The Holly & The Quill

            Winter was always a tough time in the Northlands. The land was blanketed with snow; all was peaceful, serene and white. For the Northlanders, however, winter was a time of quiet desperation, particularly if the fall harvest was poor. The Northlanders were a simple folk, working the lands and trying to keep their families fed. The Northland was ruled by a cruel man, the Duke. He had wealth and power, something the Northlanders neither had nor desired. He had an army that did his bidding, and his bidding was often vicious. For the right to live in the Northland (something most of the families of the Northland had done much longer than the Duke’s family had), each Northland family was required to produce two wagonloads of bounty, whether it be the grains that made bread or the vegetables and fruits of the orchard. Regardless of how the harvest came out, two wagonloads were the requirement. Whatever was left would be all that the Northlanders had to sustain them through the harsh winter.

            In bad years, many would starve and others would leave. The Duke didn’t mind. He would seize the lands of those who died or fled and give it as favors to those who pleased him…or to those he owed debts to, and that list was many for the Duke was a man of lavish tastes. Soon, the Duke found his need for land exceeded the rate of available land. He determined that he must find a way to encourage more to leave…or die.

            He would have preferred to just seize the land directly and order the Northlanders away, but he could not do that without just cause; that would also attract the attention of the King who might take a dim view of his actions and that could jeopardize his place at court. No, the Duke crafted a simple and elegant solution; he outlawed hunting.

            He cloaked himself in self-righteous piety and claimed that the animals of his domain must be protected because they were being hunted to extinction. In point of fact, the Northlanders only hunted to supplement their diets. They were a peaceful and gentle folk who loved the Northland, as harsh a place as it could be. There was no orgy of killing the way the Duke did when he went hunting. A single animal would be brought down and its meat would be cured and stored, its skin used as clothing and blankets to help keep the Northlanders warm during the cruel winter.

            Not that the Duke followed his own edict. He and his cronies would go into his woods and shoot everything that moved merely for the sport of killing. The carcasses would sit where they lay, drawing flies and scavengers, eventually being stripped to the bone and left there. The people of the Northlands called the Duke’s woods The Bone Forest. They were forbidden entry there upon pain of death; sometimes starving Northlanders would huddle in their homes, less than an hour’s walk from meat that could save their lives but too frightened to make that walk. Some would; some were bold that way, but there were always watchers, informers who would do anything to get in the Duke’s good graces. Those that went into the woods and brought back meat were always reported, always punished. The Northlands soon became a place of great sadness, a feeling of helplessness and despair ruled the land alongside the Duke.

            This was the place where he lived, one of the more prosperous farms in the Northlands. His father and his father before him had tended the land well, and drew great bounty from it. They were good men who shared their prosperity with their neighbors who were less fortunate; many families who were starving were rescued by his family and he admired his father for it. Some resented their prosperity, but most knew that theirs was a kindly family and blessed them.

            He was a strapping young man, well over six feet tall and powerful from working hard on the land. He was efficient in his work and the land prospered from his care; his proud father often said he had a magic touch when it came to the land. The truth was he felt a kinship with the land, a bond that was deep and powerful. In his spare time, he would roam the countryside into the wild places that were not farmed. Although there were bears and wolves in these places, he never felt threatened or afraid. He grew to know the animals that dwelled there; the reindeer, the birds and the wild pigs.

            He was a handsome man, and well loved by the women of the Northlands and the truth was he was a very desirable catch. Handsome and strong but also the heir to one of the most prosperous farms in the Northlands, he was pursued by many a fair maiden and certainly by their fathers who desired the advantageous match a marriage to him would bring. Even a few married women displayed their charms for him, well-aware an affair with him might bring more to their lives than the pleasures of the bed.

            For his part, his heart was yet unclaimed. He was an easygoing sort but he preferred solitude to the company of women or the company of men for that matter. He was at his happiest when he was alone in the mountains that ringed the Northlands. Sometimes he would be gone for days; his father often would worry himself sick over his son’s behavior but soon grew to accept it as part of his mercurial son’s nature. While his father would have preferred that his son find a match advantageous to the family and help keep their place strong in the community, he was a good man who wanted his son to be happy and so he pushed no unwanted romance on his son.

            He was well past marriageable age and there were some whispers that he did not intend to marry at all, which certainly wasn’t true. He wasn’t against marriage nor was he uninterested in the fairer sex. Many were the maidens that he favored; it was just that he hadn’t found one that made his heart soar.

            He knew deep down that he wouldn’t find one in his village or the neighboring ones and he certainly wouldn’t find the right one in the woods and the mountains, but he could not yet bring himself to end his ranging. For now, these were places that brought him happiness and peace, and he couldn’t bear to give that up just yet.

            As winter approached every year, the Northlanders always celebrated with the harvest festival. The harvest was done, the taxes paid and the remainder had been stored for the coming winter. The harvest festival was well underway and the Northlanders celebrated with games and feasting. The Duke had even supplied several chickens and some eggs for the Northlanders to feast upon. The Duke’s “generosity” was toasted in the same spirit the gifts were given.

            He normally loved the harvest festival with the dancing, the laughter and merriment that was part of it, but he felt more restless than usual. He had grabbed his cloak, a coil of rope, his bow and quiver (guns were forbidden to the Northlanders) and set out for the mountains. He walked at a fast pace, his strides long and determined. He didn’t know why he felt this urgency, but trusted his instincts enough to follow them. He rose in the mountains that separated the Northlands from the icy wilderness that they called the Winterlands, where the snow never melted even in the heat of summer. Northlanders never went there; those that did never returned. He had seen them from afar once, glittering and cold in the height of summer, no life visible from his perch high in the mountains.

            Through the mountain range he walked. He would drink from streams that flowed in the mountains; he would eat fruit from trees and bushes that grew there. At night, he would take shelter in caves or beneath trees, lighting a fire to keep predators away. Although it was already cold and he knew how dangerous it was to be caught in the mountains in winter, something was drawing him further away.

            Like many of his age, he hated the oppression and corruption of the Duke. He had a compassionate heart and knew that what the Duke was doing to his people was wrong. As one who understood the importance of caretaking his land, he knew that the Duke had an equal responsibility to care for his people, a responsibility the Duke wasn’t fulfilling. He didn’t hate the Duke per se; it was more as if he were disappointed in him. He did nothing, however, because to openly oppose the Duke would bring ruin down on his family.

            And so he ranged, further and further away until the trees began to thin out and at last, there were none. The frozen wastes of the Winterlands were closer than they had ever been; he could feel their icy breath on him. To go there would be death, and yet he was drawn as if unseen hands were pushing him in that direction.

            At last he descended from the last mountain and into the Winterlands, and still he walked. His cloak was warm and sturdy but it was unable to keep all the cold out; soon his hair and beard were frozen with the icicles of his sweat. He would take snow and pack it into his mouth, using the water that melted to sustain him. Days went by and he neither stopped nor rested, stumbling through the Winterlands like a man possessed. He never questioned what drew him, what inflamed him to undertake such madness, he just followed his instincts.

            As his strength began to fail, he started to wonder if he was going to die alone in the Winterlands. Part of him wanted to flee, to turn back but he knew he had passed the point of safe return, even if he could navigate back to the mountains which he had left far behind him. Still, there was a peace inside him, a calm that he couldn’t explain, as if all were right in the world. For someone who was as near death as he was, that was an inexplicable feeling.

            He knew if he lay down, if he stopped he would die. His only chance of survival was to continue walking until he found food and shelter. But where would he find it in this icy wilderness? There were no inns, no people, no anything; just ice, snow and rocks.

            Just when he began to despair and wonder if he should just lie down and die, he saw it; a light in the distance. His heart soared; light meant people, shelter, and warmth. If he could make it to the source of the light, he would be saved. With renewed vigor, he marched and soon beheld an amazing sight.

            It was a city, larger than any village he had ever seen, and here in the middle of the Winterlands. There were huge buildings of brick and wood, and windows aglow with light. No wall surrounded it. No guards patrolled it. There were people milling about, going about their business but it was strangely quiet.

            He entered the city, hoping he could find an inn or someplace he could get shelter. As he walked down the street, he saw two children walking towards him. When they noticed his presence, they stopped. In a weak voice he called out, “I mean you no harm children! I only seek shelter, warmth and food. Can you direct me to a place where I might find it?”

            The two whispered to each other, their gestures animated. After a few moments one said in a strangely deep voice “Follow us, stranger. We will take you to someone who can help.” His voice was musical in a way that he couldn’t describe, but he felt great joy at hearing it. It also had a strange accent that he couldn’t quite place. As he followed the heavily cloaked children, he noticed that they walked in a way that was most un-childlike.            

            As it was nearly dark, there were few on the streets but they were all children, which he found strange. He could hear voices of others, all speaking a language he didn’t know yet sounded oddly familiar; he also heard the sounds of sorrow. In fact, he could almost feel that sorrow, palpable and overwhelming. Even if he was overjoyed at his rescue, he was still affected by the sadness that seemed to permeate the very stones of this place.

            In his weakened state he had trouble keeping up with his guides but at last they reached the center of the city and a gigantic building, the largest he had ever seen. The façade was impressive with great wooden doors fifty feet high, and glass windows which to that point he had only seen in the Duke’s residence. Even the meanest building in this city had glass; it must be very prosperous here indeed. He wondered if he could negotiate with them to share some of that prosperity with his village who were in dire need of help for the harvest had been unusually poor this year.

            The doors to the building were so huge he wondered how they could be opened at all but the children just pushed on the door and it swung open slowly. The two children walked inside and he hurried to follow them. The door closed behind them of its own accord.

            Inside they were in a room where there were thousands of pegs. On several of them hung cloaks of the type the children wore. The pegs were all of a height that children would find comfortable but adults would not. The children hung up their cloaks on two vacant pegs and his eyes widened with a start.

            For one thing, these were not children but adults, both bearded, both the size of small children. Their ears came to a strange point rather than being rounded and their eyes were golden, their lips cherry red and their hair the color of strawberries. One of them gestured to follow and he did, grateful that for the first time in days he was warm.

            The warmth was different, too; it enveloped him. After being so long in the cold, often warmth would be painful as the body slowly thawed, but it was as if his body had been blanketed and the cold seeped out as if drawn like water from a sponge. Although he was still hungry, he felt safe and warm. It was a good feeling, one that he would like to keep.

            They passed through a door and once again he was brought up short. It was a workshop, but like none he had ever seen; it was gigantic, going on as far as the eye could see. This one room was many times the size of his entire village. Why, the Duke’s mansion would fit comfortably in a single corner.            

            But the workshop was nearly deserted, the tabletops covered with unassembled items. There were a few of these strange people walking about, but they seemed aimless, without purpose. Certainly there was no work going on in the workshop.

            At the sight of him, however, they would all stop and stare and he kind of understood that; after all, if one of their kind arrived in his village, all the Northlanders would stop and stare as well. One of his guides shouted “Get Salidia!” One of those who had been staring quickly scurried off, disappearing quickly in the maze of tables and benches.

            They led him to a room off to the side of the workshop. There was a large fireplace, a desk and several chairs. The room was luxurious and welcoming, homey in a way that was like no home he had ever seen. He felt as if he belonged there, strangely enough even though he had never laid eyes upon it before. It was unsettling and exciting and yet strangely made him feel content at the same time. “Wait here, she will come,” said one of the guides. “Thank you,” he said, “You have saved my life.” The two exchanged puzzled looks and then did a strange thing. They bowed deeply, as if he were a person of great importance, and exited the room bowing. He was confused by that.

            Some minutes later the door opened and once again his jaw dropped but this time for a different reason. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen walked into the room. Her hair was blonde, spun like shining soft strands of platinum on her head. Her eyes were the deepest blue, and kindly. Her smile was radiant and made his heart beat like a drum. She wore a red dress, trimmed with ermine and her boots were black. His tongue felt thick and awkward in her presence.

            “They told me you had come. You walked all the way from the Northlands?” He nodded, unable to speak. “You must be near to starving. Come, let us feed you, and then you may rest. You must also be weary to the bone.” He nodded again, and felt tears of gratitude streaming from his eyes. He managed to stammer out a thank you, rising at her gesture to follow. She gave him her arm and he took it, grateful to touch such a perfect creature.

            She led him into a dining room, where a great meal was set before him. He ate and drank to his fill, the food the most wonderful he had ever eaten, the wine the best vintage he had ever drunk. When he was full, she led him back to the room with the pegs, where he put on his cloak. She had put on a matching red cloak of her own with an ermine-trimmed hood. She said “We will supply you with a better cloak, but for now we have prepared a room for you near the Workshop. It is but a short walk.”

            Now that he was fed and felt more like himself, the sorrow he had noticed earlier came back in full force. He asked her about it. She smiled and he saw at once the sadness in her. “My father is dying,” she said. “You will meet him soon; I’m sure he is anxious to. For now, just rest. You will see him on the morrow.”

            “Does he rule here?” he asked. She nodded. “He does not command; he leads. He is nothing like your Duke.” He nodded. The Duke could not possibly have created a daughter so kind, so beautiful. No, someone like her could only have come from a good man, a saintly man in fact.

            She was true to her word; the walk was a short one. They came to a house, one that was taller than the others but not large. Inside it was comfortable and warm. A fire roared in the fireplace, and in the back was a bed larger and more comfortable than any he had ever seen. Goose-down pillows and soft comforters made it inviting. He realized how weary he was and in fact was barely keeping his eyes open. She smiled at him. “Your clothes will be seen to. I will come fetch you in the morning; breakfast will be left here for you, but for now sleep. You are safe here. I bid you farewell, until the morning.” She smiled at him and left him alone in the house. He was sad to see her leave, but his whole body cried out for sleep. He stripped his clothes off and put on a nightshirt that was left for him; it fit well and was soft and comfortable but he barely noticed. Almost as soon as his head hit the pillow he slept.

            The next day he awoke to find a magnificent breakfast of porridge, muffins with honey, sausages, bacon and cakes waiting for him. He ate lustily – he had always had an appetite, and found his clothes gone. In a closet, however he saw that there were clothes waiting for him; a red velvet tunic, soft and warm; red breeches, a great black belt and black boots. There were also smallclothes, silken and comfortable.

            She arrived soon afterwards. “I trust you slept well,” she said, her smile dazzling him even greater than before. He nodded and bowed. “Thank you for your kindness, my lady. I am indebted to you and the citizens of your city forever.” She laughed then, a merry, musical sound. “So polite you are, young man. You must call me Salidia, but do not tell me your name just yet. It is a custom among us that you must give your name to my father before any might speak it. I would appreciate very much if you would respect that custom.” He nodded and bowed again. “Of course I will, Lady Salidia. I am at your service. Shall we go meet your father?”

            He put on a red hooded cloak similar to the one that she had worn the evening before. This time, when they went out, he didn’t feel the cold at all. He supposed that those who lived in such a place must learn to weave clothes that resisted the cold better than those who lived in the Northlands were able to weave.

            She led him back to the workshop and this time once inside didn’t stop at the peg room but led him all the way to the back. They passed many many rooms, so many he lost count. At last they came to a set of massive wooden doors, made of sturdy oak. There were carvings on them of reindeer. She indicated he should wait there and knocked softly. A voice weathered by age said “Come in.”

            Inside the room was a large desk, with a gigantic chair behind it. There was also a bed, one as large and ornately carved as any he had ever seen, even more luxuriously appointed than the one he had slept in the night before. In it was an old man, his hair white as snow, his beard long, nearly to his waist. His skin was sallow and his breathing labored but his eyes were the same blue as Salidia’s and kindly as well. “They told me you had come,” he said in a voice that had once been strong but was weakened by illness and age. “I have been waiting for a longer time than you can imagine.”

            The old man indicated that he should sit down and so he did. “It is a pleasure to meet you sir. I wanted to thank you for the hospitality your fair city has shown me. I was quite literally at death’s door when I found you.” The old man smiled. “Believe me young man, you are most welcome. I am told you walked here from the Northlands?”

            He nodded and the old man smiled. “I made that same walk, many years ago. I came from a village called Elkhorn. Do you know it?” The younger man shook his head. “I am from Dukeswood, near the Craghorn.” The old man smiled. “The Craghorn I know well but I know not this Dukeswood. I guess that it is near the Duke’s castle?” The younger man nodded and the old man smiled. “Names change my son, but much else remains the same. I will not ask you for your name just yet. I have much to tell you, but I will give you my own name, one I have not used in many a year. I am Nicholas. However, around here I am often referred to as Father. You may use either if you wish.”

            The young man nodded. “This is an amazing city, Nicholas. I have never seen its like. It seems to be a place of great bounty and yet it sits here in the midst of the Winterlands, with no land to till, no beast to hunt. How do you survive?” Nicholas chuckled. “That is a very good question my son. I will answer it in time but first I must sit at my desk. Salidia, if you please?”

            She helped the old man rise from the bed and wrapped him in a robe of red velvet and ermine. She led him to the desk where he sat down behind it. On the desk was a gigantic scroll on which many names had been penned. Next to the scroll was an elaborate quill, like none he had ever seen. The feather was shiny and seemed to shimmer and change colors. The old man noticed him looking at it and said “Ah, I see you have spied my quill. That is the feather of a phoenix, a bird that exists no longer. It has many rare qualities that I hope one day you will discover.”

            He cleared his throat. “Salidia, would you fetch us some hot chocolate? I have much to discuss with this young man and I fear my throat will grow dry long before I finish.” She smiled and exited. The old man smiled and regarded the younger man with kindly eyes. “This is a very special city, my son. Only those with giving hearts may find it, and only those with noble spirits may enter it. We have a unique function here, one which is important, perhaps most important in the whole world. Did you wonder what my great Workshop manufactures?” The young man nodded. “Toys. We make toys here. Toys of every shape and size, toys to bring joy to the hearts of every child. Tell me, do you remember the joy of Christmas morning?”

            The young man nodded. “Yes, sir. We would go to church and celebrate, and then we would return home and there would be presents. We would exchange gifts we had made during the year for one another. My parents always claimed that the toys were the work of elves who left them in the night, but I always suspected that my father made them secretly as we slept.”

            The old man chuckled, his entire body shaking. His laughter was the most wonderful sound he had ever heard, filling him with joy and warmth and a feeling that all was right with the world. “Yes, my son, you are not far from the mark on that. Unfortunately, many have forgotten the meaning of Christmas, living as they do under the yokes of those like the Duke whose greed and lust for power have hardened their hearts against the true meaning of Christmas and the lesson it teaches us. Much of that is because I have grown old, unable to combat the onset of corruption and greed that have addled the world. It is time for a younger man to succeed me.”

            The young man asked “Do you have a son who will take your place?” The old man smiled sadly. “Our city doesn’t work that way young man. My sons go out into the world, spreading peace and love as best they can. Their sacrifice helps keep our mission to bring the world closer to what the world is supposed to be. It is also the nature of the world to want that message to be suppressed and those who bring it to be brought down. My sons are all dead. I have but one daughter left, Salidia.” As if on cue, she walked into the room with big mugs full of steaming hot chocolate. The two men sat drinking for a few moments. It was the best thing he had ever had, filling his body with warmth and good feeling. Salidia sat with them, drinking as well. He felt her presence and yearned to touch her, but would not dishonor her in front of her father, who seemed so kindly and gentle as well.

            Nicholas went on, “Although at times it seems as if we fight a losing battle, we have powerful forces at work for us as well. You might even say magical forces. I see in your eyes that you are a practical man, my son. You are a farmer?” The young man nodded. “You love the land very much, the Northlands. I understand that love. I love this city in much the same way. I hope that you will love it that way as well.”

            The young man smiled. “Tis an amazing place, Sir Nicholas. I have never seen the like. I feel so peaceful here, I cannot explain it.” Nicholas chuckled again, smiling broadly. “Ah yes, I understand very well. This city has a profound effect on people. It is a place where hope and love are allowed to flourish. We deliver toys, yes, but we also deliver much more; a feeling that there is something better in life, that if we live our lives to the best we can be, everywhere can be the same as this city. We are the example to live by. It is an immense responsibility, but one I have gladly borne. Does that sound like something important to you?”

            The young man nodded. “I think it is important that one live in the world with kindness and regard for others. It is the responsibility of those who have to share with others, and those who have not to be kindly and caring. Money is unimportant; it corrupts and it leads men to cruelty and barbarism. Those who seek money find only coldness and emptiness. Those who seek to give find warmth and contentment.”

            The old man smiled broadly, nodding. “Yes, that’s it exactly. You understand what my city is all about. It is that understanding that we desperately need now.” He took a sip of hot chocolate, wiping the excess from his beard. “I have to ask something of you young man. I want you to hear what I have to say before accepting. It can bring you great joy but it is a mighty burden and there is great sacrifice that is required. Your life will change forever should you choose to accept, but it is your choice. You may say no if you wish to and should you do so, you will be returned to the Northlands safe and sound. Will you do me the kindness of listening to what I have to say?”

            The young man nodded. “It is the least I can do, sir. Please, speak.” The old man nodded. “What I am about to tell you is at times difficult to believe because, as I said, there are forces here that are not easily explainable. You have seen the Workshop and you have seen the elves. Do you know who I am, boy?” The young man nodded. “Of course. You are Father Christmas. You are Santa Claus.”

            The old man sighed. “It is a good thing that you recognize me. It makes what I have to say much easier. Yes, I am Santa Claus. I am he who delivers the toys to all the children of the globe on Christmas Eve. I am also dying.”

            The young man frowned. “How can that be? The legends say that you are immortal.” Santa chuckled again. “The position is immortal my son, but I am not. Tis true, I live much longer than most because of what I do but even I must die for that is the will of the Creator; only He lives forever, and that is as it should be. No, it is necessary for me to die and so I shall, soon. The world needs a Santa Claus however, and only someone who is giving and true can fill the position. Only one who has the courage to walk into the wilderness and brave certain death can find this city. Only one such as yourself. What I ask, dear boy, is that you take my place.”

            The young man was thunderstruck. “I…don’t know what to say. It is quite an honor…” The old man held up his hand. “Don’t answer just yet. You must know what all that entails. You will lead this city and while the elves are very much able to handle the toy making without much supervision from me…or you, should you choose to accept my offer, there is much responsibility that you undertake. You are tasked with determining which children are naughty and which children are nice. It is a list that requires you to see into the very souls of the innocent and from time to time, see things that are awful and saddening. Most children, you see, have some goodness in them, even if circumstances cause them to act in ways that are naughty and mean. A very few, however, were born without conscience or care, and have no love in them save for themselves. Some of these may be rehabilitated but most will go on to be your enemies, the ones in the world whose actions you exist to contravene.”

            The young man nodded. “How do I fight them?” The old man smiled gently. “With love and joy. With courage and conviction. We have no army, no political power, no laws to assist us save the laws that are most basic to us all; the laws of kindness and compassion. The law that we do unto others not only as we would have done to ourselves, but that which is right even if it is difficult. To aid those who need it. To uplift those who require it. To give all we have to give and sometimes more. It is a very difficult proposition, for greed is a very powerful thing. To survive in the world that is, one must have gold and yet the more gold one gets, the more gold one wants. We must show them that not all that glitters is gold.”

            He turned to his daughter. “Salidia, please fetch the Holly.” Her eyes sparkled and she looked even more beautiful. “You honor me, father. I will return with it in a moment.” She rose and walked out quickly. The young man stared after her, sorry to see her go. Santa chuckled. “You are fond of my daughter are you not?” He nodded absently then suddenly turned beet red. “Uhhh…I mean no offense sir…I mean, she’s the most beautiful woman…but…I…” Santa laughed then, a true laugh and the room seemed to brighten. The young man couldn’t help but smile and laugh as well.

            Santa said “Of course you are already in love with her my son, as I was with my dear Martha when I first came. You are meant to be with her and she with you. I have seen how she looks at you and believe me she feels the same about you. You will be married one day, mark my words.” The young man was flabbergasted, blushing furiously. Santa chuckled again. “That is one of the perks of the job, my son. You get to spend it with your one true love.”

            His face turned serious. “But there is also a great sacrifice that you make. Your life will be long and fruitful, but she is not Santa Claus; she will live long, but she will die long before you do. You will spend many lonely years missing her. You will also see your children die. All those you love in the Northlands shall die long before you do. At the end, you will have the comfort of but one of your children, one who will be the one who marries your successor or, at least the one who is meant to be your successor.”

            “You see, you have the choice to stay or leave. I cannot force this life on you. It must be accepted without reservation, understanding fully the ramifications of what your choice means. This is a life that offers great fulfillment and many, many years of joy but there is also great sadness and pain. The battle you will wage is never an easy one, and it is easy to despair. You will often feel your efforts in vain as often the children see their presents as their right and proper due rather than as what they really are; an expression of love and hope. You will wonder if you are truly making a difference and you will feel the loneliness that comes with being the only one of your kind. If you choose this life for yourself, it is with the understanding that the burden is a consuming one. Do you understand dear boy what I am offering you?”

            The young man nodded and stood up. “Yes, Father Christmas, I do understand. I want nothing more than to do good in this life. What better way than to be Santa Claus?” He offered his hand to the old man who shook it. Tears began to flow out of the old man’s eyes and he said “You have made an old man very happy, young man. Very happy indeed. Now, I ask you…your name.” The young man nodded and said “My name is Kris.”

            The old man nodded and said “It is an honor to meet you Kris.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a ledger. On this, there were several names listed. The last was Nicholas of Myra. Santa pushed the inkwell, the quill and the ledger towards him. “When you sign your name to the ledger, the deed will be done. You will become Santa Claus. I will once again be just Nicholas.” The young man picked up the Quill. As he did, a beautiful light filled his eyes. He could see everywhere, inside people and see the generosity in them, the goodness of their spirits. It brought tears to his eyes, but he looked to the ledger and slowly signed it “Kris Kringle.”

            The door opened and Salidia entered, carrying a velvet pillow on which a sprig of holly rested. The sprig was merely a stick, without leaves or berries. She carried it in with great reverence and laid it on the desk. She saw the ledger’s new signature and her smile broadened. She hugged Kris close and gave him a kiss, and he knew that he was with the woman he had always been searching for in that instant.

            Nicholas said “This is an ancient Holly, in which the spirit of Christmas resides. It contains the souls of all those who have presided over this city before you and into which my soul will now pass. It is where yours shall go when your successor arrives. It is the source for all the magic in this city; it endows simple reindeer with the power of flight and allows you to be in all places at once. When Christmas Eve arrives, you will bear it with you and this shall allow you to deliver all the presents in a single night. It is the Christmas miracle that happens each year and symbolizes the ability of Christmas to bring out the best in all of us. I will leave it in your capable hands…Santa.”

            The young man found himself crying. “Must you leave…?” The old man nodded sadly. “It is my time,” he said in a gentle voice, “and I am more than ready for it. I will always dwell here, in this spring of Holly and you shall know me each time you take it in your hands. Now, please allow an old man to say goodbye to his daughter one last time.”

            He rose and Salidia, who was sobbing rose to hug her father. They embraced and Salidia whispered “I love you father. Thank you for all you have given me.” The old man hugged her tightly. “And thank you, my child, for all you have given me.” They held each other for a time, and then the old man gently moved her away. The young man found himself rising and took Salidia in his arms to comfort her. She buried her head in his shoulder, weeping.

            Nicholas said “It is time,” and there was a loud sound like the tolling of a bell. He placed his hand on the sprig and smiled. “Goodbye children. I am content.” Sparkling light suffused the old man, all the colors of the rainbow did he glow. The light grew gradually brighter and brighter until at last it was pure white, and both Salidia and Kris had to look away. Soon the light gradually faded and the old man was gone but the sprig of Holly bloomed once again, covered with leaves and berries.

            Salidia and Kris held each other for a time until the tears stopped. They dried each other’s eyes and kissed; a long and loving embrace that would mark their wedding. The vows that they took were never spoken but implied. In that moment they were united as one.

            They walked to the doors of Santa’s office and opened them. There waiting were hundreds of elves, expectantly. It was Kris who spoke. “Nicholas is no more. He has joined those who came before him. A great man has passed from this world.” There was weeping then, as those who had served him so well and so long paid their respects. At last Kris spoke again. “His mantle passes to me now and I hope that I do as well by him as he did by you. Together we will continue the work that he did so well.”

            A voice cried out from the elves “Long live Santa Claus! Long live Christmas!” All the other elves took up the cry and there was great cheering. The bells of the city began to toll in joy and solemnity. The world itself seemed brighter for a bit.

            In the Northlands, Kris’ disappearance would be a mystery that would soon be forgotten. A younger brother would inherit the family farm and do as well by it as Kris himself probably would have. As for the Duke, he became a victim of his own greed as one of his debtors grew tired of waiting for payment and had the Duke brought to justice. The King, disgusted with the harm, the Duke had wrought on the Northlands, installed Kris’ brother as the new Duke and he ruled the Northlands with compassion and fairness, bringing to it a prosperity that was unrivaled for many generations.

            As for Kris, well, we all know about him. He continues to be Santa to this day and has spread joy and love for many years, but as he has grown older, the world has become a corrupt and despairing place. It is fast becoming time for his successor to be chosen. Perhaps one of you, gentle readers, shall feel a call, an urge to walk for reasons you cannot explain into a place where there are no humans and no hope of walking out alive. I hope you find the city where an old man and his daughter wait for you. I hope you find it in your heart to take up his mantle. I hope, most of all, you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Fred Claus

Fred Claus

Elizabeth Banks stands out in any crowd but in THIS crowd...

(Warner Brothers) Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Bobb’e J. Thompson. Directed by David Dobkin

Although we love our brothers and sisters, our lives are one long game of “who’s better.” The term “sibling rivalry” takes on an additional dimension when one of the siblings is famous and successful.

Fred Claus (Vaughn) has a secret – he is the older brother of Nicholas Claus (Giamatti), better known as Santa. Nearly from birth his mother (Bates) made it clear which sibling was her favorite, with a barrage of “Why can’t you be more like your brother” remarks tossed Fred’s way. And to be truthful, Nicholas has a pretty long shadow to step out from. He is so filled with goodness that he becomes a living saint and as such, he and his family also become immortal (don’t ask me to explain it – just go with it and you’ll find your head aching less).

At an early age Fred learned to resent the attention his younger brother got and chose to turn away from his family. He lives in Chicago now, just skating by on charm and full of promises that he rarely keeps, driving his girlfriend Wanda (Weisz), who works as a meter maid, crazy.

When a misunderstanding with a group of Salvation Army Santas leads to a fight in a toy store, Fred has no choice but to turn to his little brother to bail him out of jail. He also needs cash to open an Off-Track Betting parlor directly across the street from the Chicago Mercantile and time is of the essence. In order to get the cash, Fred agrees to work for his brother as Christmas approaches.

Despite the misgivings of Annette (Richardson), Nicholas’ wife, Nicholas sends head elf Willie (Higgins) to fetch Fred via flying reindeer and sleigh. He arrives to find the situation in the North Pole not as hunky dory as you might expect. Longer wish lists and a population explosion of children have left the elves unable to keep up with demand very well. Nicholas copes with the stress by overeating and to make matters worse, the powers that be have sent Clyde Northcutt (Spacey) – an efficiency expert – to report on the state of things at Santa’s Workshop. If the report is bad enough, Clyde can shut the whole operation down…permanently.

Nicholas puts Fred to work in the Naughty/Nice department, making the determination which children get presents and which kids get nothing. In the meantime, he has to deal with a one-dimensional DJ (Ludacris) and an unrequited romance between Willie and Santa’s Little Helper, a tall and buxom number-cruncher named Charlene (Banks). To make matters worse, someone is actively trying to sabotage the operation and is using Fred as the fall guy. Can even a saint – or a saint’s brother – save Christmas?

This movie got scathing reviews when it was first released in 2007 and in some ways, I can see why. It advertised itself as a comedy (and with Vaughn in the cast, who could blame them?) and I think that might have been the original intentions of the filmmakers to produce one.

But this isn’t a comedy, and if you expect it to work as one, you’re going to dislike this movie intensely. What Fred Claus REALLY is, is a family holiday movie. Granted, there are some scenes that are actually funny (the Siblings Anonymous scene comes to mind off the bat) and the by-play between brothers Nicholas and Fred are pretty realistic and laugh-inducing, too.

What’s at the heart of this movie is the sibling rivalry between the two brothers, and Fred learning to grow beyond it. His life is empty without people in it and his relationship with his brother has informed all the other relationships in his life since. If Fred comes off as a bit of a huckster, well it’s more or less a defense mechanism. When he cynically informs Slam (Thompson), an orphan he has befriended, not to drink the Kool-Aid, it’s because he’s terrified of finding out the Kool-Aid actually tastes good.

There are a lot of good actors involved in this and production designer Allan Cameron has given them a gorgeous playground to work in. The North Pole sets are definite eye candy, particularly the magnificent Workshop that comes off as a cross between the Crystal Palace of London and a Rube Goldberg-designed factory.

There are some scenes that are genuinely heartwarming, and I really liked the Elf Ninjas who act as a kind of deranged Santa Secret Service. If you like either Giamatti or Vaughn, they are at the top of their games here and since I like both of them, it’s like getting an extra scoop of ice cream in your hot fudge sundae.

There comes a time in all our lives where we must assert our own identities and this movie is all about that. It took Fred centuries to learn that he was his own person and special in his own way; hopefully it won’t take most of us that long to get the same message.

WHY RENT THIS: The interplay between Vaughn and Giamatti is brotherly and fun. Some touching familial reconciliation tugs at the heartstrings. North Pole set design is off the hook.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes Vaughn gets a little bit out of control. If you’re expecting a comedy, this really isn’t one.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most Christmas movies, everything is fine for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Dean Morgan has an uncredited cameo as a parking ticket recipient who hits on Wanda.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition comes with a Ludacris music video as well as, oddly, a DVD games disc. There is also a featurette on sibling rivalry featuring several of the participants in the Siblings Anonymous scene.


TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.