Trial and Testing-1.jpg

Trial and Testing 
R.L. Corn
June 30, 2018
 

“Winds are out of the north, northeast at fifteen knots.”

 

“Copy that, Tower ,” Nick responds as he continues checking his gauges. “Looks to be another good night for flying.”

 

“Roger that, Nick. Radar indicates no disturbances in your flight path. You should have an easy night of it. ”

“Easy night sounds good to me, Tower. Will you be closing down after my takeoff?”

“Yep! We will keep you on radar until you are out of range, but we’ll be back in the morning to pick you up on your return.”

 

“10-4, Tower. You all have a safe evening and we’ll see you in the morning.”

 

“Roger that, Nick, in the morning! Oh, and Nick. Merry Christmas!”

 

“Copy that, Tower. Copy that.”

 

Nick continued with his flight check-off list. He still had another fifteen minutes of pre-flight activity before takeoff. He would be flying with a full load tonight and even on calm, clear nights, weight balancing and fuel considerations were not to be taken lightly. Nick had an engineer’s brain and he loved working through the hundreds of minor details that this kind of operation required.  

Looking forward out of his windshield, he smiled with pride at his eight reindeer. Lined up in pairs, they were the best of the best. They were excited, but they held their positions. Nick always assumed that they were going through their own flight list in their antlered heads. They would do what they were called to do because they had done so for many, many years . . . and they were professionals.  

 

The Radio Flyer, Nick’s favorite in his fleet of sleighs, had been named as such as a homage to the hundreds, if not thousands, of Radio Flyer wagons he had delivered over the last 100 years or so. Even though he was not a particularly nostalgic person, Nick did have a penchant for the older toys. They required imagination to use properly. The new electronic games were so realistic, he worried about the effects they might have on the children. He also worried that he was the one putting these toys in the hands of today’s youth. He shook his head to clear his mind and get back to the task at hand. It was his job to oversee the production of toys and their delivery, but not to worry about whatever trends might impacti the marketplace.


“Tower…this is Radio Flyer. Request permission for takeoff.”
 

“Radio Flyer, you are go for takeoff. Have a good flight and we will see you in the morning!”


“Copy that, Tower. And Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” said Nick with a smile. He told this little joke every year as he left the Pole.
 

“Okay, Nick. Just as funny tonight as it has been the last 200 years.”

 

Nick raised his white eyebrows a bit and felt a little sheepish. Maybe he should try to come up with a new “line” next year.

 

Nick braced himself and gave one last quick look around the sleigh. Everything was ready. He took another quick look ahead to see all eight of the reindeer looking over their shoulders at him,waiting on his signal. This had been the moment of truth every year for the last several hundred years. 

 

Most people did not understand the function of time in Santa’s world and, to be honest, neither did he. At least on Christmas Eve, he was outside of normal time constraints. In his mind time passed normally, even though he could tell that he was moving extraordinarily fast. On the other hand, everyone else appeared to be almost frozen with their movement almost imperceptible. As a result, he moved quickly while the rest of the world moved slowly. It was kind  a double whammy in the world of space-time. However, during those rare times when he did interface with people on Christmas Eve, time reverted to normal and he could speak and interact with others. 

To him, the whole trip took several days. To the world, it only took one night. Who knew what the reality was!

 

Nick snapped the reins and spoke the command to his team of reindeer, “Engage.” Nick had been a big fan of Jean-Luc Picard and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He fancied himself a little like a starship captain, since he had certainly gone where no other man had gone before, and he liked the single word command that would kick off the evening. He braced himself for launch and anticipated the instantaneous acceleration that broke most, if not all, the law of physics.

 

Instead of the mind numbing acceleration that he was expecting, Nick felt a familiar sense of dizziness bordering on nausea. His temper flared as he recognized the effects of interspatial transport (InSPaC) that had pulled him out of his sled and brought him to the headquarters building of YTO. Nick glanced around and tried to take in his surroundings andclear his head from the effects. When his vision cleared, he found himself in a conference room with eight other individuals. Everyone was dressed in business-casual attire. His red, cold weather suit with white fur had been replaced with slacks and a golf shirt. The others at the table allowed him time to adjust to the harsh effects brought on by the type of travel that he had just experienced. That type of spatial warping made for efficient travel but was hard on the individual!
 

“Take your time, Nick,” the man at the end of the table offered. “I know that you have done this before, but it takes getting used to every time.”

 

When Nick’s head cleared, his temper increased! “Are you kidding me, John? Tonight! Right now! I have a job to do and you pull me out of the time stream for a little chit chat?”

 

With a little more frustration in his voice than he would have liked to have expressed, John shot back, “I called the meeting at this time, Nick, because it is important. If it wasn’t, I would not be wasting my time, the committee’s time, or your time!”

 

“I have a sled full of toys, eight reindeer that are about to burst at the seams, and a record number of stops tonight. What is so damned important that it can’t wait until next year?”

 

The committee chairman leaned forward in his seat and knitted his fingers. “Nick, this is important, and I would suggest that you sit down and listen to what we have to say. Of course, you may choose to ignore our request, but you will not be returned to your sleigh. A substitute will be assigned to your route tonight and you will be relieved of your duties effective immediately,” the chairman said looking directly into Nick’s eyes. 

“Wait, WHAT?” Nick stammered. “What is going on here? As far as I know everything is going just fine, until you pulled this little stunt tonight! I have not been told that there are any problems with performance or my operation at the North Pole. Now you are threatening my job!”

 

Johnathon Hamilton, the chairman over Yule Tide Operations (YTO) tried his best to regain his composure and his control over the meeting. “Take a minute and get a hold of yourself. We just want to talk. Our number one concern here has always been for the tradition, performance, and future of the Santa Claus franchise. We have some concerns and want to have them addressed tonight before another Christmas Eve is in the books.”

 

“How do you guys know what is going on in the real world? You guys are always holed up here in . . . well, wherever here is. The bottom line is that I am out in the field trying to meet deadlines and production requests, and you pull me out for a meeting a split second before the biggest night of the year!”

“We here at YTO watch over all aspects of your operation.  That includes surveillance of your job performance, personal life, and even your business and personal relationships. We have seen a few things this year that have us concerned.”

 

A deep weariness replaced Nick’s normally cheery countenance. “Come on, John, what are you talking about? It has been a great year. Elves are happy, production is good, and worldwide publicity, for the most part, is improving yearly. What more can you ask of me?”


“It is your attitude, Nick. We have noticed, or think we have, a tiredness and a lack of enthusiasm for your job. You don’t seem to have the heart for it anymore,” John said with sincere concern for his good friend and employee.

 

“Hey, hey, hey . . . I have been doing this job for over 400 years. Surely, I am allowed to have an occasional bad day!” 

John started back, “Look, Nick, it is more than an occasional bad day!”

 

“Okay, give me an example,” Nick said defensively.

 

“I can do better than that. Betty. Run the video from November 29th this year.” 



The Evidence

The committee watched as the large monitor at the end of the conference room lowered from the ceiling. Nick talked with children at one of the large department stores in New York. The little boy seated on his lap pulled Nick’s beard and complained about last year’s toys. 

Nick started to interrupt the video with an explanation of just how bad this little boy was, but John shushed him and told him to keep listening.

 

The little boy told Santa that he did not have to be good because his parents would buy him anything he wanted. He really did not want to be here, but his parents wanted a stupid picture. He concluded by saying, “Just smile and try not to look fat!” With that Nick stood up dumping the little boy from his lap and onto the floor. “Look, Bobby, I didn’t think you deserved any presents last year, and I want to be clear on this point–you sure as hell aren’t getting any presents from me this year. And you can forget the picture!”

 

Nick looked up slowly and met the faces of the committee members with aguilty expression. Most of them gave him the look with raised eyebrows that said, “This ought to be good!”

Nick started with, “Look, it was a really bad day, and—” His voice trailed off without finishing. “Okay, that was bad. I’m sorry about that. I truly am.”

 

“Betty, please show the video from July 23rd,” said John in a monotone voice.

Nick looked a confused but swiveled his chair and returned his attention to the monitor. The video was of an interview that Nick had granted an international communications group out of Europe. The interview started off pleasant enough but turned aggressive when the reporter asked Nick about the political aspects of his job. 

“What difference does political affiliation play in determining who is on the good or the “bad list?”

 

The interviewer continued, “Are there any plans for a black Santa Claus in the near future? What effect has your unique source of transportation had on pollution and global warming? Do you pay your fair share of NATA cost for the protection you are provided while flying through restricted airspaces? Finally, how have you been able to disregard the laws for being an equal opportunity employer?” 

 

The camera zoomed in on Nick as his cheery countenance changed into something just this side of hateful. He abruptly stood up, sending his chair crashing into one of the TV lights. He glared at the producer and, pointing at the reporter, asked, “Who is this idiot, anyway? Is she the best you’ve got?” Nick left the studio and slammed the door behind him.  

The camera refocused on the journalist as she continued talking about Santa’s sensitivity to the political issues. “Is it possible that Santa Claus has become just one more institution corrupted by money, greed, and politics? Maybe it is time for the tradition of gift giving to come to an end!”

 

Nick slapped the table before saying, “Oh, come on now. That was a setup. I was manipulated on purpose. Anyone can see that!” This time, the committee members looked at their folded hands in their laps.

 

Without any hesitation, John spoke again, “Betty, show the committee the video from two days ago.” The video showed Nick coming into the kitchen while his wife, Mary, cooked dinner. Nick sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. Stopping her work, his wife walked over to him and after giving him a kiss on the cheek asked, “Rough day, hon?” The exhaustion was obvious in his voice as he started, “Well, let’s see. The elves in fabrication forgot to reset the molds after we completed doll production for this year, and we made about fifteen hundred units too many before the mistake was noticed. The elves in paint and finishing ordered the wrong paint for next year, so unless we want all the wagons, cars, and trucks painted turquoise, we have to reorder and figure out how to use 5,000 gallons of blue-green!” 

“I’m sorry dear,” said Mary.

“Oh, that is not all. The elves in the stables forgot to feed Blitzen and Dasher last night.  So, they decided to eat most of the leather out of my favorite sleigh! Can you believe that! Those stupid deer ate my upholstery just to get back at me. What is wrong with those reindeer…and the elves? I don’t know who came up with the idea to create Santa’s workshop staffed only with elves, but it was a really stupid idea!”


“Come on Nick, you love those elves—and the reindeer. You would never accomplish what you do without them, and you wouldn’t even if you could! You’ve just had a bad day.”

“I knew you would defend them. Why can’t you ever just be on my side? Once, just once, I wish I could have a regular work force with normal people and transportation that did not need to be fed or that did not create its own gas!” Nick stood up from the table and left the room, slamming the door, leaving Mary shaking and wringing her hands.

 

The committee members looked at Nick—not with condemnation, not with disappointment but with concern. John said in a quite tone, “Do you want to see any more, Nick?”

 

“No, that’s enough.”

 

“Look, Nick, we know it is a hard job. The demands are incredible and the isolation is always difficult. No one here questions your abilities, results, or willingness to do the job.” The chairman took a breath.

 

“Nick, we are concerned that the 400 years of service have taken their toll on your heart. This is a zero tolerance  job, as you know. Every day, every minute and in every situation, you have to be 100 percent. You must be what the world expects from Santa Claus without fail and the expectations are high—very high. It is the opinion of this committee that you may no longer be able to meet the demands of this job. If you would like to resign, we will do everything in our power to execute a smooth transition to the next Santa. You will leave the ranks with a Distinguished Service rating and will go into the history books as one of the great Santas of the modern age.”

 

Nick was crestfallen. Being Santa Claus had been his whole world for more than 400 years. He had always believed that he was doing the job he had been born to do. He always felt as if he had done the job well, but the evidence that the committee had shown him was not easily ignored. He had been tired. The stress of the job had built over the last 100 years or so. He loved the workshop, the elves, and the reindeer, but the isolation was difficult, and he sometimes missed interacting with others. His mind raced during the following seconds while he weighed the pros and cons of the job. Ultimately, he knew he wanted to be Santa more than anything else.

 

Nick began slowly and, speaking in a low voice, asked, “John, are there any other options? I want to be Santa Claus. I will do whatever the committee requests from me in order to maintain my title. Please, John. I am asking as an old friend, but more importantly, I am asking as one who is not sure that I can be just Nick again. I have been Santa for so long that the person I used to be no longer exists–I[JCC21]  am Santa.

 

The eyes of the committee members moved from Nick to John. “There is one other alternative, and it was the hope of this committee that you would express to us what you just did. We want you to continue in the job, but–and this is important Nick–you have to pass a test and prove to the committee that you still have what it takes.”


“Whatever it takes, John. Just tell me what I need to do.”

 

“All you have to do is to give the perfect gift, Nick.”



The Test

With those words ringing in his ears, Nick was back in the seat of his sleigh. He had arrived within a split second of being pulled from real time and transported to the conference room. The last thing he had done in the sleigh was to utter the word “Engage.”

Without the time needed to prepare for the takeoff, Nick was thrown back in his seat with near light speed acceleration. As his head hit hard against the back of the seat, Nick yelled, “Damn—” Then he stopped. This was part of the problem, wasn’t it?  This is what the committee was talking about. His temper was too quick. He said words that his mother had taught him not to say. Maybe he took certain things for granted. Had he become a little too much like the rest of the world?

He realized this was serious and now was the time to make changes. He rubbed the back of his head and, between clinched teeth, he forced himself to say, “Ho, ho, ho.”  His head hurt, but it was all about attitude and his was suffering. “Oh, what the hell,” he said. He made himself smile and said it again, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” This time he almost meant it.

 

Normally, this was the moment that Nick looked forward to each year. There was the normal adrenaline rush that accompanied the speed and acceleration of the sleigh and reindeer. But there was so much more—and it was always the little things. There was the musty smell of the leather harnesses that connected him to his reindeer, and the way that his gloves creaked against the reins. The sound of the bells on the harness as the reindeer rushed would be drowned out with the melodic singing noise the wind made as it slipped through the metal structure of his Radio Flyer. Even his iconic suit that was cleaned and pressed still carried the faint smell of hundreds of thousands of fireplaces. Each fireplace represented a home, a family, a memory that he could recall at will. The smell, sounds and memories that accompanied Christmas Eve were almost more that Nick could bear without tears filling his eyes—old eyes looking through the wire-rimmed glasses that he had worn for centuries.

But he didn’t look forward to the moment this year. This year, there was just the realization that he was not doing the job he loved as well as was expected of him. He had felt this change in attitude at some level, but it never crossed his mind that others, the YTO, would have noticed the change and that he might actually lose this job.

 

He had a short period of time to think as he rocketed across the frozen continent below him and approached the Arctic Circle. The reindeer had made this journey so many times that he really was just a passenger for this part of the trip. A lot had been thrown at him over the last thirty minutes, and he needed time to process.  
 

To make things more complicated, Nick had to consider whether he was experiencing reality, or was all of this some kind of simulation? It was well within the capabilities of the Committee to create a simulated environment to see if he was able to change. They had sounded pretty serious back there and they might not be willing to risk him in a real-world test. Ultimately, it was a moot point, since he could not tell the difference between what he was experiencing now and reality, so he had better consider it real as this might be his only chance.

 

The Northern Lights were beautiful off his starboard bow as he steered in that direction toward his first stops in Asia. He would have loved to just enjoy the lights as they shimmered against the snow and ice of the world’s northernmost continent. But he was not the only one that seemed distracted. Members of his team would occasionally look over their shoulders at him as if they sensed that he had something on his mind. They had something on their minds because he had something on his.      

 

“ . . . just give the perfect gift.” 

 

Oh, is that all! What did that even mean? He had singlehandedly given more gifts than any other individual in the history of the world. How would he now be able to give the perfect gift? Nick imagined that he had already given a perfect gift thousands of times. The thank you notes that he occasionally received were a testament to that.  

Nick noticed a small ache in the back of his brain as he started contemplating “the perfect gift.” Wouldn’t it depend on the age of the child? What about the culture, living conditions, income, personal taste? The variables were in the thousands.  


Nick saw the outline of the coast up ahead and began preparations for the first of many stops this evening. Even though the population was pretty sparse in northern Siberia, he would start concentrating on the job ahead. Even after four centuries, this part of the job demanded his full attention. There were a lot of details between locations, gifts, individuals, homes with multiple children and the like, not to mention local laws and ordinances. And there was the paperwork that YTO had implemented several decades ago. He did not like it but understood the need for it. No one wanted to wake up on Christmas morning with their next-door neighbor’s presents or a citation for having livestock parked on their roof—even for a short period of time. 

 

As the evening wore on, Nick slowed down the delivery of gifts and spent more time being in the moment. Whether he did his job quickly or slowly did not matter; the passage of time would compensate to allow for the job to be done. As with most of the laws of physics, they did not apply to Nick and his job. 

 

Afraid that this might be his last Christmas in this position, Nick enjoyed the experience. He read the notes that were written to him; he ate cookies and drank hot chocolate; he wrote thank you notes. At some homes, he imagined the children waking up to a wonderful day of family time and love. At other homes, he imagined that the gifts he left might be the only respite the child would receive this year from war, poverty, or hunger. It was sobering, but he could not change the world; that was not his job. He was the giver of gifts. Pure and simple.

 

He made the trip from the sleigh to the chimney and back again countless times that night. With the placement of each gift, Nick asked himself what would make one gift better than another. What would makea more perfect gift? That determination would be made by the receiver of the gift, wouldn’t it? Who else would know if the gift was perfect or not? Right?

 


Ivan – Kessenich

Nick and the team had finished up in the Netherlands and crossedover the northeastern border of Belgium. He lined up his arrival to Kessenich and landed softly in the alley that bordered one of the small villages. Utilizing the front door, Nick made his way into the first house on the street and tripped over a small boy that lay sleeping across the threshold. Scaring both of them close to death, Santa bent over to make sure that he had not hurt the little boy.

 

It happened more often than the press let on, but Santa was used to children who had figured out a way to meet him “on the job.” Most of the responsible news organizations did not print stories of these encounters in an effort to discourage children from pursuing this activity. But happen it did!
 

In very hushed voices, Santa and his new friend, Ivan, officially introduce themselves to each other over some especially good Lukken iron cookies that his mom had made that evening. Santa knew Ivan well since he had delivered gifts to him at least seven of Ivan’s eight years of life, but for the sake of the young boy, Nick pretended to meet him for the first time. It occurred to Nick that this might be a good time to do a little research. He knew the deer would be happy to have a break and eat a little grass. Maybe they would not be so quick to chew up his upholstery when they got back home!

 

Nick and Ivan sat in the dim light of a small fire that would remain in embers for only a short while longer. The smell of dinner still hung in the air as Nick  steered the conversation toward Christmas gifts and what made for a great gift. Unfortunately for him, Ivan was not so easily led andseemed much more interested in talking about the gifts he was giving this year.   

 

Ivan was giving his little brother a rock with a small fossil embedded in it that the two boys had found earlier in the year. Ivan got to keep the rock because he was the older brother. After some consideration, Ivan decided that the rock would mean more to his brother than it did to him. He was very excited to see his brother’s reaction in the morning.  

 

Ivan was giving his little sister one of his sweaters that she always wanted to wear whenever it got cold. He knew she liked it just because it was his and it was getting too small for him anyway. Besides, he secretly liked having a little sister who looked up to him.

 

Nick steered the conversation back to “the perfect gift.” Ivan seemed to focus in on his question for the first time. “Well, there is a four-bladed pocket knife with a bottle opener that would be really great.” 
 

“And what makes the knife a perfect gift?” Nick prompted.

“I don’t know. It is pretty cool, I guess,” but then in a moment of extreme animation, Ivan exclaimed, “but if my brother and I could both get one, that would be sooo cool. We could go hunting and camping together. Plus, he is always looking at that knife in my dad’s catalogs. That would be perfect, you know, if we could both have one!”

 

Nick realized that this little question and answer session had just cost him two extra presents that forced him to go off-list! He really did not mind because he got such a kick out of Ivan’s excitement. Ivan was not excited about a present for him, but for his brother. He was fully aware of the value of giving gifts, but this little exchange with Ivan had done nothing to help him answer the puzzle that the committee had given him to solve. 

 

“Well, Ivan, I better get back to work. You go to sleep now and don’t wake up too early. You and your brother may want to do some hunting and camping tomorrow,” said Santa with a sly wink. “Oh, and Ivan—your brother and sister are going to love the presents you got them!”


Nick walked down the alley toward his sleigh as he thought about Ivan’s comments.  The knife was a good present, but if his brother had one too, it became perfect. There was not much about gift giving that Nick did not understand, but he had not contemplated it for a while. It had taken a back seat to production quotas, delivery schedules, and quality control. The night was still young and he had many stops left to make.

 

The reindeer were rested by the time Nick made it down the alley. He rubbed several of them behind their ears and kissed Rudolph on top of his head. “Okay, everyone. Are we ready to go?” Their focus returned as they faced forward and readied themselves. He communicated to his team that they could determine the European route this year and leaned back in his seat as he snapped the reigns . . . and they were off.

Alessia – Malta

The control tower at the North Pole had been right. The weather was beautiful tonight and it appeared as if it would be a pleasant night for flying. Nick was almost done with his European deliveries. He had finished up in southern Italy, and was making the short hop across the Mediterranean to Malta. Flying in lower than normal, he approached the island through St. George’s Bay and made his first landing in Malta this year. It was a modest stone house on the ocean that was lit by a full moon this Christmas Eve. Once again, Nick chose to land on the beach instead of on a roof top. Rooftop-landings had been developed as a stealthy way to enter neighborhoods and houses, but it was more difficult than most people knew and a lot more dangerous for him and the reindeer. And even though going down chimneys was Santa’s stock-in-trade, he preferred to use the door when he could. It just made sense.  

Nick made his way up the stone steps to the front porch. This porch also served as a bedroom in good weather. With beds hung from the porch ceiling with long ropes, this additional bedroom was perfect for a large family. As he reached for the front door, he heard a very quiet voice from under the covers, “Hi Santa. Remember me?” Without turning around, Nick smiled and said, “Alessia . . . you got me again! What are you doing up?”

 

Amidst the giggles, Alessia said, “You know I can’t sleep on Christmas Eve. Plus you make so much noise coming up the stairs!” She burst into a fit of laughter as if she had said the funniest thing in the world. 

 

“I think that you just can’t wait to see what I bring you every year.”

“Well, maybe. But since we’re here . . . what did you bring me?”

Nick sat down on the steps and placed his sack of toys next to him. Alessia hopped out of her bed and ran to sit next to Nick. “Oooo! What did you bring me this year?” she almost screamed as she tried to look into the large bag of toys.  

Nick reached into his bag, but then stopped. “Hey before I give you your present, I have a question for you.”

 

Alessia’s eyes grew so large, Nick was afraid she might pass out. The nervous energy flowing out of her little body could have powered any small town on the island. “Well okay, but pleeeeease hurry!”

“Take a breath and relax. I’ll make this quick. If I were to pull out of this sack the most perfect of all gifts ever given to any child in the whole world, what would it be?”

 

If Alessia could have been any more animated than she already was, she would have exploded. Her little frame now visibly shook as she pondered his question. “You mean if I could have anything in the world. A special present just for me from you . . . anything?”

 

“Alessia, I am not saying that I will give you anything you want. I would just like to know what you think the most perfect present would be.”

 

“Oooo, Santa! I don’t know. I don’t really think about presents that way. I always love everything you bring me. I especially love talking with you every year out here on the porch. It’s so very, very perfectly special. No one believes me, but I know!”  

 

Nick looked at her over the top of his wire rimmed glasses and said, “Alessia Abigail Borg! What did I tell you about telling your friends about meeting me?”

 

“Well,” she confessed, “it might have slipped out once when I was just a little girl.”
 

She quickly changed the subject, “Hmmm . . . the most perfect of all gifts.” She sobered up a little and spoke, “Santa you know that I am almost nine, so I have grown up a lot since you saw me last. Before I answer that question, I just want you to know something. I love my presents . . . every one of them. And, I love you too! But this year is a little different. I’m old enough now to understand that there are some things you just can’t do. But don’t get me wrong. This is still the best night of the year! So, I hope you won’t take this the wrong way. You don’t have want I for this Christmas in your bag.”

 

Nick realized that this was not the same little girl he was talking to only moments ago.  She had something important on her mind that was bigger than her love of toys. “Well, give me a try anyway.” 

 

“Okay well, I would just like my Granny Abigail to feel better. She is old and my daddy says that she is pretty sick. She would never admit it, but I think she hurts a lot too. I don’t want her to hurt anymore,” she said shaking her head as if agreeing with herself. “I just want her back the way she was. That is what I want more than anything else in the whole world.  

“But I know that you can’t make her well again. It is not a gift that even you can give! I don’t want to put any pressure on you. You always do the best you can.” She scooted over to Nick and crawled into his lap. She was quiet for the first time ever and had lost her sense of unrestrained energy. Nick held her closely and stroked her hair until she fell asleep. 

His heart hurt. He had no words to say; no gift to give that would make a difference. He could only sit there and rock this little girl. He was in charge of the largest and oldest Christmas franchise in the world. He utilized more magic in one day than the rest of the world experienced in a year, but here he sat without the ability to solve the problems of one little girl. He knew it and she knew it.  

He sat there for what seemed liked hours and slowly picked the sleeping Alessia up and placed her in her bed. He found a particularly beautiful doll and laid it next to her. On the spot, he named the doll Abigail after Alessia’s grandmother. Maybe this doll might help. “Who am I kidding,” said Nick to himself. “That is my answer to everything. Give ‘em a toy and go to the next house!”

 

Nick climbed into his sleigh and gently urged his team back to work. As they moved slowly into the sky, his second revelation of the night hit him hard. He had found a child that knew exactly what the perfect gift was, but he was not able to give such gift. Maybe this whole exercise was a way for the committee to find another Santa. Maybe this exercise was just that—an exercise. The committee was letting him come to the conclusion for himself that he was no longer the right guy.

 

The next several hours passed without incident. Nick concentrated on being efficient. He told himself that was his strength; the one thing he did well. He was beginning to see the committee’s point. If he could not do anything else, he could make sure that the gifts were delivered accurately and quickly tonight. He just wanted the night to be over.

 


The Storm – Mauritius

As the team entered the southern hemisphere, the weather turned ugly. This was not unusual. Some of the worst weather they had encountered over the centuries was where the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans merged. 

Leaving Africa, Nick was steering toward Madagascar and Mauritius on his way to Australia. Normally the cyclone season did not start until the first of the year when it would peak around June or July, but there were always exceptions. He sensed the concern from his team, but they all realized that their job had to be done tonight, on Christmas Eve. This was not negotiable. They could not stop until the weather cleared and come back tomorrow.  

 

Winds were now gusting up from thirty to forty knots as he started his decent onto the beaches at Flic en Flac on the west coast of Mauritius. They were unseasonable but well within the flight parameters of the Radio Flyer. Nick just had to stay focused and fly the sleigh. He was an excellent pilot and he knew his limitations and those of his equipment and team. Keeping the nose of the sleigh and his team pointed slightly into the wind would allow him to maintain control through the strongest of gusts.

The reindeer never saw the waterspout moving south by southeast as they neared the shoreline. Approaching the team from their blind side, it overtook them and passed on their port side. The spout hit a line of palm trees directly in front of them, splintering the trees instantly. The rotating winds hurled most of the broken trees in the direction of the sleigh. Nick jerked the reins hard to right and down to miss the wooden missiles. While most of the debris missed the sleigh, the course change had put the sleigh perpendicular to wind coming in off the ocean. An eighty-mile-an-hour gust drove the sleigh down into the hard-packed sand. Nick’s last memory was of hitting the beach hard and the sound of bending metal and a shower of sparks.

 

Nick was not unconscious long, or at least he did not think so. The sleigh had spun on its axis and hit the beach sideways, scattering toys for several hundred yards. Some of the reindeer had been freed from their reins and walked around the wreckage in a daze.  

 

The waterspout had been on the leading edge of a very large thunderstorm that was now pelting him, his damaged sleigh, and the reindeer with a mixture of rain and hail. The rain fell so hard that he could not see more than a few feet in front of him. He tried to move up but found that he had been injured in the accident. He gingerly pulled himself out from under the sleigh and limped through the rain to gather his team.  

Still reined together but no longer tied to the sleigh were Donner, Comet, Cupid and Dasher. They were okay but in shock and disoriented. Prancer, Vixen, and Dancer had gotten to their feet by the time Nick reached them. There was a wild panic in their eyes and he instantly understood why. Blitzen was missing. Nick tried to run through the rain and sand but his own injuries slowed him down. Through the grayness, he saw a large shape in the sand just ahead of him . Nick half ran, half crawled until he fell by Blitzen who was lying in the sand unconscious. There was a large piece of pine tree stuck in his left flank. 

Blitzen slowly opened his eyes and communicated an apology to Nick for not seeing the waterspout sooner. Nick threw his arms around Blitzen and held tight. “It is not your fault. It’s not any body’s fault,” cried Nick through the tears.  

 

“You hang on, Blitzen. We’ll get help here soon, and get you fixed up.” The other deer had made it up the beach to where Nick and Blitzen lay in a growing spot of red sand. Only hours before, Nick realized that he had been furious with Blitzen for chewing up the interior of his sleigh. “Oh no,” Nick thought. “No, no, no.  It is not going to end this way. He has got to know that I was just cranky this morning. It was just a stupid sleigh. He is the only thing that matters.” 

At this moment, nothing mattered to Nick except Blitzen. He did not care about the committee, the test, the perfect gift. He did not care about the job. He only cared whether or not one of his best friends would survive the night on the beach. Both Nick and Blitzen were being crushed by the undeserved guilt of individuals who needed to make sense of the situation,each of them feeling as if they had let the other down somehow. 

 

The reindeer had gathered and stood in a circle around Nick and Blitzen. They watched as Blitzen’s eyes closed for the last time—and then Nick’s.

 


The Simulation

As Nick’s tear-filled eyes slowly opened, he looked around the conference room table into the eyes of the committee members. Many of them had tears in their eyes as they contemplated what Nick had undergone . Minutes passed without anyone speaking. John finally broke the silence and asked, “Nick—you okay?”

 

“Was it real, John? I have to know. Was any of it real?”

 

“No, Nick,” said John with a shaky voice and without making eye contact. “It was all a simulation as you had speculated early on in the process.”

 

Nick slowly shook his head in understanding. After a moment, he said, “That is quite a simulation program you guys have.”

John answered, “I am sorry, Nick, that you had to go through that. Your simulation was more intense than we expected, but apparently those were the issues that your mind needed to work through. The simulation is a bare-boned program, after all. You added all of the details. We did not expect it to be that personal,that difficult. Are you sure that you are okay, Nick?”

 

Nick nodded his head to confirm that he was, in fact, okay.

 

John started the dialogue, “Nick, you know the committee originally gave you the job because of your love of children, the ability to make toys, and your unique power to manage and motivate. You were always the man for the job, but we were afraid that the demands of position were starting to drag you down and we did not want that to happen. That whole thing about giving the perfect gift was a framework for your simulation to be based on. Apparently, there were other, deeper issues that needed to be worked out as well. You know we love you, Nick. We hate that your simulation was so difficult.”

                                                     

Nick started to speak and then hesitated. The last several hours had been difficult, but they had put a lot of things in perspective. His job as Santa Claus had been clarified and brought into focus more than it had been in centuries. He just needed time to think and process. The committee may have made up the perfect gift scenario, but the quest he had been on all night was one that had sparked a lot of new ideas. That was his job after all, to be a giver of gifts—not just a giver of toys. He felt there was a difference but he could not find the words or thoughts to express that concept. Did he give gifts or toys? Was there a difference? Was there such thing as a perfect gift?

 

As surely as if blinders had been removed from the eyes of a plow horse, Nick’s vision sharpened and clarified. It was as if he had been handed the correct prescription glasses for the first time. He saw clearly.

 

He was the master of gift giving. He had gotten rusty maybe, but he still loved the act of giving and the joy that it brought children around the world. But that was only one night a year. What about the other 364 days? Did he spread joy the rest of the year, or was he another bureaucrat running his corporation?

The videos from the committee meeting earlier that day played in his head. He thought back to the interview he had given earlier that year that had ended so badly. He understood the meaning of Christmas better than anyone, and he was perfectly positioned to tell the story as it deserved to be told—even if to undeserving reporters. He thought harder and muttered, “the meaning of Christmas.”

And then there were the elves, the people he worked with every day. They were employees, but they were also family who wanted to do their jobs well, every bit as much as he did. Did he treat them like family or like employees?  He grimaced, knowing the answer.

 

The reindeer. They had been with him from day one. He loved each and every one of them, and they loved him back without reservation, without qualification. He would trust his life to them and had many times. Over the years, they had celebrated with the birth of each new reindeer and had cried together at the death of any members of the herd. They would give their lives for his as surely as he would for them. The simulation this evening had been such a painful reminder of how much he loved them.

 

And there was Mary. She had given up a normal life by any standards and had never complained. She acted as mother to hundreds of elves that were not her children, but she loved them as if they were. She picked up whatever job needed doing for Nick to do his job. She never complained but listened to Nick every time he did! She worked in a thankless position that never received recognition—even when things worked perfectly.

 

The committee sat quietly as Nick worked through the thoughts that went through his head. He looked up to see the eyes of the committee members watching. “John,” Nick started, “may I say a few things to the committee?” 

 

“Of course, Nick. You have the floor.”

 
“My first thought is to thank the committee for your willingness to give me another chance.”

 

“Hey, Nick, we were never going to–”  

“That is not the point, John. The committee may not have known how far I had strayed from the original mission of Santa Claus, and maybe I didn’t either, but the experience tonight gave me an opportunity to evaluate and re-evaluate my role. And, I learned a few things. Whether or not I stay in the role of Santa, I have some changes I need to make and a lot of things to think through. I am not the man I was 400 years ago, and could not be if I wanted to. However, I want to be more like I was then than who I am now, if that makes sense?

“Anyway, during the simulation I learned and maybe remembered some things that I had forgotten. Maybe there were things that I had just never considered.”

 

“On the subject of the perfect gift—maybe there is a perfect gift, maybe there isn’t. I know for sure that there is no oneperfect gift; no one-size-fits-all approach to perfection. The perfect gift will always be defined as such by the giver and the recipient. The gift will invariably be deemed perfect by the nature of the relationship that exists long before the gift is given. The gift is just an outward expression of the feelings shared between the individuals. Ivan taught me this evening that the perfect gift is one given from a deep knowledge of the other person. And a gift that is shared is always worth more than one which is enjoyed individually. 

 

“There is another side to the present equation, and that is that regardless of how wonderful the present maybe, the relationship is the key. The source of the wonder. The source of value. I was painfully reminded by a young girl in Malta tonight that all the presents in the world will not ease the pain of losing a loved one. It is the love andthe relationship that holds all the value, not a tangible object.”

 

Nick tried to steady his voice before he began again. “When I held Blitzen on the beach tonight, I was reminded that I would easily trade all of my possessions, all of them, to have him back. I would have traded 400 years of being Santa Claus to have him back, and I would have felt the same way about any of the other reindeer. As far as that goes, I would have felt the same way about any of the elves.” He stopped and waited as if he expected some kind of response from the committee. 

 

John was the first to speak. “I am not sure that I know what you are getting at, Nick.  There was never any question as to your devotion to the reindeer and elves, and certainly not Mary.” 

 

“I know, I know,” sighed Nick. “It’s just that as the evening wore on, it became increasingly apparent to me that we may have let the whole present giving thing become too important,too essential to the holiday. Have we gotten to the point that we are overlooking the essence of Christmas?  
 

“I love giving gifts and making children smile, but I always understood that the whole point was to remind the world about the first Christmas night. The frankincense, the myrrh, the gold. The giving of gifts was to celebrate the only truly perfect gift ever given—when God gave us his son. Now there was a giftso perfectly steeped in love and sacrifice that it can never be improved on, and it was a gift to be shared. A gift that was truly redemptive. A gift and a relationship combined into one person that, once accepted, would be worth more than any object. It was the perfect gift because the Father laid down the life of His son to pay a debt that could never be repaid. After 2,000 years, no more perfect a gift has ever given.”

 

John looked around the table to find some members looking at the clock and others checking emails on their phones. Others, he saw were thinking about what Nick had said.

 

“Thoughts?’ John said.

 

Bill spoke first, “That was really beautiful, Nick, and I know that tonight has made a hell of an impression on you. And that is great. It really is. I, for one, am all for keeping a spiritual aspect to Christmas. As my daddy used to say, ‘You should leave the dance with the girl that brought you!’ Anyway, I just think we have to be careful about crossing the line and going too far in the other direction. The worldwide economics of Christmas are huge and we don’t want a global recession blamed on us. It is just bad business, and bad for the franchise.”

 

“Are you kidding, Bill?” said Frank from across the table. “Nick is absolutely right. We may have lost some of our original mission focus over the last several decades. We have been on this slippery slope for too long. I say we start moving back in the other direction. We can start pressuring the toy companies to start new lines of religiously oriented toys. Noah and the Ark toys have always sold well. What about war games and battle sets based on some of the big Bible battles—you know, like Jericho? Whoever wins the game gets to knock the walls of the city down. Hey, what about a line of burning bush landscaping items for homeowners? This could be big and would be exactly what Nick is talking about!”

 

As the conversation involved several other members of the committee, Nick glanced at John who was staring back at him. A few other members of the committee gave Nick knowing glances that let him know they not only understood what he had really meant but were in agreement.

 

After several more minutes of conversation about product concepts and marketing strategies, John wrestled the control of the meeting back. Facing Nick, he asked one final question, “What do you want to do now, Nick?”

 

Nick had anticipated the question and spoke with confidence, “If the committee agrees, I would like to continue my role for three more years as Santa. At that time, we can decide what is best for the YTO and me.  

“And if that is satisfactory, I need to go back to the North Pole and do my job. After that, I have a lot of apologizing to do—to the elves, my team, the staff and Mary. If changes are going to be made, they need to start with me, and that is what I plan to do.  

 

“Oh, and if it is okay, Mary and I would like to take a little time off immediately after Christmas to visit a friend in Malta.”

 

“How long will you need off?” Bill asked.

 

“As long as necessary! Relax, Bill. The elves are perfectly capable of handling the operations in the workshop. I am surprised they let me stay in there as much as they do.  They know what they are doing and they are all professionals. They have it well under control.”

 

“If there is no other business,” said John, “I declare this meeting of the YTO closed.  Nick, we will be sending you back to your time stream about fifteen minutes earlier than last time. We don’t want you to bang you head on the sleigh again.” And with that, John closed the meeting.

 

“Merry Christmas, gentlemen,” said John.



Epilogue

“Winds are out of the north, northeast at fifteen knots.”

 

“Copy that, Tower,’ Nick responds as he checks his gauges. “Looks to be another good night for flying.”
 

 “Roger that, Nick. Radar indicates no disturbances in your flight path. You should have an easy night of it. ”

“Easy night sounds good to me, Tower. Will you be closing down after my takeoff?”

“Yep! We will keep you on radar until you are out of range, but we’ll be back in the morning to pick you up on your return.”

 

“10-4, Tower. You all have a safe evening and we’ll see you in the morning.”

 

“Roger that, Nick. In the morning! Oh, and Nick—Merry Christmas!”

 

“Copy that. Tower. Copy that.”

 

Nick looks around the sleigh one more time. He takes in the feel of the winter air. He smells the leather seats in the sleigh. The northern lights shimmer ahead of him and to his south. His reindeer move their feet in nervous anticipation of the flight, filling the cold air with the sound of sleigh bells. Nick has never felt more alive. It is good to be Santa Claus.

  
“Tower. This is Radio Flyer.  Request permission for takeoff.”

 

“Radio Flyer, you are go for takeoff. Have a good flight and we will see you in the morning!”


“Copy that, Tower. Oh, and Tower. You can tell the world that Santa Claus is coming to town!” said Nick as he waited for the tower’s response.  

 

“That’s a big 10-4, Radio Flyer. Go to town!”

 

The reindeer look over their shoulders and await instructions. Nick notices that Blitzen appears to be favoring his left side. Nick climbs out of his sleigh and walks to Blitzen’s position in the team. “Are you okay, boy?” he asks. He sees a scar on Blitzen’s flank that he has never noticed before. 

 

A thousand thoughts flood Nick’s mind as he weighs possibilities and probabilities. It is at the same spot that the wooden shrapnel had hit Blitzen in the simulation. The lines between what Nick had thought was a simulation and what might have been reality start to blur. He has been on an emotional roller coaster for the last several hours and is well aware that his mind could be playing tricks on him. But still, here is a scar that was unfamiliar to him.

As he is gently rubbing the scar with his finger, he thinks back to the meeting at YTO. John had never made eye contact with him as he was explaining the simulation. Is it possible that the Christmas Eve he remembered was real after all? If so, how is it possible that he is now heading out to deliver toys on Christmas Eve?

A sense of calm covers Nick like a warm blanket. He realizes that while he is in charge of a vast amount of Christmas magic, he is not the purveyor of miracles. That purview belongs to someone else. If he received a second chance to relive Christmas Eve and save Blitzen, then his prayers had been heard. Looking at the scar one more time, Nick decides to leave well enough alone; to be thankful for all of the blessings of which he is aware. But equally as important, he is thankful for those blessings he has received that will, for always, be invisible to him. 

He whispers a quiet prayer, “Thank you, Lord.”

 

Looking around the sleigh one more time, Nick settles in and says, “Engage!”