Author Dave Motes Christmas narrative gives us a rare peek into the how Santa and his reindeer go about business on Christmas eve.
Santa and the Volcano
It was Christmas eve, a very clear and quite cold Christmas Eve, even for the North Pole. The North Pole at Winter Solstice is of course a very cold place. The sun never shines there. But the people of that place know the difference between cold and very cold and quite cold; it’s a certain feeling in the air.
But at the North Pole, of course, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, and the wonder of an especially cold evening had to be second to the main wonder of the great task of Christmas.
Santa was in his usual state. He had got a bad case of the glooms at about six o’clock, because many things didn’t seem done yet. As usual, though, Mrs. Claus had revived him with some of his favorite spiced orange and apple cider. The elves ignored his dithering and kvetching and kept up their steady work as they had for many generations. Santa was a good man on the sleigh and in a chimney, but he wasn’t much use on the production line.
Santa as usual had culled a number of special letters from children. He would calm himself by reading from these letters whenever he became especially worried. Once he began a letter he tended to tune out all other inputs. That is what happened when the Head Elf for Fulfillment and Packaging, whose name was Elverimas, came to him with the news that this would be the biggest Christmas ever. Elverimas, of course, was prepared for Santa’s inattention and wasn’t the least bit offended. Elves are quite steady in that way.
By 9 PM Pole Time the sleigh was nearly loaded, the reindeer had been briefed, and Santa had been fortified with more cider and some butter risotto fedexed still steaming from a relative in Peruggia.
At 10 PM PT, Santa mounted the sleigh, and, as usual, his mood completely changed. He patted his heart, where he kept his letters, and took up the reins. One by one the reindeer frisked themselves, took a deep breath, and strained against the reins. Santa laughed his brassy “HO HO HO” and expected the sleigh to arc into the brilliant-starred polar night–but–
The sleigh didn’t budge.
Quite a bother ensued. Elves from Engineering quickly determined that the sleigh simply hadn’t been pulled hard enough; though it carried the heaviest load ever the weight was within tolerances and the magic-to-mass ratio of the system was sufficient to ensure safe takeoff and landing, even on the shortest roof.
Reassured, Santa issued the order again, and the reindeer strained in their traces, quite seriously this time. Blitzen, always a bit pessimistic, could have been seen by a close observer to peek at his partner Copious, who was new, Cupid having retired the previous January. This time, after a tense moment, the sleigh groaned forward squeakily, lumbering then accelerating down the packed snow runway, and then into the sky–though sluggishly, even the most optimistic of the engineering staff would have admitted.
No matter. Once underway the mission only became easier–or so they supposed. At each stop the load lightened. Oslo, the first major metropolitan area, boasted one of the heaviest gift-to-chimney ratios due to the preponderance of skis and woollen clothing in the request paradigm. The elves saw success in the receding navigation lights. They turned eagerly toward the warm fires and inviting buffets of the post-crunch parties being held in the barracks.
Blithely satisfied, Santa bent a course for his first stop–a stop that the engineering staff didn’t reckon on, because they didn’t know about it: Santa’s annual meeting with Ulf of the North. This misunderstanding is quite understandable; what business doesn’t have some miscommunication between the tech staff and the talent? In fact it was surprising that something drastic hadn’t happened before.
Ulf of the North was the landlord of the North Pole. He was an elderly and gregarious snow troll, one of the last still living in the traditional way. By long habit, Santa’s lease on the North Pole was renewed on Christmas Eve at 11:00. The meeting was a formality; it was mainly an occasion for a bit of cider (for Santa) and a frozen glob of raw squid (Ulf). For Ulf it wasn’t the business that mattered; it was the festivity, which was every bit as important as the Hibernation Beard-braiding or the Summer Solstice Squid Squeeze.
Most everybody concerned with Christmas thought Santa owned the North Pole, so the annual meeting at Ulf’s snow cave wasn’t common knowledge. The reindeer knew, of course, but they were a haughty bunch and seldom discussed their stops, which by Christmas Day were so numerous that an extra here or there was beneath mention, even a chimneyless and toyless plough-down on a snowy plain miles from any people. Ms. Claus knew, and Santa’s sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and sisters and cousins and aunts knew, but as humans they were unable to remember things that were associated with their special Christmas relations and of course don’t even know that they are Clauses–but that’s a different story.
So Santa arced off into the crystal polar night, popped over the horizon, and schussed to a halt in front of the huge triangular ice pile that marked Ulf’s snow cave, in front of the broad polynya kept unfrozen by Guard Seals and the rare Northern Hemisphere Penguins that Ulf employed to catch his squid and tidy up. Santa thought that the sled landed a bit heavily, but dismounted energetically and marched past the red-and-green penguins and into Ulf’s vestibule.
The formalities were successfully concluded, the squidglobs offered and politely refused, the cider shared around, and the year’s lease paid (in wood shavings, lint, and bottlecaps), and Santa headed out to the sleigh, right on schedule. He patted his heart, where he kept his letters, and took up the reins. One by one the reindeer frisked themselves in the usual way, took a deep breath and strained against the reins. Santa laughed his usual loud “HO HO HO” and waited for the sleigh to arc into the brilliant-starred polar night–but–
The sleigh didn’t budge, and there was an uncomfortable silence. Reindeer hooves squeaked in the frost; the guard seals’ smiles seemed to falter; the penguins stopped their penguiny fidgeting and held very, very still.
Somewhat less confidently Santa laughed again: ho ho ho. The reindeer quivered in the traces, and the leather could be heard to pop and hum under the strain. The sleigh didn’t arc into the brilliant-starred night: it stood as if carved from ice.
For a moment the only sound was the gentle floosh of the seals’ tails, then a sudden despairing whoosh of air from the lungs of ten reindeer. Santa said nothing, but his mind was whirring along. He suddenly realized that everyone was watching him: reindeer, penguins, seals, Ulf. They were waiting for him to say something.
He couldn’t think of a thing.
Well, it was trouble, all right. Dozens of tries later the reindeer had exhausted themselves, and still the sleigh wouldn’t budge. You see, the sleigh had come down in slush created by the effort of the seals to keep Ulf’s polynya open. The slush had frozen around the sleigh’s titanium-oregonium runners and formed an iron-hard bond. Nothing would chip it; the penguins had a go, but their feet were too soft and squid-slick to make a mark. The seals tried gnawing at the ice but made hardly a scratch.
All Ulf had to offer was the remains of the cider, which, being magical seasonal orange-apple cider, had a bit of a glow to it; but when poured on the runners of the sled it made nothing more than a puff of steam and a nice smell.
Santa was truly stuck.
Someone proposed hustling back to the compound to fetch some engineering elves and a few tools, but that was a forlorn idea, since the reindeer can’t fly without the sleigh anyway. Even if elves could be fetched they would be a long time coming and most likely they’d all be half in the bag by now, and who could blame them with the mission accomplished and the sled seen off? Santa fell into the slough of despond as he realized that it was his fault. Even Santa gets the HIndsight Blues. He sat, chin on his chest, surrounded by toys. The others knew enough to leave him alone.
After a minute, out of habit, Santa fumbled out the packet of letters. By the starlight he considered them. Santa didn’t pick out the letters from the best kids or the worst, or the best written or the most whiny; he always picked the most sincere letters. As everyone knows, it’s not possible to be good all the time, but it is possible to be sincere and to be honest, and to write your heart. It was those letters that Santa carried with him, and he believed that they kept him warm on his long and arduous journey.
He read a letter or two, and then sat up suddenly. “Hey! Everybody! Listen to this!”
They crowded around. Santa read:
I have been pretty good. I’ve tried my best. I love you because you care about everybody, and because you bring toys.” (This was the sincere part.)
“I want a Hot Wheels Volcano for Christmas, and a baby sister. I want the Hot Wheels Volcano a lot, but I want the baby sister the most.” (That was pretty sincere, too. The reindeer, used to greedy and whiny kids, were impressed.)
The reindeer fidgeted a bit. Finally Calypso spoke up:
“Yeah, sure, that’s real nice and all, but what’s the point, Cap? Like, we’re stuck here. Calvin seems like a sweet kid and all, but, like, So?”
Santa seemed to have undergone a change. He stood tall in the seat, and laughed, and looked at his watch. “We’ll make it yet!” he cried. Then, stunning everyone, even the phlegmatic penguins, his great laugh pealed forth: “HO HO HO HO HO!”
The reindeer stood, embarrassed; it seemed that Santa had slipped his clutch. The prospect of the worst, most discombobulated Christmas ever had unhinged him. They milled about a bit, then finally Blitzen said, “Santa? You ok?”
But Santa was invisible, except one of his boots. He had dived into his “Mostly Nice Eastern US” sack and was rooting around furiously. Gifts of all descriptions were flying out: Gameboys, hockey sticks, Tickle-me Barbies, everything. Then he raised up, triumphant, a large oblong gift in his hand. The tag said “Calvin.”
The reindeer were shocked. “Boss–I know what you’re thinkin’,” said Calypso. “But you can’t! You can’t open a kid’s present once it’s packed!”
It was true. The magic that allows the sleigh to cover the world in a night, with all those gifts in it at once, and make not a single mistake–as everyone knows–requires that, once packed, the packages can’t be disturbed, can’t be opened, until Christmas morning–or all will disappear in a puff of smoke, a puff that does not smell nice.
“HO HO HO!” Santa laughed triumphantly. “You’re forgetting something!”
A long pause. Eureka, a very clever reindeer, suddenly spoke up. “He’s right! The love rule! He can open it!”
Santa nodded, smiling. The other reindeer looked sheepish. They were athletes, after all; they couldn’t be expected to keep up with such technicalities as the Love Rule. That was for the legal staff.
Santa explained. “A child who makes a request out of love is exempt from the Packing Magic. That way if the request can be honored, then the child’s present can be exchanged even at the last minute. A child’s sacrifice is sacred; everyone knows that. Calvin asked for a baby sister, said he wanted that more than his present. Clearly the Love Rule obtains. We can open the package!”
Donner spoke what all were thinking, in his quiet and reasonable captain’s voice: “But Santa. If you open it, then Calvin won’t get a gift for Christmas.”
Everybody paused. Santa glanced at the letter again, and in a more sober voice he said, “That’s true. That’s true, Donner. But we open it anyway, or nobody will get a gift. It’s our only hope.” And he did.
And it was a volcano, of course, which everyone knows is a very hot thing, with a convenient spout for aiming. Working quickly, Santa was able to thaw out the runners of the sleigh and break it free, repack the gifts, and take up the reins. He patted his heart, where he kept his letters folded–and where he had returned Calvin’s letter, of course–and took up the reins. One by one the reindeer frisked themselves in the usual way, took a deep breath yet again, and strained against the reins. Santa laughed his usual loud “HO HO HO” and the sleigh arced into the brilliant-starred polar night.
Calvin’s Hot Wheels Volcano was used up in the process of thawing the sled runners, and it was broken a bit and crunched here and there, and singed and melted and some of the smaller parts were lost in the snow and the ice and the excitement, and it wouldn’t fit in the package any more anyway, so Santa left it with Ulf in payment for the next year’s lease.
According to the Love Rule, Calvin wouldn’t get the present anyway; it was used up, in another sense. And since the thing Calvin wanted most, the baby sister, takes a while to organize, not to mention some teamwork from Mom and Dad, it came to pass that Calvin arose early on Christmas morning and came downstairs and found some gifts from his mother and father and grandmas and grandpas and all the other people he loved, and a stocking full of goodies, but no present from Santa. He was surprised, and a bit sad, but being a sincere and loving little boy he trusted things to be right where Santa was concerned. His parents seemed a bit confused as well, for reasons that Calvin wouldn’t understand for a few more years.
Later that day Calvin put on his coat to go to visit his friend Summer, and found a note in his pocket. It was written in a bold slanting fountain-pen hand. Here’s what it said:
I’d like to thank you for your nice letter. I regret that I couldn’t give you the present you requested for Christmas this year, but you can expect it sometime next year. Sometimes gifts aren’t what they seem to be, and sometimes love isn’t what it thinks it is, but giving is always what it needs to be. For that reason all the world thanks you today.
Calvin paused a moment with the note in his hand. He didn’t understand it, but he smiled anyway, and ran out into the brilliant icy morning.