Every year I try to write a Halloween and Christmas story. Here is this year’s story.
Enjoy, dear reader.
We are taught even as children that magic isn’t real. That the world is made up of math, and science, and reason, and there are no gray areas and no shadows where magic can hide. I never questioned this, never once until I was seventeen years old. Then everything changed for me.
I believe in magic. I believe in the unknown. I believe in Santa Claus. Against reason, against common sense and against everything that the world would tell you I believe. I believe because I have seen past the veil of Reason and know that the shadows between the sciences are very deep and that even in the smallest places there lie things that will never and can never be explained by something as simple as words. Reason is a lie we tell ourselves to keep away those dark, magic places in the world thinking they are full of terrible things and not realizing that the only dangerous things in the dark are the ones that we bring with us.
When I met my husband he had been Father Christmas for over three hundred years. I met him when I was but a girl of eight who had been too curious and too bold and had snuck into the common room at the orphanage and saw him as he was delivering presents. I watched him, fascinated, for ten minutes as he fumbled about the room taking the presents that had been donated to the orphanage and put out by our caretakers and was putting them into his large red sack and then pulling other presents out of the bag to replace them. I didn’t understand what he was doing. It didn’t make sense. He even emptied the stockings one by one into his bag and then refilled them. When he was done he took stepped away from the Christmas tree and surveyed everything. He stood there for another five minutes after he was done, just looking things over and I didn’t understand what he was doing until I saw he was shaking and heard him making strange noises so I got out from my hiding spot and snuck up to him. As I approached him I could smell peppermint, gingerbread, and other sweet smells and he gave off so much warmth I started to sweat. Just being near him made me vibrate and smile and made me feel as if it was my birthday. I smiled. He was real. He was REAL! I was so caught up in how real he was though that I forgot that he was sobbing, that warm feeling left and I felt my stomach fill with lead. Without thinking I reached out and grabbed his mittened hand and squeezed it. Santa spun around, startled, and looked down at me and forced a smile. It was hard to look at him because of his eyes, which were a bright, deep blue and it wasn’t that they hurt to look at but the opposite – there was too much happiness in those eyes. Just looking at him brought every good memory and feeling I had ever had rushing in at once and it took my breath away but it all felt like a lie because while it made me feel good he was crying, crying, crying and I had to look away. I had to. This time it was he that squeezed my hand as he bent down to whisper to me.
“I am sorry little one. I am so sorry. It’s just that I am so lonely. They’re gone you see, they’re all gone and I’m so very lonely now. I…I’m sorry. Merry Christmas”
Santa stood up and turned away from me and wiped at his eyes and looked back at the tree and then was gone. The next morning when everyone opened their presents the kids were all excited and happy but the adults couldn’t figure out what had happened to the presents they had wrapped for everyone. I never told any of them about what happened that night but the feeling of seeing him never left me nor did the sadness that I was left with after he was gone.
The next time I saw Santa I was seventeen and I haven’t left his side since that day, and that was seventy years ago. It wasn’t love, no, it was escape that I was looking for at first but it became love. I was in hell, and I don’t say that lightly. I. Was. In. Hell. And when I saw him again it was Christmas night and my face was swollen and bleeding and I thought my jaw was broken from another romantic night with my boyfriend. I was crying underneath a broken Christmas tree in my boyfriend’s apartment while he was passed out drunk in the bedroom. I was half asleep when Santa found me and woke me. As soon as I opened my eyes I felt safe, I felt home, and he smiled down at me and took my hand and in another instant we were gone and back in the North Pole and I have been here since.
It wasn’t love. It was survival. But it became love.
I am not sure why or how he found me that night but I am glad he did. I am alive because he did. I think it was my loneliness. I think my loneliness called to him like a beacon in the dark and he found me. When I arrived he dropped me at a large, old fashioned barn where he told me his elves lived and worked and that they’d look after me and then he was gone again. I looked over to the barn and saw his elves, little men in long, ornate gowns and stocking caps. By this time there were only five elves left and they were all sweet old men who were frail and spoke not a word of English and none of them was taller than three feet. I couldn’t figure out how it was possible that they were the ones running Santa’s village or making the world’s toys. It just didn’t seem possible no matter what sort of magic Santa had at his disposal. It was only when I met Mrs. Claus that the truth became clear as to who made sure that Santa’s village and Santa stayed on track. Doreen had seen me touring the village with the elves and had come out to meet me. Her eyes weren’t as warm as Santa’s but her smile was genuine and her embrace was warm and even though she couldn’t have been bigger than five feet her personality was bigger than anyone’s I had ever met. I wasn’t the first child he had brought home, she told me, and definitely not the first girl. I didn’t like the way she said that but she smiled up at me and reached up and patted my cheek and told me it wasn’t anything like that at all. He brought in strays out of the cold and tried to find a place in the world for them. And that’s what she called us, we who Santa had found over the years, strays. Doreen excused the elves, who were happy to be able to go back to their home to rest, and she walked me towards a small cottage she said was where she lived and told me it was time to show me the Claus home. The home was lit with sparkling lights that ran the length and breadth of the roof and then slid down the sides, though I saw no cords to connect them. There was a small chimney where smoke rose from and every window had a candle in it. It looked like it was out of a storybook. It was so bright, so warm, and so inviting that I couldn’t stop smiling. Inside I discovered it was much bigger than it seemed, featuring room upon room beds, and storage, and toys, and letters, and trees, and ornate storage trunks of all sizes. It took everything I had to stop myself from running room to room to look for candy and presents like a kid. Doreen lead me into a sitting room and she ushered me to an overstuffed leather chair and sat me down and poured me a cup of hot cocoa.
Doreen was not Santa’s first wife, but then, he wasn’t the first Santa, two things he didn’t know, or didn’t recall, and could never ever find out. She smiled sadly at me. There must have been a first Santa, once upon a time, though she couldn’t say she knew when he had first appeared and where he had come from. She only knew that her husband wasn’t the first by some of the things he would say and dates he’d mention which she traced back to the late 1600s. There were also trinkets throughout the house which traced back well before the 1600s. There was much she didn’t know but she did know she was not his first wife because the wives, as of his third, had left diaries hidden for the next in line to find and add to that told the story of that woman and the story of how they got to the North Pole. It was the only way Doreen knew much of what she did. The rest she would pick up from things Santa would blurt out or half-remember but those moments of remembrance were few and far between now. He would call the elves the wrong name, would forget the time of day, and would sometimes forget to bathe. And on the big things she would guide him towards the correct answer – the day, eating and hygiene, and to keep him on task, but never, never had she corrected him on the smaller things, nor would she ever. Some things, she told me, we just need to do. Not because we want to do them but because someone else needs us to. We lie, she said, because the lie is sometimes protecting someone else and sometimes it is protection against ourselves. She patted my arm and looked deep into the cup before her and wiped away a tear before continuing.
“I didn’t ask for this life, but then, I didn’t ask for the life I had before either and this is a far sight better than that ‘un, let me assure you. It isn’t about what we are given dear, it’s about what we do with what we are given. That man, that man out there tonight matters. He matters more than you and I can imagine, and he didn’t ask to be what he is either but he does what is expected. What was asked. What was needed. And that’s what matters. This was once a night of not love but punishment, of rewarding some and punishing others and he changed that. He made this a night about love, and the magic of love, and he was the first of his kind to do that. And that matters. We matter. We are the last remnants of a world of wonder and magic and we are its last protectors. And this matters. And sometimes, sometimes in order to protect this world we lie. But when I came here I didn’t just find a life here, I found magic, and that is worth any lie in the world.”
Lying, she told me, was sometimes the only thing that kept magic safe.
Doreen was shaking as she said all of this, tears in her eyes, but she took a deep breath, forced a smile and settled back into her own chair, a modern recliner with an afghan draped over the back and looked out the window and began to tell me what she knew. The elves I had met were the last of their tribe. The last of all the elf tribes. Something had happened to their race years, and years, and years ago. A sickness had spread through them, a sickness from the air, from the water, and from the earth, a sickness brought by Man and His machines. It had taken generations but it had wiped out all but these last five, who were all dying, and there was no cure. The elves understood their fate and did what they could to help Doreen and Santa but now she just wanted to make them as comfortable as she could before it was their time to go. Santa did not know this. Santa could never know. When the last elf finally died the large workshop and communal home they had all shared would be locked and when he asked about them Santa would be told they were too busy working to be bothered and Santa would laugh and say they were always working and then yell out a booming hello to them and that would be that. Doreen started to cry again and bowed her head as she told me that those cold wastes beyond the village had become a giant graveyard with a lot of graves and a lot of friends buried in them. Through everything she said to me I didn’t say a word, though a million questions were swirling in my head. I just listened. Doreen took a deep breath, wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up at me and she stood and was suddenly Mrs. Santa again and she took my hands.
“This is a lot, I know. It’s all a lot. You feel like you’re swimming through marshmallow right now I’ll bet. Believe me I know. In all of this though don’t forget that there’s a reason that I stayed, that we all stayed – that same feeling you feel now, of being safe, and happy, and home. That’s part of the deal too. And it never goes away while you are here. But, if you’re like me there’s a question that is gnawing at you – You want to know about the toys, I’ll bet, and how they get made. Let me show you.” She gave me a smile that spread from her eyes downward and walked to the back of the house and I rose and followed. She led me out the back door of the house and it wasn’t cold despite the snow.
“Fake snow,” She told me.
“I am too old for all this damn cold so I brought in fake snow. Don’t tell anyone.” She turned back and gave me a quick wink then was all business again.
Doreen walked to a place a few hundred feet from the cottage and I could see that the snow here was disturbed and watched as she bent painfully down and reached into the whitish gray depths. She grabbed onto something and pulled and pulled and slowly rose and as she rose a trap door in the ground was revealed and once it was up high enough she motioned me to come forward and what I saw took my breath. Down a glowing red escalator was an underground warehouse that was lit up by a bright green light from a source I couldn’t see and there were shelves upon shelves upon shelves of brand new toys. I gasped.
“This is Christmas. This is the biggest lie of them all. I have an elevator in the back that will bring things up and I have a way to load the things into his sleigh and I have been doing this for about fifteen years now. When the sickness hit the elves and the toy production went down I knew I had to think of something to save him.”
“Save him?” I asked.
“Yes, save him. They don’t need Christmas anymore, the people of the world. None of them. At least they think they don’t need Christmas. But what they don’t see is that it isn’t about the day, the holiday, or the religion but the magic. That is what this is about – magic. It’s dying in the world and Christmas is one of the last embers of it that still exists. We need magic. Need it, but we don’t know we do. But Santa knows, and he has always known. He knows because he needs it. He needs it desperately. Without the holiday, without the magic he is nothing and without him the last hopes of magic ever returning start to fade away. The world needs as much magic as we can give it, and Christmas, and some other days, and places, and times, and things are part of the last defense it has. We are the only defense he has. And we have to protect this man and this day no matter what the cost.”
Doreen smiled sadly at me and coughed.
“Welcome to the family, my dear.”
And that was the beginning.
I am his eighth wife. He doesn’t know this. He’ll never know this. I am just Mrs. Claus. It didn’t begin that way and I never thought it would become that but I suppose Doreen knew all along. Doreen lived another eleven years after I first met her and in that time she became the mother I never knew, though I can say that he never became a father to me. He was and is still just Santa. He was barely around those eleven years, always off tinkering in his workshop or helping out on what he called ‘other projects’ away from the North Pole. Sometimes we wouldn’t see him for days. To this day I don’t know what he does when he isn’t around and I don’t want to know. I hold enough secrets. I don’t want anymore. Every time I saw him though it was like meeting him for the first time all over again. Doreen would remind him of my name, and who I was and he’d smile awkwardly and laugh and tell us he was just kidding, that of course he knew who I was, and then he’d ask Doreen for some cocoa.
And that was life.
I lived with the elves in their barn home those first few years and took care of them as they died one by one. It was wonderful living with them because even in their illness they would whistle, and sing songs in their tongue, and would make me the most beautiful dresses and toys and leave them wrapped on my bed. We found a way to communicate and I will always cherish the time I had with them. But within those first five years I was in the village all of them were gone and when the last of them went Doreen had me move into the house with her and Santa and we locked the Elf home and we buried the bodies way out in the snow and he never asked about them after that. Not once. He would look over at their barn and would stop for a moment as he looked but then he’d move on to another destination, a little slower than before, and with his head down, but moving on. It was like he forgot about them, and I guess maybe he did, though I think deep down he knew they were gone, felt them gone, but just wasn’t able to pull himself out of the auto-pilot he’d been stuck in for so many years. You could feel their absence though and with their passing a little more magic was gone from the world. Over time I started to see things as Doreen did and the longer I was around Santa the more I realized that something was very wrong with him – he was losing something, not necessarily his mind but I think it was the magic. My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that the less magic there was in the world, the less of him there is and if he ever disappears I’ll know that all the magic of the world is finally gone for good. But something is wrong with him. I remember one night when he called Doreen another woman’s name and I saw this woman I had come to love tear up, and her hands start to shake but she forced a smile and answered to that name knowing that he hadn’t said it out of cruelty, or a lack of care but because he just didn’t remember that the woman he was calling for was long dead. We cried together later when he was in the workshop, and I held her, and she had become so frail, and so tired, and I knew it was near the end. And I think he knew it too.
At the end Santa was around every day for at least three hours to visit and take walks with his wife. It was very painful for Doreen to make the rounds but she did it for him, leaning heavily on her thick wooden cane as she did and smiling and laughing as they talked. Even at the end she was strong for him and he was there for her. He as there with her until the end, but the day she died he didn’t come by and I didn’t see him for a month after, though I knew he was in the village because I could hear him in his workshop. Some part of him must have known she was gone and he must not have been able to deal with it, or whatever powers guided him wouldn’t let him deal with it. The mission was the important thing. The mission and the magic. Doreen died in March and I mourned alone and buried her far out beyond the village’s border where the real snow is and I buried her just as we’d buried the elves and she had buried so many others that had once lived there. After she died I began reading all of the diaries that I could find in the hopes of learning what came next. When Santa finally reappeared I was his wife. I was Mrs. Claus. We have never once even kissed or held hands and he sleeps out in his workshop or in his chair in the cottage but as far as he knows I am his wife. I dress the part. I act the part. And I tell him to eat more, and to work less, and we joke about whether we will ever get to take that Bahamas vacation one day, and once in a while he calls me by another woman’s name.
This is my life.
Doreen left me three things before she died – the key to the toy room, something she called a travel stone which would allow me to travel to get new toys when they were needed, and a secret that I will never tell. The last secret. A secret that haunts me to this day but which gives me comfort just the same because all of this means something, even if I will never live long enough to fully understand what that meaning is. I will say this – it involves magic, and that no matter how dim its embers, it is never, ever really gone. The travel stone she showed me how to use once but it was enough. You take the stone in your hand and concentrate on where you wanted to go and then you would say that place three times and you would be there. That was how I would get supplies, food, drink, clothes, whatever I needed but above all it was how I would get new toys. While the world may not think it needs Santa he still serves a purpose and he keeps a little more magic alive in a world where magic has long been thought dead. With the elves gone it was now Mrs. Claus’ duty to make sure that he gave out gifts that were wanted and relevant and that meant something. I didn’t get that at first, initially getting everything loud and electronic that I could find but realizing, as I watched moments of Christmas through a Seeing Stone, that the things I was getting children, while flashy, were not the things that made an impact on them or fed their imaginations. And for children imagination is the key to magic. The only key some will ever have. With some planning and work I changed my tactics and am finally starting to see some positive results in my work. When we are in need of new supplies I go into the toy room where there is a small chest of money which I use for spending. The chest works like the Travel Stone and all I need to do is concentrate on how much I need and what currency I need and when I open the lid the money is there. I take the money, I use the Seeing Stone to find what I need, I use the Travel Stone to go where I need, and when I am ready I have everything packed together and I take it all back to the village. It’s not easy but it’s worth it. It’s worth it for them. It’s worth it for him. The toys that Doreen had gotten that became outdated I took and donated them to homeless shelters or day cares. It feels good and it means something to those kids. I have some other ideas, some things I want to try out but I have to tread lightly because this is his night. Not mine. But together, together we make magic.
This is not an easy life, and it is not an easy love, but it’s a good life and a great love. It is a love of a world I once hated. When I came here I was finally able, thanks to Doreen, to see a longer, wider view of the world and humanity. Thanks to him I see magic in places where I never thought any existed. Some days the nastiness in the world feels like an unbearable weight but all I need to do is to look into his eyes and things clear again. He still gets confused and lonely, even with me here, as if the haze of the years has cleared momentarily and he suddenly recalls all of the friends and loved ones he has lost along the years but when that happens it doesn’t last long and the times it has I slip him some special cocoa we have in the cupboard and soon he forgets his troubles and the twinkle in his eyes returns.
As a little girl Christmas was different for me. I grew up in an orphanage, grew up with an ever revolving cast of strangers, and grew up in a world where that one present at Christmas, whatever it was, made me feel like I was special and that someone loved me. Even if they were a stranger they loved me enough to donate something for me. I needed that. It wasn’t about the greed of having, no; it was about that blind love you have to have to give your time, your money, and yourself to someone. Something I had never truly felt before and never did until I met my husband. This night is about him…but it’s about us too. It’s about the frail bridge between loneliness and love and the often barren landscape of generosity that lies within the human heart. Santa is one of the very last links to a world we once welcomed into our own, a world of magic and wonder where one man can change the world for good or ill. A world where there is more than what our senses tell us. A world that still holds a little mystery. There is a world beyond our own that I dreamed of, I wished for, and I prayed for and now I am a part of it, even in the smallest of ways I am a part of it, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything. I am a part of the last defense that magic has and if I have my way I intend to start pushing against the world and bringing a little more magic back. I have my ideas, and I have some allies I am making and if it doesn’t infringe on his duties, I will take this war to Reason’s door.
This is not a perfect life, and it is not a perfect love, but it is magic, and it is real.
And so is he.
And I believe.