I've had a fascination with alternate-view Santa stories for a good chunk of my life. This one came after I realized that it would be impossible to cover the globe in a single night. So what if a single Santa could only do one Christmas?
This is dedicated to my friend Scott, who is the model for the generosity and selflessness.
“Do you have any questions?”
I had been through what felt like days of interviews, talking to two dozen others about nearly every possible topic on the subject of Christmas: presents, carols, cookies, dinners, decorations, ruby-nosed reindeer. I had to define the precise amount of wrapping paper and trim for a gift, without seeing the actual item in question. I had to know how many marshmallows was too much for a cup of cocoa, and whether or not it mattered if it were natural or Dutch process. (For the interested, it's three, of small size, and always go Dutch.) Of trees I think I spoke for nearly two hours alone on the benefits between pine, spruce fir, and particularly on the minutae of scotch, balsam, douglas, or norway. (Trick question: the best is the nearest to you, so long as it's not cypress or cedar.) The animal husbandry was surprisingly short, a topic I had done my most research, and I was moderately disappointed not to be tested.
Years of training in so many things that would be obtuse to an ordinary person: logistics and supply chain management, stealth, veterinary science and animal management, aerodynamics and thermodynamics, and disaster recovery. I had nearly failed out of the locksmithing workshop and I bluffed my way through meteorology by what felt like guessing the right answers, but then weather prediction is so much like the magic I seemed to grasp with ease.
The magic threw most of the candidates: intangible, like trying to hold onto a dream after you wake. I think that, more than anything is why I managed to find myself in the seat with the Elder, Mr. Jingles, going through the last steps of the application.
Of questions I had many. But like holding to a dream, they were whispy and unfocused, less questions than unknowns, things held back during training and evaluation, deemed “unnecessary” and a “distraction” to what I was doing at the time.
“How does this happen all in one night?” I asked. “I've never understood that.”
Mr. Jingles smiled. “You will.” He extended to me an eager and expectent hand.
All my hopes and dreams coalesced into the infinite moment as my hand reached out to grasp his, shaking with the excitement built over the previous years.
“Thank you!” I said with my broadest and most sincere smile. “This means so much to—,” I almost said “me”. “Everyone.”
“We're sure you'll come to truly understand that in time,” said Mr. Jingles. “Let's get you introduced, shall we?”
“Isn't everyone … preoccupied?” I asked, as we headed out of the office. The hallways seemed to be made of the smells of fresh gingerbread; the dark, warm wood of the walls and doors were brightened with gleaming brass and lanterns.
“Everyone is,” Mr. Jingles confirmed. “You won't need to meet everyone now, it is Christmas Eve, after all and we haven't the time. We have two key people that you to meet first,” he added. “Darkness is about to fall over Turkey.”
“Turkey?” I asked absently, then immediately felt foolish. I could name generations of the elves who worked the factories, I knew the exact source from which the spring that fed the pools that gave Santa and the reindeer their incredible strength, secrets that had never left the North Pole. Saint Nicholas' history was a matter of history, known worldwide, one that had been some of the very first courses I had taken. It was, of course, not a secret that Saint Nicholas followed traditions, including the starting time of his journey. It felt ages since I had given thought to when Santa had actually departed. Sitting on the North Pole, everywhere was possible as a start, and in the deep darkness of winter, specific time was irrelevant. How could I have forgotten Turkey?
To his credit, Mr. Jingles laughed. “We really do need to move that part of training until later in the programme,” he said.
“Lycia!” I shook my head ruefully. “Of course.”
“Don't let it worry you,” comforted Mr. Jingles. “Let us worry of the history, your knowledge of Christmas present is far more important than the Christmases past. We need you to be ever present for the future.”
We stopped at a door I had seen dozens of times before when I had come into the factory offices for various duties over the years. It had always been closed, the handle locked. (I admit to having tried to open it on three occasions.) Upon it, in lavish gold script, were the words:
“The Venerable Santa,” I breathed.
It was a hallowed door. Everyone knew what was behind it, though I had never seen it open, not once. Despite lingering in the hallway more times than I could count, I had not witnessed a single soul going through the passage. Yet the door looked used, though well-kept.
Mr. Jingles took out a key from his pocket and unlocked the door with a deep click. “Santas,” he corrected.
I looked at the script on the door, and sure enough I had mistaken a second “s” as an unnecessary flourish. “Santas?”
Mr. Jingles turned to me and smiled. “Every candidate says the same thing.” He leaned in closely. “Yes, more than one.” He turned and opened the door and through we passed. The door opened silently but heavily, as if it were both made of and holding back tremendous weight. Beyond was a great hall, the kind heard in legend and fable: vast, high, with terrific columns supporting a vaulted ceiling that seemed to extend to the heavens above. Compared to the office hallways, the great space was initially cold and grey and dull. Within a few steps, it was clear there was a warmth that seemed to radiate from everywhere, but no source that I could sense. There was no fire, no great bellows of warm air, it was as if the room itself was a radiator. The walls were smooth grey stone, but they sparkled with the infinite stars of the sky.
That I had never heard of such a room until then only quickened my heart. A great hush seemed to come around us as we stepped into the cosmic space. The walls seemed to slip away with every step, falling into the background. A small team of elves reverently walked about, dressed in robes that were more muted versions of the bright green and red of their factory brethren, lightly sweeping as they went, laying out candles upon the floor in erratic intervals, putting down a small mug and a plate. I walked over to one of the spots, and found the mug filled with milk, the plate with two cookies — chocolate chip, if you must know. They stood atop a flagstone with an engraving that read: CDVI. The flagstone seemed to glow dimly, as if there were an impossibly bright light coming through the stone. A few steps away was another candle, mug, cookies (ginger snaps, this time), another glowing flagstone, and another engraving: LXV. I looked around, spying hundreds more flagstones, most with their respective mug and plate of cookies. I watched as the elves continued in their solemn task, noticing neither myself nor Mr. Jingles.
“What are they doing?” I asked, catching up to my guide, whom had not stopped his progress across the cavernous space.
“It is tradition,” he said quietly. “They ensure the floors are clean and that the offerings are made to the Venerable Santas, as they await the new Venerable during the ceremony.”
“During … the Flight?” The only ceremony I had ever been aware of was the one that occurred just before the Flight of Christmas Eve: The lashing of the reindeer, the loading of the sleigh, the pronouncement of joy and hope and wonder, with Santa taking to the skies. The event was usually followed with a tremendous celebration that would carry on for many hours until Santa's return.
“It is a smaller, more private event,” said Mr. Jingles. “It occurs just before the Flight, a necessary step: The Passing of the Mantle.”
We had all practiced going through fireplaces dark and lit, out of woodstoves, through furnace vents, even a bathroom fan. None of the instructors had referred to the course in such a formal term — it was just ‘Stealth' — but we had all noticed a certain amount of pomp and circumstance when it came to Santa and Christmas Eve itself. “Like a passing through the fireplace,” I nodded.
We crossed the massive, candle-lit hall until we reached the other side, coming up to a huge fireplace. Easily the height of a man, again as deep, and twice as wide, it sat prepped and ready, paper and kindling tucked under the massive iron supports that held the split logs of northern pine, unlit. “The Yule Fire,” Mr. Jingles presented. “One of our most treasured traditions.”
“I've never seen a fireplace so clean!” I drew my fingers over the stones. They were utterly unmarked.
“Many years ago, we had to collect all the remains by hand.” Mr. Jingles cringed. “The invention of the vacuum cleaner absolutely improved the process.” He turned and walked to another door not far from the fireplace. It was twice as wide as any other door, made of the same dark, warm wood as the office hallways. He turned a key and propped the doors open. As he locked them into place, a light chime rang from the hallway beyond. “We should hurry, it won't be long now. Follow me.”
We walked quickly through the next hallway, which at first seemed similar to the previous one, every step seemed to take us further into an ancient tome that whispered silently. The script in the door read: Scheduling, Meterology, Sleigh Mechanics, Feirmeoireacht, Hediye Vermek. “What are all these for?”
“They're unimportant right now. They are the offices that you'll be working in mostly when you return. The knowledge and experience you gain during the Flight will be critical to ensure the success of those to come. For now, we need to prepare for Santa's departure, and you must meet with the Missus.”
“Mrs. Claus?” I stammered, unable to move. “No-one's seen Mrs. Claus … in centuries! I thought…”
Mr. Jingles turned and smiled again. “She was dead?” he asked. I nodded. “Every candidate says the same thing.” As we continued down the hallway, the walls seemed to soften like the rotting of fallen wood, though it remained solid and unyeilding to the touch. He lead me to a wide, round door devoid of script, bearing an ornate wreath. He knocked on the door and waited. A moment later, there was a sound that seemed more like music than a voice, but it was clear: “Come in.”
The room beyond bore no similarity to anything I could have imagined before or since. It was as if a summer meadow, it's bountiful trees and dappled pond, had been cast into the vastness of an impossibly bright night sky, the nebulae shifting and sliding like fish in a brook, all set to the completeness of a music that could only be felt, not heard. The room was active and restless, urgently needing to do countless unknown things in a rush to complete an unspoken task. Yes I immediately felt at home, with a spirit of infinite love and caring, one that touched me so wholey that I could feel my soul melt, waiting to reform into something else.
“Welcome,” said a voice that I couldn't hear, a voice of voices from across time, melded in a soft, unfelt breeze. “We near the Hour, the time when the Joy must take Flight to the World, raising the Spirits of Youth and giving Hope where there is None.” A vague shape formed in the space like a heavy fog or a chimney of smoke being willed into a human figure. “To Become, you must accept the Fate to bear the Mantle. You will Become the Vessel to contain the Past, to carry the Present, and sustain the Future.”
Perhaps there should have been more confusion. If Mr. Jingles had said the same words to me before we had left his office, my remaining questions likely would have rapidly increased. Within the hallowed space, there were answers before the questions, not an assumption so much as a bestowed knowledge that came through with the unheard music.
“Can you accept the Mantle?” asked the voice.
My mind somehow forgot that I had thought ‘mantle' referred to a fireplace, such as the one we had passed. The lack of confusion allowed my training and my dreams to understand the challenge without question . “I can accept.”
The shimmering shape came close and I could almost make out the gentlest, kindest of faces gleaming through the brume. I felt invisible hands on my face as they filled me with a sense of calm. “You do this willingly and without remorse or doubt.” It wasn't so much a statement or a question as it was a test, a final confirmation.
“Then the tie is cut,” said the voice. For a brief infinity the stomach dropped, my feet rose, my body and soul drawn through the eye of a needle and reformed. The room seemed to calm, its task fulfilled. The face glowed. “The true Spirit cannot be Created, cannot be Found, cannot be Bestowed, nor can it be Taken. It must be Born, it must Grow, it must Embrace. Only then can the Spirit truly Live.” The face came closer, and I was stunned to realize that it was my mother. My grandmother. My aunt. My sister. My Eve. Her eyes were soft and glowing like the sun, her smile as radiant as the moon in the dark skies. “You are the Spirit.”
“I am the spirit.” I found myself surprised at the words, not having actually thought them.
The woman laughed softly. “You will find your Life full of Surprise. And boundless Joy.”
“Mother.” It was all I could think to say.
Again the woman laughed softly. I could feel her touch me, though she hadn't moved. “What you will bring to the World is a Wonder unlike anything you could Experience before. Everywhere in the World that you Touch will brighten, everywhere will Light with Hope. You are the Vessel, the One who carries Joy.”
And like the first spring dawn breaking over the darkness of winter, I felt the answer thrust into me. “Santa,” I said.
The face nodded. “And so You will Be.”
The room vanished in a blink, and I saw myself staring at Mr. Jingles at the wreathed door in the hallway. “That was … fantastic.”
“Every candidate says the same thing,” he smiled in return. “One last meeting,” he said, indicating an archway I had not previously seen. There was no door, through it I could hear muted sounds, and smelled the unmistakeable scent of reindeer.
Through the arch was a colonade built from the most massive of oaks, arching to a slender point high above. Along the sides were three levels from the ground, lined with hundreds of elves. At the far end were two doors that stretched to the height of the arch. Before me sat the Sleigh, waiting for the Sack.
“Small, private?” I asked Mr. Jingles quietly.
“Every candidate,” said Mr. Jingles. “Remember, there are over three million of us. Comparatively, this is a small affair.” He waved his hand towards those in the balconies. “These are Santa's Helpers. They aid him through his Final Days before Veneration.”
The peace and calm I had felt was invaded by intrepidation. “Final Days?”
“Santa is Eternal,” said Mr. Jingles, “but the Vessel can only be sustained for so long, the Mantle must pass from Vessel to Vessel.”
“What happens to the person?” I asked, already suspecting the answer.
“Each Vessel,” said Mr. Jingles, walking to the Sleigh, “each person that holds the Mantle lives but for a single Flight, passing the Mantle to the next person before the next Flight.” He paused and turned to me. “Once the Vessel is emptied, it passes.”
I felt as empty, leaping to the conclusion of what would happen barely 30 hours later. “What happens to the Vessel?”
“You passed through the Hall of the Venerable Santas,” said Mr. Jingles solemnly. We remember their presence, their journey, their—“
“Sacrifice,” I said, feeling a horror sweep over me. “You never told me this was a death sentence!”
“How many have been Santa?” I demanded.
“Nine hundred and seventy-two,” he said plainly.
The flagstones in the Hall of Venerable Santas suddenly stood out. “All of them…?”
“Their Spirits were true, their Vessels were strong, but it is the fate of all living things to eventually die,” said Mr. Jingles.
I couldn't help but feel betrayed, and backed towards the archway that had led me into the chamber. “But after one night?!”
Mr. Jingles moved to speak, but was stopped as a murmur came from the far end of the colonnade. The darkness of the chamber fled as a burst of light moved into the space. It was a brilliance that penetrated every shadow, shooting through my own vacating soul, keeping my feet in place against my mind's need to flee.
The elves in the balconies smiled as brightly as the light, their pride clearly visible. They looked expectantly towards me as the glow increased. It was several moments before I realized that the the light wasn't brightening, it was moving. And while it should have blinded me, it was a diffused ethereal light that came from no one point source, filling every space with something that battled my fear.
“Santa,” said Mr. Jingles towards the glow as it approached, and he bowed.
The glow went to Mr. Jingles. There were low sounds that I could not hear but clearly held importance for Mr. Jingles, who nodded and then said: “Thank you.”
Then the glow turned to me. I saw its eyes first, which saw me in a way not possible. The smile came second, its warmth like a blanket that chased away all doubt and concern, a stiff shot of confidence where there had been a cold void. “Hello,” it said and suddenly the light cut itself loose from the man hiding within, dressed in red, wreathed in white. “I am so very happy to meet you,” he said. “I remember standing where you are, now, filled with horror.” A tear formed at his eye. “There is much you don't yet understand.”
“How… how did you choose this?” I asked incredulously. “How could you decide to live only one more day?”
The man before me smiled wider than the sky and more radiantly than the sun. “One day is enough for an eternity.”
I felt caught between the man's effervence and the terror of my proposed future. Unable to turn, unable to run, unable to proceed. Mr. Jingles touched me on my arm and I looked down to the small man.
“Christmas Eve is, for us, a single evening, lasting a little over 27 hours as Santa takes Flight. For us, it's a short time filled with celebration of Christmas and remembrance of Christmases past.” He looked to the man in front of me with a reverent ecstacy. “But for him, it is a lifetime.” Mr. Jingles saw the persistent divide on my face, chuckled, and said: “Every candidate. You are not alone. They all have the crisis of belief.
“The world is vast. We all know this, but until you have to traverse it — not just going around the world in a straight line, but literally cover across the entirety of its surface, visiting hundreds of millions of homes from tiny specks not found on a single map to the megacities that blot out the night sky. Consider the time required, even to touch the lives of a single person in all of those places, for a fraction of a heartbeat. There is not the time in a single life to do that. But your tie is cut, like his before you, and all of them before him. You will live for an eternity, unhooked from our time as you travel the globe, to its places, to its people, to all the places you are needed to bring the joy that can only come from—“
“Santa Claus,” said the man in front of me, who then placed his hand on my shoulder.
Only removed from the mortal time can one appreciate the horrific beauty of eternity, the ability to witness everything, everywhere, in the vastness of a second. The Present touched my shoulder, and over me flooded not one, but 973 eternities, from the progenitor through all the ages to the one in front of me. The Vessel was not a place, not a person, but a boundless journey that could contain all the possibility and elation and jubilance of the world. I could see the wonder in the eyes of every child, the love of every adult, the peace in every tree, every animal, every breath of wind. I felt the flames of a thousand Christmas fires erupt around me, threatening to cremate all that I was to be in a flash. But I knew, somehow, instinctively, that I needed to step through as if through a doorway, to rise from the fire. The world seemed impossibly immense, uncrossable, and extended its arm to me as a lover, beckoning me to join it.
Present Santa dropped his hand, his smile as strong, but he seemed dimmer, weakened by the moment. I felt light, hopeful, and excited.
“An eternity,” I said, then looked at Mr. Jingles. “Every candidate said that.”
“Every Santa,” he smiled. He looked to my predecessor. “The Mantle has passed, Venerable. You may now rest.”
“Rest, indeed,” he nodded, sounding painfully ancient. Several Helpers appeared at his side, carefully moving him into a wheeled chair. He looked up at me. “What I would give to be you again, for the things you will see, the joy you will experience. You will live as only we have.”
“Would you not do this again?” I asked.
“My heart would travel without me, were it possible. But our souls cannot weather such a journey twice.” The twinkle in his eye told me that he had no regret, that every breath was savoured.
As the Helpers moved him through the archway, a hundred voices uttered a quiet “Thank you”. The brilliance in the room dimmed, the light following the Venerable.
“It is time, Santa,” said Mr. Jingles. On cue, the sound of reindeer thudded across the floor, to be harnessed together, and attached to the Sleigh. “We will meet again, long from now. You might not remember us, or even this place. But we are here for you, always.”
“There will always be time,” I said,” for Christmas.”