew you didnít believe me. No grown-up ever does."
"Oh come on. I know thereís no such thing as Santa."
"Then youíve lost something child" he patted me on the shoulder gently. "Youíve really lost something." He motioned to the bartender. "Iíll have another of the same, only this time a little less salt around the rim." The bartender nodded and made his Margarita.
"So why do you drink Margaritas before you deliver presents?" I asked.
Santa hesitated, taking a long drink. "Because things are more difficult now."
"Difficult?" I stopped to think. "Oh yes, I suppose there are a lot more Children to deliver to than there were in the old days, what with the world so overpopulated now."
"No. Itís not the population of the Children . . . itís the mind-set of them, well, of the people in general nowadays. Things arenít the same. I mean, take my elves for example; they used to work in little workshops making wooden toys, copies of Childrenís books, and simplistic things of that nature. And my predecessors, like Kris Kringle, would give even simpler things than that. And the Children were happy."
I smiled as he took a deep breath and continued. "It takes a lot more effort just to make a Child happy now. They expect more than they used to. Perhaps itís the parents fault. Now the North Pole is filled with factoriesĖhundreds of themĖmaking electronic talking dolls, gadgets, video games. Terribly expensive and complex things.
"You see, it used to be so simple but now we have these bad contracts with the big toy corporations. They basically forced us to. They told us that if we didnít use our magic to make the toys that they wanted quickly, they would sabotage us. I donít know howĖbut they would find a way. Theyíre very powerful, you know. So I grudgingly agreed to make their toys. . . and all for what? Some cookies and milk usually made my corporations, not by the people themselves. Every goddamn houseĖcookies and milk!" Santa was getting angry now.
"And whatís worse is that Christmas used to be more about giving to the poor Children, but due to the contracts, only the people that the toy corporations can profit from are aloud to receive gifts, at least from me. It makes me sick!"
I sat and listened to him go on about the evils of the corporations and how people are a lot greedier and materialistic these days. Children are corrupted because the parents are corrupted. Never ending cycle, it seems.
I donít know if I believed that he really was Santa Claus, but, for that night, with my Long Island Iced Teas and my loneliness, I let myself believe. I needed to believe.
". . . And thereís another thing that has been bothering me the past couple of years," he said, looking as though he was on the verge of tears. "Iíll have another one bartender."
"Yes, another one for me too, please," I said. The bartender nodded and took away our empty glasses, replacing them with new ones.
"My wife," he continued, "she is no longer with me."
"Mrs. Claus?" I replied, concerned, "She left you"
"Well, she died."
"She died Oh Iím so sorry!" I placed my hand on his shoulder, but he turned away. "I thought you guys were supposed to be immortal. How did she die, if you donít mind me asking?"
"She killed herself." He took another long drink. "We are essentially immortal, but there are ways that we can end our lives, or rather have special people end our lives for us if we really want to. But the outcome isnít good. I will never see my wife again."
"Why would she kill herself?"
"I donít blame her really. Being alive for hundreds of years is no picnic. Iíve thought about killing myself many times. I really want to die. If it werenít for the ChildrenĖthe millions of Children. I know they donít really need me anymore these days but . . ." he trailed off.
"Canít you get a replacement? You mentioned your predecessorsĖ"
"Iíve been trying to find one, but no one can do it. No one wants to do it. Itís just meĖwell, me, my weary elves and reindeer."
"Thatís so sad." I didnít know what else to say. Here I was complaining about being alone for Christmas, when Santaís wife committed suicide and heís forced to live forever, delivering presents to corrupt Children for nothing but cookies and milk. I studied the lines on his face and his lifeless glazed-over eyes as he spoke. He was the saddest man I had ever seen in my life.
"So," he changed the subject, "what would you like for Christmas?"
I sat and thought for a moment, a bit shaken. I couldnít remember the last time someone had asked my what I wanted. "I suppose what I want is for you to be happy."
All of a sudden Santa laughed a boisterous laugh. "Ah, you can kill me then! Put me out of my misery!" His laughter was so loud and so deep that it caused the bar stools and tables around us to vibrate, startling the sandy colored bartender man.
I was going to say something, comfort him somehow, but I could think of no words.
Then Santa arose and began walking toward the door. "I must be going now, for I have a lot to do this evening." He winked. "Merry Christmas, Claire."
Then he opened the steam covered door and disappeared into the night. The bell on the door did not chime.
"Merry Christmas, Santa," I whispered.
I drank a few more Long Island Iced Teas before I left. The old bum had left about an hour before. That left me and the sandy colored bartender man.
"So, do you think heís the real Santa?" I asked him, fully realizing the ridiculous nature of my question.
"I donít know," he said, "he seems genuine enough. Heís been coming here every Christmas Eve for the past eight years. He says we have the best Margaritas. But I donít let that go to my head, because weíre probably one of the only places open on this dreadful night." He laughed.
I tipped him and went home.
Immediately after I got there, I hurried into the kitchen and prepared a hearty meal of steak, mashed potatoes, buttered green beans (real butter, mind you, not that worthless stuff they call margarine), smoked cheeses and banana nut bread. I wrapped the dinner in cellophane and placed it on the coffee table along with a bottle of red wine and a note that read:
Hey, at least itís not cookies and milk!
I went to bed then, feeling a bit silly and a bit drunk. Santa only visited Children, right? Even so, I felt that I needed to do something for him. I fell asleep listening to the snow hitting my window. The cold wind in the night sounded almost as lonely as I was. I could hear no sleigh bells in the distance, no sound of reindeer hooves on shingles. Somehow I found solace in that. I slept peacefully without waking once.
The next morning I awoke and scurried to the living room to find that the dinner and the wine had been devoured. Not a crumb or drop in sight. I rejoiced, dancing gaily around my apartment. "He was here!" I shouted. "He was really here!"
Then I noticed the brown paper package underneath the tree. I had almost forgotten about it. I sat down on the couch and peeled the Scotch tape off of the sides, carefully, as if I had a notion that whatever was inside was special and delicate.
It was a brown wooden box with a black iron keyhole. A black iron key was taped to the bottom of the box. An envelope fell to the floor as I discarded the paper. It read Caution: Read first. So I opened the envelope and found inside a piece of old parchment paper with calligraphy written on it. The calligraphy was smudged in some places and a bit difficult to read. I read these words slowly:
To Whom it May Concern,
This box, when opened, contains the secrets of Christmas and the responsibilities of Santa Claus. By opening this box, you will take on these responsibilities immediately and therefore relieve the current Santa Claus of his, returning him to the mortal world. If you do not wish to do this, simply place this box near an unlocked windowsill within a fortnight. If you choose to take on the duties of Santa Claus, place the key in the keyhole and turn it to the right. When you tire of this duty, you may pass this box on to a special person, who will then take your place. Although it is not recommended . . ."
It took a few moments for the gift to sink in. "Me? Santa Claus? I laughed at the idea. "Why was I chosen? Whatís so special about me?" At first I objected to the ridiculous idea and planned on returning the box. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought of my meeting with Santa. I went over the conversation a thousand times. His sad old face stuck in my mind like a photograph not wanting to be burned.
I stared out the window and into the windows of my neighbors, spying on the Children with their families, laughing together, opening presents. I looked around my apartment. I had nothing. No one to care for me and no one to care for. As Santa, at least I would have the elves and reindeer to keep me company.
So I took the key from the box, placed it into the keyhole and turned it slowly to the right as the instructions said. I felt a surge of energy flow through my hand, up my arm, and through my whole body as the box opened. The energy became almost too strong to withstand. But I couldnít let go of the key. I panicked as the energy coursed though my veins. Harder and faster it came until my heart felt like it was about to explode.
And then I slept.
I awoke in a soft feather bed. Small men with pointy ears looked down upon me in awe. Some of them stood staring with their mouths wide open, as if they hadnít seen a human girl before.
"So youíre the new Father Christmas?" one asked.
"Yes," I said breathing deeply, "I suppose I am."
"Come then," another one said, "You have much to learn."
So here I am a year later, knowing more about the workings of Christmas and space and time than I ever dreamed Iíd know. This will be my first Christmas, mind you, so if everything doesnít seem to be in its exact place or order, I apologize. Iím still learning.
Iíve made a few changes. Iíve broken the contracts with the toy corporations, for one. It was a bold and risky move, but I think it will benefit you more in the long run. More of the less-fortunate Children will receive gifts this year. They may not be the gifts people have in mind, but they will be useful nonetheless.
So tomorrow when you wake up, do me a favor. Take a good look around you. Listen to the sounds. Smell the smells. Focus on those emotions that lay deep inside your heart. Ask yourselves if things seem different. After the day is done, feel free to drop me a line. Iíd like to know how it all went. Iím always open to constructive criticism. I canít do everything on my own, after all. It takes you too.
Erynn Miles is married and lives in Cleveland with her husband, three cats, and a rabbit who thinks he's a cat. She enjoys knitting, and discovering different kinds of cheese.
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