The years were passing, and yet they still found Santa delivering toys long after many of the eight year-olds had stopped believing in him. The invisible leg irons that age had coupled to his ankles were also witness to his beard turning white and the steady increase of his weight. His wife, who looked at him from time to time with affection though not with desire for many years, asked him why he kept that beard when it always scratched her face when she gave him a kiss.
“You don’t understand,” he replied. “My image means something to people.”
“What about your image with me?” she asked. “What about my image with people? Sometimes images are allowed to be false.”
But despite her absolute commitment to her husband’s never-ending but increasingly irrelevant mission, neither she nor anyone else could successfully mend the fraying at the edges of this tapestry. The older generation of workers had lived lives whose loyalty to Santa had never come into question. Their children, however, who had married each other and who wondered if there were alternatives to pasty skin, to the necessity of wrapping headscarves around one’s mouth, to the insularity of the North Pole – had begun the long and drawn-out but steady stream of desertion. The Japanese technicians, who had always made the workshop a more varied place every November and December – if not quite any livelier – suddenly stopped appearing, for the companies with which these toilers had built themselves up professionally would no longer consent to giving their workers away for two months for what they saw as a dying enterprise.
The toy production continued. The non-techno genius workers had stayed with the man who had rescued them from the listlessness of their former homes. They were there beyond the point where their hair had turned white and the rare visitors to the famous workshop wondered if these workers really were ageless, for the peers they had left behind many years ago were surely dead by then. Their ears had not only reddened in response to the icy pin-pricks of northern living but had become pointed as a way of fighting back against nature.
By this time, Santa was longing for a year’s break – a holiday from the holiday period, so to speak. It did little for him to hear that he had a dream vocation, that few other people were compelled to only work for one night per year. Santa gave the finger to such suggestions. Each year he had had a myriad of problems to solve, which he had always preferred to deal with personally and thus carried with him weight that was heavier than either his paunch or his peddler’s sack o’ toys.
For a moment he drifted back in reverie of days gone by and, in searching for someone he could talk to who might understand his feelings of a lost yesteryear, he found himself in the reindeer’s stable. They had been willing servants of his original dream for long decades, and he looked at them with affection. Dasher was more circumspect with his leg speed now; Dancer had lost her rhythm; Prancer no longer had a spring in his step; Vixen had lost her allure; Comet was no longer a bright flash across the night sky; Cupid’s love affair with the mission had gone wrong; Blitzen no longer had the strength and will to rival an army as he had once had. Meanwhile, Donner had pulled up lame so Santa had put him out to pasture on the steppes of central Asia.
Knowing what such an event would do to the morale of the children of the world, Santa did not take his long dreamed of year off. But the sight in the night sky of Santa’s magical sleigh (as it occasionally appeared to four- and five-year olds) was an increasingly ragged one. The silhouette no longer had sharp edges if it appeared in its classic pose pulling out into the foreground of a low rising full moon; and the image no longer glowed bright white if flying low in front of the shadows of a city skyline. He found that passers-by could no longer distinguish him from the assorted Santas in the department stores. Or perhaps there was something that did mark him apart: the absence of jolly ho ho hos. One day he heard an older child behind him mention to his friend that Santa was there on the corner, and the other responded that if Santa really did exist then he surely wouldn’t have the shadows in his heart that this fellow did. Santa turned to look at them with tired, sad eyes.
“Merry Christmas,” he sighed.