Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Time to Give…

I wrote this a few years ago, originally intending to hand the idea off to one of my friends to write. My motives were twofold: 1. that friend had expressed difficulty in finding something to write for Christmas and 2. I didn't have an answer for the premise that the story is built around: what would Santa Claus ask for Christmas? I cannot recall which friend it was, but they turned down the story idea saying that I should write it.[1] I had no intention of doing so, but then an idea struck me—something Santa might actually want—and so I began writing. The title alludes to Ecclesiastes 3:1–8. Merry Christmas, dear readers.

NOTE: I've annotated this story, but I recommend you read it all the way through before reading the notes.

Santa looked over the workshop with a critical eye. The bustle and hubbub warmed his heart and a smile cracked his face. Things were going particularly well this year. A few years ago, when the world population reached six billion, he’d grudgingly come to admit that his little workshop at the North Pole wasn’t going to be able to keep up with population growth. The last time he’d had to expand was 1973, but it was already time to do so again. So he’d started investing some money that he’d been given over the centuries by lazy parents. He found a nice stock broker who invested for him in Toys ’R’ Us, Hammond’s Toys, Hasbro, Mattel, etc., and soon Santa had a nice little bundle of green.

Santa took his earnings and built nine new workshops that were the same size as the old one, and gave each section their own workshop. He fitted them out with automated production lines and, for the first time, provided the elves with power tools. Santa also built three new barracks for the elves to sleep in and gave them a brand new cafeteria.

He also needed more elves. The first day of every month, for the next few years, Santa went around to the sleeping elves and picked the spores that they produce on their noses and reabsorb every night. He took these and planted them in a fallow corner of Mrs. Claus’ garden. Three months after each planting he harvested what can only be described as giant gumdrops with baby elves inside. Santa gave these to Mrs. Claus, who carefully peeled them until she reached the baby elves. Then she nursed them on liquid candy canes (Santa couldn’t stand eating the things, himself) for six weeks until they reached adulthood.

Now the world population was nearly seven billion [2] and Santa was ready. In fact, with his expanded and modernized production facilities and his quadrupled work force, Santa felt prepared to provide presents for the world’s children for the next one hundred years. And if he needed to increase production during that time, all he’d need to do would be to grow more elves.

“Santa?”

Santa was sucked out of his reverie. He turned to look at the elf who had addressed him. It was Chestnut, who’d been section leader for dolls and action figures for the last twenty years.

“Yes? What is it, Chestnut?”

“Just bringing you my quarterly report. I emailed it to you two weeks ago, but you never responded.”

Santa blushed. All the elves adjusted to the new computer’s he’d bought, quite readily. But he was struggling to learn to use them.

Chestnut saw Santa’s discomfort and went on. “Anyways, I just wanted to tell you that my section is well ahead of schedule and we estimate that we will finish a month early.”

“Wonderful! Фантастичный! Maravilloso! נִפְלָא! Wunderbar! 美妙!” Santa shook like a bowlful of jelly and rubbed his hands together with glee. “I wonder how the other sections are doing.”

Santa immediately set out and quizzed the other section leaders. To his chagrin, they’d all sent him email reports two weeks ago, just like Chestnut. But the demoralization over his lack of technological prowess was quickly swallowed up by the fact that all of his toymakers were ahead of schedule.

Feeling quite merry, Santa hustled to the cottage to let Mrs. Claus know the good news.

*          *          *          *          *

It was now mid-November and nearly all the preparations for Christmas were finished. For once, Santa was keeping up with the shopping malls! In fact, the only section that hadn’t completed production was “Uncommon Items”—things that only a select few children had asked for. Here Santa kept his best, most versatile elves. Every one of them was brilliant at what they did and an artist.

That meant that the rest of the workforce had nothing to do and as much as he loved them, Santa didn’t dare ask them to help with “Uncommon Items.” So, he’d called together all of his section leaders.

“Thank you all for coming,” Santa said as he paced around the gingerbread conference table. He was a little nervous about this meeting because he wasn’t sure how it would go over. Santa cleared his throat, uncomfortably. “I know you were all looking forward to a holiday, this Christmas, but I’d like to ask you to make just a few more things.”

Santa paused for the expected groans but didn’t hear any, so he went on. “Because we’re well ahead of schedule, I’d like to ask you to make some things for each other. Each section will be assigned the gifts for another section so that no one knows what they’re getting and it can still be a surprise.”

The conference immediately burst into animated conversation. Santa watched with pleasure as he realized that his elves were ecstatic about the idea. With a twinkle in his eye, he went around the table and handed out the assignments. Every one of the section leaders voiced his or her enthusiasm. While everyone else filed out of the room, Santa pulled the last elf, section leader of “Uncommon Items” aside.

“Holly, I have a special assignment for you and your crew.”

“Of course.” There was a gleam in the elf’s eye.

“I’d like you to make something for Mrs. Claus.”

Holly raised an eyebrow. “What do you want for her?”

Santa leaned in close and whispered in her ear. A broad smile crossed Holly’s face. “Yes, I think she’ll like that.”

*          *          *          *          *

Three weeks passed and once again Santa found himself with idle elves on his hands. They’d already finished their gifts for each other. Brightly wrapped gifts lay here and there, under the array of Christmas firs that were scattered all over. A large box from the “Uncommon Items” section lay in the front room of the cottage, teasing Mrs. Claus to no end.

Some of the elves had elected to take advantage of the hiatus in their workload. Some of them had gone ice-fishing while others went skating. A few built majestic ice castles and igloos and then had snowball fights. A few of the braver elves went swimming (elves are insensitive to the cold, but they don’t move quickly and so they have to watch out for polar bears). However, the majority of the elves stayed in their barracks, mulling around and terribly bored.

“I wish I could give them something to do,” Santa sighed, staring out the window.

“Why don’t you get a head start on next year?” Mrs. Claus asked.

“I can’t.” Santa sat heavily onto his easy chair. “The children won’t tell me what they want for next year until this Christmas is over.”

“But couldn’t you have them start making some of the most commonly requested toys?”

“Yes, we could. But that would only postpone the problem because next year we’d be even further ahead of schedule.”

They were silent for a while. Mrs. Claus got up and went into the kitchen. When she came back she set a plate of cookies and a glass of milk next to Santa to help ease his mind.

“Thank you, dear.”

Santa smiled warmly at his spouse as he dipped a cookie in the cold milk and felt the warm, gooey chocolate chips sliding down his throat. Mrs. Claus smiled indulgently as Santa devoured the cookies. When he had finished, she spoke up.

“Well, I can think of somebody the elves haven’t made a present for, yet.”

“What?!!” Santa sat up. “Who? Who could I possibly have forgotten?”

Mrs. Claus smiled. “You.”

“Me?”

Santa was stunned. He’d been making and giving away toys to children for nearly 1700 years. Many times he’d been able to give presents to the elves and to Mrs. Claus over the years. But he’d never received a present himself. Not once. He’d never even thought about it.

“I can’t have them make a present for me!” he finally blustered.

“Why not?” Mrs. Claus asked.

“Because I’m the Spirit of Christmas! The embodiment of selfless giving! If I ask the elves to make me something, I would be denying who I am! It would fly in the face of everything I stand for! Plainly put, it would be selfish!”

“But the world would never know. So what you symbolize to them would remain unchanged.”

“Even if the world never found out, it would change me. And eventually they would notice that. Then people would start losing faith and all my work would be frustrated.”

“Surely you’re overreacting,” Mrs. Claus clucked.

“Even if I did have the elves make me something, what would I ask them for?”

“I don’t know. What do you want?”

“That’s just it! There’s nothing I lack! I don’t play with toys. I have enough clothes. I have all the tools I need. In short, there’s nothing they could possibly give me that I don’t already have!”

“Okay. It was just a suggestion.”

Mrs. Claus went back into the kitchen and forgot all about it. But Santa did not. He mulled over it for the next several hours until he went to bed. Now that the idea was planted in his brain he couldn’t uproot it.”

*          *          *          *          *

It was getting dark outside and Santa was sitting alone on his sleigh. A hand-held lantern sat next to him on the sleigh, casting a dim yellow glow throughout the new garage he’d had built to house it.

“Do I want a new sleigh?” Santa wondered aloud. “If I asked for a sleigh, it wouldn’t really be selfish. It would be so that I could better serve the children of the world.” He pondered that for a moment. “But I don’t need a new sleigh,” he finally sighed.

The sleigh was only two years old. Santa had purchased a year-model Koenigsegg CCXR [3] outside Ängelholm, Sweden, and brought it back to the North Pole. There, the elves dismantled it and adapted its technology to fit a state-of-the-art custom frame built by the “Uncommon Items” section. It had all the extras and was equipped with the most up-to-date jamming equipment and stealth technology (so that militaries wouldn’t pick him up as an unidentified bogey). A few technological advances had been made since then, but not enough to merit building a new sleigh already.

“So what do I do?” Santa moaned.

All the elves did all day was mope around with sad looks on their faces. The HR directors and on-site psychologists (yes, there are elves that do that, too) were feeling overwhelmed. Even the elves who had initially gone swimming, skating, etc., were now holed up in their dormitories battling depression and ennui.

Even though he still felt that asking for something for himself was morally gray, Santa was beginning to feel that it was the only way to solve this problem with the elves. So, against his better judgment, he was trying to think of something to ask them for. And utterly, miserably failing.

A knock sounded and Santa lifted his head.

“Come in,” he called.

Mrs. Claus opened the door and shuffled into the light. She had a thick shawl thrown about her shoulders against the bitter Arctic cold. Unlike the elves, she and Santa felt the cold—sometimes acutely. She squinted at Santa through the dim light.

“What are you doing out here, Nick? It’s almost time for dinner.”

Santa sighed. “I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“About what to ask the elves to make me for Christmas.” Santa felt odd saying it.

Mrs. Claus let out an amused titter. “So you’ve decided it’s not such a bad idea, after all?”

“No. I still don’t think it’s a good idea. But it’s the only way I can think of to get the elves out of their melancholy.”

Mrs. Claus smiled indulgently.

“But I don’t know what to ask for.”

“Well, what do you want?”

“I’ve told you before, I don’t know! I can’t think of anything I want.”

“A new sleigh?”

“No. I already thought of that. This one’s still too new. There’s not really much they could do to build a better one. Not yet. In a few more years they’ll be able to—but not this year.”

“What about a new suit?”

“But that’s what you give me every year. I can’t take that away from you just so that they can stay busy. Besides, that wouldn’t be enough to keep them all busy until Christmas.”

“Hmm. An addition to the cottage?”

“What for? It’s plenty big enough for the two of us, already. What would we do with an addition?”

“I don’t know—an entertainment room?”

Santa chuckled. “But dear, neither of us watch TV or play video games.”

Mrs. Claus clucked in assent. After she was silent for a few minutes, Santa growled in exasperation. “You see? I don’t know how the little children do it! I can’t think of a single thing to ask for!”

“What makes you happy?” Mrs. Claus asked.

“My work,” Santa replied. “Making children happy.”

Mrs. Claus tried another approach. “Is there something you’ve always wished you could have or do, but never could?”

Santa opened his mouth to reply, but then shut it again. A twinkle came into his eye.

“Aha!” he shouted.

Santa leapt down from the sleigh and dashed away. Mrs. Claus went back to the cottage to finish making dinner. She felt sure that Santa had figured something out. But she doubted that he’d tell her what it was before Christmas.

*          *          *          *          *

Santa heard Mrs. Claus walk up behind him.

“I thought you weren’t going to have them build an addition to the cottage,” she said as she came to stand next to him.

Elves were swarming all over the house. Pulley systems were set up all around the cottage and their ropes were humming as the eager elves hauled up materials. Scaffolding was erected on one side of the house. Several overseers were busily discussing the contents of a set of blueprints.

“You’ll understand soon enough,” Santa chuckled.

He turned and walked to the workshop. Christmas was now only a week away. Even though all the toys for Earth’s children were finished and ready, stored in his Bag of Endless Holding [4], the elves were again frantically working. They had a new assignment but the same old deadline.

Santa walked down the rows, observing the working elves with a critical eye. They were working on several projects that would push their skills to the edge. Most of them had never worked on electronics that were this sophisticated. Sure, they’d put together radio-controlled cars, talking dolls, and Nintendos. But never microscopic microphones, transceivers, hi-fi systems, satellites, or multi-stage rockets.

Because there was far too much work for the “Uncommon Items” section to do by themselves, Santa reorganized the workforce. Now each of the elves that worked in “Uncommon Items” was a work leader over work groups of five to fifteen of the regular elves. They were in charge of training their group, overseeing production of their particular assignment, and ensuring quality control.

At the end of the workshop, Santa found one of the section heads.

“So, Tinsel?” he asked, jovially. “How many of our rockets are ready to launch?”

“Four,” Tinsel replied. “And the other two will be ready tomorrow.”

“Then all’s set for the launch three days from now?”

“Yes, Santa.”

“Good. Very good.”

*          *          *          *          *

Early Christmas morning, Santa returned to the North Pole. Wearily, he parked the sleigh, unharnessed the reindeer, and fed them. Then he stumbled into the cottage.

“You’re a little late, aren’t you, Nick?” Mrs. Claus asked from the entertainment room.

“Yes. I had to do a few extra things.”

“Did you get them all done?”

“Mm-hmmm,” Santa acknowledged as he sat into his new La-Z-Boy.

“So are you going to tell me, now, what all this is about?” She gestured at the entertainment room.

“No. It’s better if I show you. But first I’d like you to open my present to you.”

“Fine,” Mrs. Claus grumbled.

To be honest, she was more excited to find out what the elves had done for Santa than she was to find out what her own gift was. Mrs. Claus handed Santa his present from her and then set to tearing the wrapping off her own.

“Oh,” she gasped when she had it open. Then she flung her arms around her husband, who had just pulled out his new suit. After she pulled back she grinned at Santa Claus. “Even after seventeen hundred years you still know how to make me happy!”

Mrs. Claus eagerly plugged in her new foot spa, filled it with water, and eased her feet into the warm, effervescent water. Santa watched on with a pleased smile on his face.

“Ahhhh…” Mrs. Claus moaned in pleasure. Her cheeks glowed like rosebuds as she turned back to Santa. “Now. Show me. I’ve barely been able to sleep ever since the elves launched those rockets a few days ago. I want to know what is going on.”

A wide grin spread across Santa’s face. He lifted the universal remote in his hand and clicked a button. An array of electronic equipment blinked to life and a hushed whisper emerged from the multitude of speakers around the room.

“Here,” Santa said, handing Mrs. Claus the remote. “I’d like you to do the honors. When you’re ready, push the button that says, ‘Receive’.”

“Okay.” Mrs. Claus looked uncertain as she took the remote.

Santa smiled. Then he crossed his arms behind his head, closed his eyes, and leaned back in his La-Z-Boy, puffing deeply on his pipe. Mrs. Claus watched him for a moment and then clicked the button.

The sound of happy, laughing children [5] came faintly over the speakers and then slowly grew. Soon it sounded as though delighted children were actually in their cottage, laughing and playing. Mrs. Claus grinned and turned to her husband.

“Merry Christmas, Nick!” she said.

Santa’s merry laugh rang throughout the North Pole. “Ho, ho, ho! Oh, ho, ho, ho! Ho, ho, ho, ho, oh, ho, ho, ho!


Notes:

[1] I suspect that they didn't know what Santa would ask for, either, and that's why they passed on this idea.

[2] According to the UN, the 7 billionth living person was born on Oct. 31, 2011 (see http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=40257). The U.S. Census Bureau says we won't get there until March of 2012 (see http://www.census.gov/population/popclockworld.html).

[3] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koenigsegg CCXR.

[4] This is an inside joke referring to a piece of metafiction I wrote with my friends involving, among other things, Reese Witherspoon, nerds, Reese Witherspoon, lame superheroes, Reese Witherspoon, a Jawa Sandcrawler, Reese Witherspoon, homages to several movies, Reese Witherspoon, and boogers. Oh, and Reese Witherspoon. It may have its origins, though, in some RPG (I'm not sure).

[5] If I were to go back and revise this, I'd like to emphasize more that the Clauses are unable to have children and that they compensate for this sorrow by giving gifts to the children of the world (in the case of Santa Claus) and by raising the elves (in the case of Mrs. Claus). Thus hearing children's laughter is something that's never happened before in their home.

Image attributions:

The Black Cuillens is by Anthony Dodd, available at http://www.fotopedia.com/items/audioworm-l-zu6j8YNn8.

Iceberg is by Nick Russill, available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/36334551@N00/365110069.

Snowy Owl is by PurpleTulips (Grace & Ray), available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gogogoblue/3245138826/in/photostream/.

Polaris Star Trails is by Charles Dawley (Odalaigh), available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/68977046@N00/2781409860.

Geirangerfjord is by Florian Seiffert (F*), available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/66697904@N00/3534180714.

Polar bears on Svalbard (IJsberen op Spitsbergen) is by Martha de Jong-Lantink, available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/77762547@N00/2889512061.

Reindeer on Ingeborgfjellet, Bellsund (Rendieren op Ingeborgfjellet, Bellsund) is by Martha de Jong-Lantink, available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/marthaenpiet/2875613431.

Fox Glacier is by billandkent, available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/billandkent/3650935084/.

Aurora Borealis—Bear Lake, Alaska is by Jim Trodel, available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/31290768@N06/3598596321.

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