‘Santa! Hey, Santa.’
The young woman on the bicycle was waving at him. He swore quietly under his breath. She was going to ride over, he knew it, and sure enough, she started pedalling in his direction across the dew-wet grass of the park, a swirling cloud of orange-red leaves circling up into the air in her wake. He waited until she was a little closer. There was no point drawing any more attention to himself.
‘I’m not Santa,’ he said, once she had reached him. She looked confused, so he added, ‘sorry,’ wondering why he was apologising.
‘Really? It’s just, you kind of look like Santa. Big beard, fat. No?’
He bit his tongue. It’s not as though he didn’t have feelings. Be nice, he told himself.
‘Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not him. Don’t worry, though,’ he added. ‘You would be amazed at how often this kind of thing happens.’
She looked at him as though it was exactly the sort of thing that she expected to happen. All of the time.
‘It’s, like, with the beard and stuff,’ she tried again. ‘And I thought he was going to be here. Today.’
Bloody typical, he thought. Trust him to have announced the time and place to the world.
‘What do you do?’ he asked her.
‘I’m in social media. Is this some sort of test?’
‘No. So you haven’t, ah, tweeted anything about him being here have you? It’s not on Facebook is it?’
The girl looked worried. ‘Not yet. I wasn’t meant to, was I? I can do it now if you want.’ She pulled a phone out of her pocket and pointed it at him. ‘You’re on Instagram as well.’
He held a hand up in front of the phone.
‘Like I said, I’m not him.’ He looked down at his snow-white beard and a green, checked shirt stretched tight over his stomach. He sighed. ‘I just look like him.’
He twisted round on the bench and peered across the park. A fat man with a big beard was pacing up and down on the bandstand beyond a line of trees. He nodded his head towards the bandstand. ‘He’s over there. He’s on the phone.’
The girl looked at him from moment. He had the feeling that she was trying to work out if he had been winding her up on purpose.
‘You look just like him,’ she said, again, as she climbed back onto her bicycle.
He watched her cycle away across the park.
‘I get that a lot,’ said Father Christmas to no one in particular.
∗ ∗ ∗
They were sitting in a circle around the fire. In the distance the sun was setting behind the trees, a last light glowing on the clouds as darkness swept in from the east. Father Christmas jabbed the fire with a stick, wishing he had brought marshmallows with him.
‘Who was the girl?’ he asked the man sat to his left.
‘Hmm?’ Santa looked up from his phone. ‘What was that?’
‘The girl on the bicycle. Earlier. Who was she?’
‘Oh, she runs my social media presence. Facebook and all that. I’ve got 400,000 twitter followers. Did you know that? That’s almost as much as Bieber.’
‘She came here on a bicycle. She looked about fifteen.’ Father Christmas poked the fire again, sending sparks up into the darkening sky. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if she was young enough to still be on your list. Naughty or good? You could look her up.’
Santa gave him a sarcastic smile and went back to tapping at his phone.
‘I’m on Facebook too’. The man on Father Christmas’ right leant across, holding out his phone. ‘Look, “Father Frost: 1,010 likes”. Not as many as him,’ he jabbed his phone towards Santa, ‘but then I don’t have a PR company doing it all for me. My granddaughter set me up online.’ He looked round to where a young girl sat on a camp chair, a few feet outside of the main group. ‘Are you okay back there Snegurochka?’ he called to her. ‘Are you looking after my staff?’
The girl smiled thinly, as if it was something she had practised, but had never mastered entirely to her satisfaction. She waved a large stick in the air and then went back to staring out into the darkness.
‘It’s a magic staff, you know?’
‘So you have told me,’ replied Father Christmas.
‘The children hold hands, make a circle around the tree and call my name. Then, whoosh,’ he clapped his hands together, ‘I make all the lights on the tree come on.’ He smiled broadly at Father Christmas. ‘It is very magical.’
‘Makes you sound like a cross between the Candyman and an electrician,’ muttered Father Christmas, but Father Frost didn’t hear him. His attention had already been drawn to the far side of the fire, where a girl in a long white and gold dress had risen to her feet. Long, curly hair fell from underneath a golden crown that glittered in the firelight. As she stood, two feathered wings unfolded themselves from behind her back. She shook out her wings, sending a few pure white feathers drifting off into the darkness.
‘I think we are all here,’ said the Christ Child looking carefully around the assembled faces. ‘Let’s begin.’
‘You all know why we’re here. It is my year in the chair and I would like to keep this as short as possible. So please let us keep this focused and maybe we will get out of here before winter arrives.’ Her wings twitched as she spoke. ‘You will have to remind me; who is up first?’
A tall man in a red bishop’s robe raised his hand.
‘Sinterklaas,’ acknowledged the girl with the angel wings.
‘Thank you,’ said Sinterklaas, unfurling himself from his chair and straightening out his robes. ‘I am, indeed, the first.’ With this he cast a dark look through the flames towards Santa. ‘December the fifth,’ he continued. ‘That is when the children will leave out their shoes for us.’ He looked towards the Christ Child and continued. ‘We are totally self-sufficient, we do not need any assistance.’
‘And the naughty children?’ asked a voice from the darkness. Father Christmas could not make out who; the flickering flames obscured his view. ‘You will take them back to Spain with you? Do you really think you can still do that kind of thing in this day and age? You’re a liability.’
A man stood up, firelight reflecting off of a thousand stars attached to his dark blue suit. ‘You should use a birch rod,’ he cried. ‘It teaches them to be good little boys and girls.’ He smiled and his teeth twinkled in the darkness. Looking into his mouth was like staring into the depths of the night sky, thought Father Christmas. That is why he is so dangerous. You couldn’t look away from those sparkling teeth. ‘A present if they are good. The birch rod if they are not.’
Santa sighed loudly and hefted himself to his feet.
‘There will be no birch rods. There will be no kidnapping children. We are in the twenty first century; it’s not the dark ages. You can’t do things like that any more.’ Santa pointed at the tall man in his bishop’s robe. ‘You are ruining Christmas. Grow up.’
Pompous arse, thought Father Christmas, as shouting broke out around the campfire. He looked across at Sinterklaas, shouting at the Starman. Don’t stare into his mouth. You will be lost.
The Christ Child turned away from the group. ‘Krampus!’ she shouted into the darkness beyond.
And then, like a nightmare, came the Krampus.
Tattered strips of cloth swung from its body as it galloped into the firelight, letting out a bellowing roar as it came. Two horns curled from its head, above two jet black eyes. It reared up on its hind legs, arched its back and screamed.
An impressive beast, thought Father Christmas. A little crude perhaps, but the threat of the Krampus was undeniably a better deterrent for naughty children than anything he had at his disposal.
Sometimes he missed the good old days.
The Krampus stalked around the circle, steaming breath lit by the light of the fire. The Christ Child was smiling now; the rest of the assembled voices had grown quiet.
‘Thank you.’ She smiled at the creature prowling around the campfire. ‘Now if anyone else would like to start an argument, please, be my guest. I would love to see what happens next.’
We are all vicious creatures when we want to be. Father Christmas made a note to himself: it would be prudent not to get on the wrong side of the girl in the golden crown.
She continued, enjoying the almost undivided attention of the group; there was no one there who did not have one eye on the Krampus. ‘Sinterklaas has indicated that he and his Black Peters do not need any assistance with the first delivery of the season.’
She turned towards Sinterklaas, seated once more, with his thick robes pulled tight around him.
‘That is correct. We will complete the Netherlands on the fifth then, the next day, on St Nicholas’ Day itself, we will cover Germany, as far east as you would like us to go.’ He turned his gaze towards Santa once more. ‘Of course, the old ways are not so much respected any more. I fear the – and I am sorry but I have to say it – the crass commercialisation of Christmas means that there is less and less work for us to do. Some sweets, some chocolate, a few small presents. Yes, they still expect this on St Nicholas Day, but most of them are waiting for you to appear on Christmas Eve.’
‘And this is exactly my point,’ Santa retorted, sitting down again just as quickly as he had jumped up. The Krampus was no fan of sudden movements, it would seem. ‘My point,’ he continued, from his camp chair, ‘is that the successful rollout of the Christmas brand across multiple countries is resulting in exactly the sort of take up we were expecting. Children the world over are now turning to the same modern brand of celebration that we have pioneered so successfully in the States. Why is this?’
He turned towards Father Christmas, beaming, his white snowy eyebrows hopping up and down on his forehead in encouragement.
Father Christmas took a moment. Make him wait, he thought.
‘I guess, well, could it be,‘ he scratched his beard. ‘Could it be that children quite like getting presents, but are less keen on getting a visit from the birch wielding Ziggy Stardust over there?’
Santa gave him a withering look. He had a feeling that he would pay for that one later.
‘Father Christmas has hit on two key elements of our success there, however crudely he may have phrased it. Namely, one: incentivising participation. Children are demonstrably more engaged with the Christmas process when the reward is increased. The better the presents, the better the participation rates.’
‘And the second?’
‘The second? Making the whole process parent-friendly. Our research has shown, very clearly, that the sort of mediaeval punishments that some of you cling to are not viewed favourably by the parental sector. Who wants to go into the holiday season wondering if their kid is going to get carted off to Spain by a man in a bishop’s outfit? Can you imagine how that would go down with the Mumsnet generation?
These people are looking for a safe, standardised Christmas experience for their children and that is what we are offering them. We have a clear governance structure in place to ensure compliance with our Christmas brand principles and this means that, wherever you are in the world, we can ensure that you receive the same, quality Christmas experience from one of our fully qualified Christmas Service Representatives.’
A quiet descended over the group as Santa came to the end of his speech. Even the Krampus had moved back several notches from utter loathing to angry curiosity. In the darkness, Father Christmas saw a hand being raised.
Santa peered through the glow of the fire.
‘Hello. Yes. I have a question.’
‘Hi Befana. Of course, what’s your question?’
‘How many of these Christmas Service, ah –’ She faltered.
‘Christmas Service Representatives, Befana.’
‘Yes. Thank you. How many of them do you have?’
The group erupted into laughter. Santa grew as red as his sweatshirt, anger propelling him back to his feet once again.
‘And you know why there’s only one?’ he shouted above the laughter. ‘It’s because you guys are stuck in your antiquated operating models. You’re thinking maybe one year ahead at most. Where’s the planning? You need to have a strategy for the next five years at least.’
Father Frost leant across to Father Christmas. ‘A five-year plan?’ he whispered. ‘This guy is starting to talk my language.’ He punched Father Christmas playfully on the arm. ‘Yeah? That’s funny right?’
‘Of course.’ He smiled. He had no idea what Father Frost was talking about. Every year he felt less and less a part of this group. Perhaps he was growing old.
‘My strategy,’ Santa was continuing. ‘My strategy is to break you guys out of your silo mentality and to start leveraging some of the obvious synergies we have across this group. Look at Father Christmas, for example. Father Christmas is already most of the way there.’
Most of the way where? This wasn’t going to be good.
‘He already looks like me, so he slots straight into the brand look and feel. All we need to do is to ensure the delivery of the brand principles throughout the December fulfilment period and we will have ourselves a fully accredited Christmas Service Representative.’
I think you’ll find that you look like me, said Father Christmas to himself. Jumped up little prick, he added, to make himself feel better.
‘But most of us don’t look like you,’ he said aloud to Santa. ‘The Christ Child is blonde, a girl, and has two great big bloody wings on her back. Which are lovely, by the way,’ he added quickly. ‘But she doesn’t look like a fat, white-haired old man. Ziggy over there looks like a walking planetarium. St Lucia is wearing a crown of candles, and is, unless you haven’t noticed, also a girl! She is the one over there in the dress with a red sash around her middle, in case you weren’t sure.’
Saint Lucia waved at them, yelping as she singed her hand on her crown.
‘If anything,’ continued Father Christmas, ‘she looks more like a Christingle orange than she does you or me. Now, the Christmas man, where are you?’ Shielding his eyes from the glare he looked around the group. ‘There you are. Now you could pass for me or him,’ he jerked his thumb toward Santa. ‘You’ve got the sleigh and the reindeer thing going on already. Okay, you’re a bit keen on rice pudding – what is that all about, by the way? – so you would have to switch to mince pies and sherry, but otherwise you’re almost there.
There we go, that’s better; we have a potential one there. So, that you,’ he pointed at Santa, ‘me and the Christmas Crusader over there. But that’s it. There’s no one else who fits the bill, even if any of us wanted to join your band of merry men. With the best will in the world, you are never going to convince me that you are going to be able to get the Yule Goat “on brand”. He’s a goat!’ Father Christmas held up a hand to a figure seated opposite him. ‘No offence mate.’
‘None taken,’ replied the Yule Goat.
Father Christmas sank back into his camp chair, a little surprised at his own outburst. What was it about Santa that got him so wound up? Perhaps it was because, deep down, he knew that Santa wasn’t completely wrong. The popularity of his brand was growing; a lot of the old celebrations were fading away and it was increasing the pressure on the Christmas Eve present drop.
It wasn’t so long ago that the workload spread from the start of December right through to Epiphany. It was all very well old Sinterklaas being content to dish out sweets to a dwindling number of children on St Nicholas’ Day, but it wasn’t going to be much use to anyone if those same children now also expected a visit on Christmas Eve. Because it wouldn’t be Sinterklaas they would be expecting. Oh no, it would be some red-clothed idiot who wouldn’t be shy about dropping down chimneys. Santa was right about that much. There was no way they would be able to meet the growing demand for jolly Santa clones on Christmas Eve if they didn’t do something.
‘Look,’ he said, attempting a more conciliatory tone. ‘You’re talking as though the world is set on a path that it can’t step away from. And I just don’t believe that’s true.’
‘No?’ said Santa, his solitary word dripping with condescension.
‘No, I don’t. I’m not saying don’t change, of course I’m not. Without change you wouldn’t exist. We would be stuck with Sinterklaas over there, and he’s about as relevant today as a teddy boy on a moped. But I’m also not saying that we can’t keep the traditions. Let Sinterklaas deliver his presents; let the Starman do whatever it is he does. Look, you can even let the Krampus loose, as long as he promises not to actually eat anyone. But you’ve got to make these things exciting again. That’s the answer: update and evolve the old traditions, don’t replace them with your homogenised, focus group-friendly corporate Christmas crap.’
Before Santa could reply the Krampus let out a bellowing roar, bringing everyone’s attention back to the centre of their circle. The Christ Child had one hand resting on the creature’s enormous forearm. She looked furious.
‘Did I not warn you what would happen if you did not respect the authority of this chair?’ Her point was only slightly undermined by the fact that she was pointing at a foldaway camp chair. ‘No more arguing.’
Father Christmas was not doing very well at keeping on the right side of this girl.
‘You talk about tradition,’ the Christ Child continued, ‘yet you do not ask for the opinion of our oldest members. Show some respect. I would like us to hear what the Reyes Mages have to say.’
Oh good, thought Father Christmas, here come Huey, Dewey and Louie.
An old man rose to his feet, leaning heavily on a stick to keep him upright. A thick green cloak was wrapped around his brittle frame and his long, brown beard was streaked with grey.
‘Thank you, child.’ His voice was as light as the sparks that danced above the fire. ‘We are old. We have seen many things. We have sat around this fire for two thousand years. You are but moments in our lives. I am Gasper, the King of Sheba and people will know my name when you are nothing but whispers on a breeze.’
Clutching tightly to his stick, Gasper eased himself back into his chair. His companions were nodding slowly, possibly in agreement. They may have been asleep.
Father Christmas’ gaze wandered back to the Christ Child, who looked a lot less sure of herself all of a sudden. Whatever she had expected Gasper to add to the discussion, it wasn’t that. Her wings twitched furiously.
‘Excuse me,’ a small voice said in the darkness. Befana had her hand in the air again.
‘I was also there. I am no king, but I have seen as many summers as they have. I think I would like to tell my story now.’
The Christ Child sighed. All of the fire had left her.
‘Please,’ she said, ‘continue.’
∗ ∗ ∗
People have called me many things over the years. I am Befana. I am Babushka. But back then, well, back then I was simply called the best. My house was the best kept, my garden produced the best fruit, the biggest vegetables, and any passing travellers would come to my door, for everyone in the village knew that my cooking was the finest and my beds where the cleanest.
But this did not come easily. I worked hard to keep my house tidy and my garden tended. While others talked and gossiped and enjoyed more frivolous pastimes I kept myself focussed on ensuring that everything was just right. Just so.
So when three travellers came to my door one morning, I was not surprised. It was obvious that they should choose my home to rest in. But I was surprised that they only wanted rooms for the day. They would be travelling on again at night.
‘Have you not seen?’ said my neighbour. ‘There is a new star in the sky and they follow the star.’
‘How could I have seen?’ I asked her. ‘I spend all of my time washing and cleaning and tending to my garden. Do you think I have time to stare at the night sky?’ My neighbour, a gossiping, sour faced woman, muttered something to her friends and they laughed as they walked away. What did it matter to me though? Their homes were not as clean as mine. The gardens gave them barely enough food to eat. Let them laugh.
The travellers sent their servants away, to find shelter in other, less well-kept houses in the village. It was only then that they told me who they were.
‘I am Gasper,’ the first of them told me. He looked old even then, although his crown of gold looked newer than it does today.
He introduced his companions, Melchior and Balthasar. They were just as old and dressed in just as much finery. I asked them where it was they have travelled from.
‘It is not where we have journeyed from, it is where we are going that is important.’ Melchior had a golden tongue in his words glistened in the gloam. ‘We followed a star, because we know that beneath that star lies a newborn child. And we carry gifts for this child. We do this because this child is no ordinary baby. This child is the King of Heaven and Earth and he demands our love.’
I am not one to question kings, but I have to admit that I was curious. What gifts could someone possibly give to a child of such importance?
‘We bring gifts that symbolise what this child means to the world. Gasper has brought frankincense, a spice of worship. This tells the child that he shall be worshipped by the world. I have brought gold. Gold is the symbol of a king and my gift of gold to this child, the gift of gold from a king, tells him that he is the King of Kings. He shall rule over all of us. And my friend Balthasar has brought perfume, a bottle of myrrh.’
This shocked me. Myrrh? It is the perfume of death. Balthasar, I am sure, could see the surprise written across my face.
‘It is a gift that foretells his fate,’ he explained. ‘This child is born to suffer and die. It is best that he understands this now. It is right that death will come for him, and it is also right that he should be forewarned.’
‘We travel again tonight,’ said Gasper, ‘as soon as the star has risen in the sky. Until then, we shall rest.’
I baked bread for the kings, serving it to them warm and crusty as they awoke from their rest. I had prepared pies and cakes, wrapping them carefully so they could be taken with the kings as they journeyed onwards towards the star and the newborn child.
Balthasar was the first of the kings to wake and he came to talk with me as I cleaned the kitchen, messy from all of the baking.
‘Your home is a credit to you,’ he told me. ‘But can I ask, why do you keep it so clean, so tidy? Unless I am mistaken, it is just you here. Who do you do all of this work for?’
I explained, and it was not easy for me to talk of this, about my son. His birth had not been easy for me and he had been badly hurt as I brought him into this world. I had not been the best and my child suffered because of this, because of me. He tried so hard and I was so proud of him. He fought and he fought, but I had not given him enough of a chance. He was too badly damaged. I had him with me for only three months before he died. My son died. He was not a king, he will not be worshipped, but he did suffer and he did die.
I took Balthasar to the back of the house, to where I kept all of the toys I had made and bought for my son. He had never played with them. Not one.
Balthasar laid a hand on my shoulder. ‘Why don’t you come with us?’ he asked. ‘We do not yet know where the star will lead but I am sure that, wherever it takes us, we will find this child. My friends and I, we bring important gifts that the child needs to receive. They carry the echoes of the future. But he is also still just a baby. Would he not enjoy playing with these toys, just as your son would have done? Do you not think that one of these toys could be just as important as the gifts that my friends carry? You should bring our King of Kings something that he may actually appreciate.’
I closed the cupboard door again and promised Balthasar that I would consider his request.
The kings left not long after nightfall. I watched them leave, the light of the star illuminating their path. Balthasar had looked sadly at me when I told him that I could not go with them. There was too much work to do at the house, I had explained. The bedding must be cleaned, the floor swept, the larder restocked. Once the work was done, then I would follow.
So the kings left and I cleaned my home. I worked all through the night and the sun was high in the sky by the time I had finished. There was no star to guide me so I had no choice but to sit and wait until darkness fell once more.
I left as soon as the star appeared, taking with me one of my son’s toys. As I travelled I asked for news of the kings and I was relieved to find that they had passed that way. But however quickly I walked, the kings were always ahead of me. It seemed that they were in a hurry to find his child; they did not stay long in any one place and I could not catch up with them.
Reaching a large city, I expected to find the kings at the Royal Palace and I wasted more time trying to work out a way of reaching them inside. However, as I talked with one of the guards, he told me that the kings had not stopped at the palace and had continued, instead, towards Bethlehem.
I walked on and I lost a little more hope with every night that passed.
Eventually I reached Bethlehem. It was still dark and the star was shining brightly above the town. I asked for the kings and was pointed towards the inn, but its windows were dark and I knew that I had arrived too late. In the morning I knocked on the door and asked about the kings. They had arrived several days ahead of me and they had not stayed long.
I asked about the child. Had a baby been born here?
They took me to a stable behind the inn. This, they told me, was where the baby had been born, but it was home to nothing but mice now; I could see the straw shifting as they buried down away from our interruption. I was too late.
I did not return to my home. It seemed even emptier now, and there was already far too much emptiness inside of me. I cannot say whether the kings were right about the child but, of all of them, I fear that Balthasar knew the most about what that poor child’s future held.
What I do know is that the child did not receive my gift, and that is another heavy weight that hangs from my heart.
You talk of tradition and you talk of progress. You know nothing about why I do what I do and yet you dare to come here, all of you, and talk about change. You have not experienced the loss of a child. That is something I can never atone for. But I will continue to try. Every child that receives a gift from me, every tiny moment of happiness that I can bring to another’s life; that is what sustains me.
It is all that I have left.
∗ ∗ ∗
The fire had died down to white embers. Most of the group had left. Father Christmas packed up his camp chair and pulled on his coat. Another year, another argument. Nothing resolved.
He walked away from the fire, his chair tucked under his arm. Above him, the clouds had drifted away and stars twinkled in the darkness.
Under their light he saw Befana talking quietly with old Balthasar, crooked now and thin, but still here. Balthasar reached out and wrapped an arm around her and they turned to stare out at the stars.
Father Christmas smiled and walked past them into the darkness.