Honestly, Christmas confuses me. I never quite understood how goodwill and festivity expresses itself in a garb of gluttonous feasting, expensive gifts nobody actually wanted, and sheets and sheets of fancy wrapping paper like the filled wallets of fat cat advertisers. But hey, you guys decided on this tradition of abandoning mince pies, mulled wine and the odd carrot come Christmas Eve. And I ain’t complaining about that piece of foolishness, else I’d be out of a job.
‘What?’, I hear you cry in your dreams, all tucked up in bed, ‘You mean Santa Claus doesn’t eat them?’
Of course not! My brother Nick keeps a mean lean physique for squeezing down all those chimneys. Kidding, he’s got magical keys and just likes to keep in shape for those tailor-made pinstripe suits. Sorry, big red fat guy is a gross misrepresentation. Nick doesn’t even have a beard. He’s slick and clean shaven, just like the operation they’ve got going on at the North Pole.
But when your older brother is CEO of the Clause corporation, your own endeavours in life become second best. So I got laden with this task of eating all the world’s proffered mince pies and copious amounts of wine like offerings left out for an idol. Your little Christmas façade must be kept intact, but didn’t any of you consider I might start getting a bit fat?
This potbelly is getting harder to shift with age. As I reclined in some Dad’s easy-chair, testing out the massage option whilst downing vintage red, something niggled at the back of my mind. Something’s not quite right. Even with the help of fairy dust to get me into your houses, all this sneaking around feels wrong, somehow. I want recognition! I’m saving you from bloated bellies and gastronomically engorged guts, but all I ever hear is ‘Santa! Santa Claus!’
Still, shouldn’t complain. This house nailed the wine selection, unlike the glass which resembled troll phlegm at number five. Maybe I ought to switch your eggnog nonsense for some troll phlegm, see if you spot any difference? It wouldn’t be worth it. Old Nick lords it over me as it is. Might as well sit by the fake fire and munch another mince pie.
Bobby opened his eyes. His fingers fumbled along the beside cabinet until they hit an oversized Lego block, which, after a couple jabs, lit up. The time was 00:08. All of…two minutes since he’d last opened his eyes. Now 00:09. Bobby’s Mum had been very clear- he was a big boy now and didn’t need to go waking them all up at midnight to open presents. Otherwise he’d disturb Santa Claus and scare him off. Bobby didn’t want that. He scrunched up his eyes and tried to count sheep, but their fluffy fleeces turned square and hard into ribbon-tied boxes floating before him. He tossed and turned, hankering for pigs in blankets. Thinking about food only made him want a midnight snack to munch under the bedsheets. A pillow fort would distract him from presents…
As Bobby kicked back the covers, he heard a creak. Not the usual staircase creak. Then another. Pillows in hand, he listened hard. Even the darkness seemed to contain some muted sound blocking his ears up. But there was definitely a noise. But not quite a creak- more like a judder. He knew that sound. It was coming from directly below, and normally he only heard it of an evening accompanying TV. The swing back, feet up, massage rhythms of Dad’s easy chair. He was too little still to go on that. Bobby gazed at the darkness in his room for a moment. Why would Dad be having a massage in the middle of the night?
Something wasn’t right. He tried to roll over, recreating a pig in blankets by stuffing himself between two pillows. But the sound wouldn’t go away. There was someone downstairs. And it was midnight. Bobby thought of what his Mum had said. He just couldn’t resist.
Still, he didn’t want to scare Santa away, so Bobby slowly extricated himself from the covers, pried open his door and snuck down the stairs, one step at a time. It wasn’t quite as dark as he thought it might be, owing to the glow of white light sneaking out of the living room door. Bobby paused. Maybe Santa had brought the angel from the nativity along with him? He’d been a shepherd last week, but the tea-towels were in the kitchen. There was nothing for it but to enter the living room, sneak behind the sofas, grab a tea-towel and Mum’s homemade mince pie for baby Jesus, then meet the angel.
He took a big, deep breath and pushed open the door. The TV was on, its screen glare half illuminating the Christmas tree. There was no angel in sight, but there was a figure in Dad’s chair. And that was not his Dad. This guy had a big beard and he was all sprawled out, glass in hand. At first, Bobby backed away, breath caught in his chest. Who was this guy?
As the credits to Die Hard began to roll, some voice squeaked “Are you Santa?”
Frankly, I leapt a mile. Nobody was meant to see me. There was a slight giggle as I stumbled from the chair and turned to face some mop haired, wide-eyed kid. I patted at my pyjama pockets for more fairy dust, but the damn stuff slipped through my fingers onto the carpet. The boy stared at the gold dust, and I would have legged it, had he not grabbed my arm.
“You’ve got magic! You’re Santa!”
To hell with it, I thought, this kid looks gullible enough, and the last thing I need is him yelling for his parents.
“You’ve got me there kiddo,” I said, sneakily scratching at my beard to shake off the mince pie crumbs I could feel sticking to my skin.
The boy let go of my sleeve, then stared at me for a moment. “Why are you in pyjamas?”
“The big red coat is only for riding on the sleigh. Pyjama are way more comfy, right? What’s your name, little boy?”
“Bobby”, the boy said, his ridiculous hair cut wobbling all over the place. He looked around again, his face suddenly drooping. A finger stretched out towards the tree. “But you didn’t bring me any presents?”
“Well…Bobby, that’s because they haven’t arrived just yet. I’m ahead of my sleigh, it’s a street behind or so. I’ll let you into a secret, if you like?”
“So…Santa doesn’t actually deliver all the presents. It’s too much for one guy- the whole planet, in one night? So what I do is use my magic key to unlock the door and get my elves to deliver the presents.” For the sake of the child’s naïve facial expressions, I omitted the part about elves kinda being used as slave labour on sub-minimum wage contracts by my brother. “But your house is extra-special, so I popped by. Your Mum’s mince pies are truly something. You might want to ask her to bake some more.”
“Are mince pies your favourite Christmas food?”
I was starting to like this boy, just a little. He asked the right kind of questions, the ones that didn’t involve complicated answers.
“I’ve eaten too many across the years. My all-time favourite, which no one leaves out by the way, is pigs in blankets. Pork inside pork- genius! They’re the freaking bomb dude. Okay, don’t repeat any words you hear from Santa.”
“Oh, I’ve heard Dad say much worse. But pigs in blankets are my favourite too!” Bobby squealed, hugging himself with glee.
“Woah, woah, kid, keep your voice down! I bet you’re not supposed to be down here, right?” The boy shook his head. “Me neither, I’m not meant to be seen by anybody. This has to be our little secret.”
“Oh. I thought if you saw Santa he was under the tree kissing your Mum.”
That was an interesting point. Nobody back at HQ had told me about that one. I tried to imagine this kid’s Mum based on her cooking abilities and licked a little stray mincemeat from around my lips. Suffice to say, I was tempted. “Maybe next year kid. Now, back to bed. Otherwise the elves won’t deliver your presents.”
The boy looked at the tree, then back at me. He didn’t move. “Could I- could I have a hug? Please? Mum didn’t give me a goodnight hug because she was arguing with Dad again.”
Maybe it was all that mulled wine, but the little kid knew how to pull a few heartstrings. “Alright. One hug.”
Before I finished speaking, he’d rushed over and wrapped his arms round me tighter than the ribbons those elves up in the grotto put on presents. That unruly lot of hair rested against my potbelly. This kid clung on so tight, as if he were trying to extract something from me. It had been a long, long while since anyone had wanted to go near me, let alone offer a hand or hug.
I prised the boy’s arms from around my sides, and they fell limply.
“Look, I’ve got to be honest. I’m not the real Santa Claus. I’m a fake, a-”
“Yeah. Just that.”
“Dylan called me a scumbag in the playground because we’re both shepherds in the school nativity. He said I stole his idea to have a tea towel on his head, only everyone knows shepherd’s wear tea towels!”
I shook my head and crouched down so I stared into those earnest blue eyes. “Look- what’s your name again?”
“Right, yep. Look Bobby, you are not a scumbag. I’m definitely a scumbag. As is Dylan. He’s going on the naughty list. I’m Santa’s failure of a younger brother, and I stole all your mince pies.”
“Well, you can be my scumbag Santa,” Bobby declared, pulling me in for another hug. After a moment, he let go, then stared up at me rather solemnly. “I think I better get back to bed. Will the real Santa actually bring me presents?”
“Only if you go to bed. He really is only a street back. I’ll make sure you get an extra helping of presents; don’t you worry about it Bobby.”
“Night, scumbag Santa. Sweet dreams.” With that, Bobby headed back out the room. I waited until his footsteps had faded, then found the magic key. Usually, I avoided Nick until the end of my shift, lording it over in his Tesla sleigh. But it didn’t matter how much of failure I seemed to them all, I was some kid’s Santa. For a moment one lonely little boy and a lonely scumbag hadn’t been so lonely. That was enough for me.
Featured image courtesy of Georgia Butcher
Image use licence here.