The Strange Case of the Night Before Christmas
It was snowing the last time I saw Santa Claus. I remember, because a White Christmas is so unusual here in the South. All the other times I’ve seen him, I’ve wondered if he was hot in his heavy arctic snow gear. But I suppose I shouldn’t worry. He’s an immortal magic elf, after all, and a 50-degree North Carolina Christmas should hardly be enough to do him harm. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should start from the beginning.
The first time I saw Santa Claus, I was seven years old. I stayed up that Christmas Eve, specifically to see if he was real. I lay in bed waiting, struggling to stay awake, and finally, at midnight, I heard a rustling coming from the living room. I crept out of bed and into the hallway, peeking around the corner to catch a glimpse of his red coat over near the tree. But before I knew what was happening, there was a blur of motion and my eyes were filled with coal dust. Blinded, I fell screaming to the floor, tears streaming from my eyes. I blinked, and they cleared just enough for me to see a red shape shooting up the chimney. Then the living room went quiet, but only for a moment. Because that was when the creatures came crawling out of the dark corners of the room.
Tiny, dark and gibbering, with eyes that glowed like coals, they swarmed over me, grasping with clawed hands. Incredibly strong, they held me immobile while my hands and feet were tied. And suddenly, I was blind again. A sack had been pulled over my head, a sack that smelled of cinnamon, and of blood. I heard the front door open, and heavy boots trod across the room. A thick, calloused hand grabbed the collar of my pajamas and hoisted me to my feet.
“Looks like somebody made the Naughty List,” a rough voice said in the dark.
“Good work, boys. I’ll take it from here.” I was tossed over a broad shoulder and taken out into the cold of the front yard. At least, I thought it was the front yard. But it had been 42 degrees and clear when I went to bed, and I now found myself tossed into a snow drift. I heard a shovel working nearby, and my mysterious abductor started to talk. “Santa doesn’t like it when little boys try to watch him work. This is not how the contract works. You sleep, and you leave him alone to work, and in return he gives you presents. Nod if you understand.” I did. “Good. Now…” The shoveling stopped. “…this is only a warning. A test punishment. Next time, you go in the river.”
I was picked up again, and tossed into a hole. I began to scream and whimper inside the sack as the shoveling started up again. “Quit your bitchin’!” the voice shouted. “This is a test. This is only a test…” Then his voice was obscured as shovel after shovel of freezing white snow covered my head, and everything went quiet and still.
I awoke in my bed the next morning, dry and safe and warm. I bounded out of bed and tore open the window to find the yard just as devoid of snow as it had been the day before. I went cautiously down the hall to the living room, and my presents were under the tree as always. My parents got up and were sleepily cheerful as they watched me open the boxes. I was starting to think the whole thing had been a dream, until my mother pulled my stocking down from the fireplace, and discovered that it was filled with switches.
And that was how it went, every Christmas after that. In spite of the warning, I stayed up and waited for Santa. Every year, he arrived precisely at the stroke of midnight. And every year, he saw me and fled. His creatures came out of the shadows and bound me, and his servant came in the front door. And every year, true to his word, the servant threw me in the river to drown. Icy cold suffocation was the reward for my efforts. That, and a stocking full of switches once I woke up dry and warm in bed the next morning.
I can’t say it had no affect on me. I became an odd child, drawn to dark things, the Christmas secrets man was not meant to know. I began to haunt the libraries of my town, poring over every Christmas book I could find, the sacred and the profane. I read of the day’s religious significance, the traditions originating in Victorian times, and the forgotten pagan rituals upon which the modern holiday is based. But all for naught. None of it matched the far more primal and compelling things I had experienced. I was obsessed with Santa Claus, long past the point when my peers ceased to believe. I’m sure it damaged my social standing, but I didn’t care. It was all worth it. Oh, was it worth it.
Because on my thirteenth Christmas, the seventh on which I’d tried to lay eyes on Santa, something changed. I’d long since taken to wearing goggles to protect my eyes from the coal dust, but that year, none was forthcoming. Instead, I got something far more alarming: when I peered around the corner, Santa peered back. His face had an odd, elfish cast; long, with high cheekbones and Chinese eyes. And those eyes! Yes, those eyes, so ancient and so merry, sparkling with wisdom yet deep and black as space itself. You could wander, lost, in those eyes, until you were driven mad. I nearly was. But I forced myself to look away and take in the whole man. His white brows were airy, the long, soft hairs twisting and curling and seeming, impossibly, to float in the air beneath his red snowcap. His beard had a similar quality, and sparkled dimly like snow under moonlight. He was short, and somewhat portly, his barrel chest covered by a luxurious red down jacket, with pants to match. On his feet were heavy black boots to protect him from the snows that I knew had accompanied his arrival on my roof.
I was stunned. All I’d ever wanted was to get a good look at Santa, to watch him work. And now here he was, standing nose-to-nose with me. A dream fulfilled. He spoke not a word, but instead held forth an ancient tome in his gloved hands. Unbekanntes Weihnachten, the cover read. By Johannes von Endlosschrauben. Santa nodded encouragingly, and held it forth to me again. He meant for me to have it! I took it with trembling hands and, struck as speechless as he, nodded thanks. He smiled and turned back toward the chimney. From the shadows, I heard his creatures giggle and caper, but Santa stopped them with a sharp wave of his hand. Standing by the cheery fire, he turned back to me and gave a smile. He laid one long finger aside of his nose and, with a twisting and warping of his form that would haunt my dreams forever, up the chimney he rose.
I heard a clattering of hooves on the roof, and ran to the window just in time to see Santa’s horned steeds taking flight. Bathed in an eerie red glow, they leapt from the rooftop and into the cold, clear night sky, dragging behind them an open sleigh bearing the form of my Yuletide benefactor.
Turning away, I ran down the hall to my bedroom, the book clutched tightly in my grasp. I virtually leapt into bed and, with the aid of my trusty flashlight, lay down to examine my new prize. Unbekanntes Weihnachten, the book of the unknown Christmas. My new bible. From it, I learned so many things. I learned of Santa Claus, an ancient faerie spirit filled with the love of giving and a harsh moral code. I learned of the Krampas, cruel demonic creatures who dole out punishment to those on Santa’s Naughty List. And I learned of Farmer Ruprecht, an evil man saved from the fires of Hell by Santa’s kindness. It was Ruprecht that fascinated me the most, a mortal man brought into the eldritch Christmas world to become Santa’s handyman and enforcer. Ruprecht, I reasoned, was the one who’d buried me in the snow and tossed me into the river all those times. And, the following year, I discovered that I was right.
When I looked around the corner into the living room that year, Santa just gave me a nod and a wave and went straight to his work. Presents beneath the tree, candy and oranges (and of course switches) into the stockings, and up the chimney he went. The Krampas didn’t even stir in the shadows, but there came a sharp knock at the door. I answered, and on the other side was a weathered man of middle age, very practically dressed in long underwear, overalls, and a winter coat. His head was covered by a brown cap with fur-lined ear flaps, and his feet by the heavy brown leather boots I had heard stepping across the floor so many times.
“Hello,” he said. “I take it you read the book?”
I nodded in reply.
“Good. So you understand the operation now? You finally get it?”
I nodded again.
Ruprecht raised an eyebrow, slightly annoyed. “Do you talk?”
“Oh! Yes! Yes, I do.”
“That’s good. You’re gonna need that. Uhm… Mind if I step in out of this blizzard?”
I looked behind him, and it was indeed snowing heavily outside. “That’s funny,” I said. “Usually, the snow’s just here when you show up. I’ve never actually seen it falling.”
Ruprecht looked ruefully at the wall of white falling behind him. “Yeah, well… That’s Christmas Snow. This stuff’s the real deal. Now… You gonna let me in?”
I started, realizing that I was still standing in the doorway. “Oh! Of course! Come in, come in! I’m so sorry.”
“Ah, that’s okay. I guess it really is a lot to take in, even as long as you’ve been digging.” Ruprecht walked over to the fireplace to warm his hands. “Ah, that’s good stuff,” he said with a sigh. When he’d sufficiently warmed himself, he turned back to me. “Alright. Down to business. Santa has a proposition for you, young man, and I’m here to see if you want to sign the contract.”
Ruprecht dug into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of yellowed parchment. He unfolded it carefully, and held it out to me. “Yeah, a contract. Santa wants to know if you’d be willing to take over my job.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “Your job? But… You’re Farmer Ruprecht! …Right?”
He laughed ruefully. “That’s me!” he said. “But you have to understand. I’m not the original Farmer Ruprecht. Neither was the Farmer Ruprecht that came before me, or the one before him. It’s a job title, kid, for a position Santa has to fill every so often.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. You’re not the evil farmer that Santa saved from Hell by teaching him the meaning of Christmas?”
“No. I just said that. I’m not that guy. He’s been dead for centuries, and I’m just the latest in a long line of disagreeable schmucks who’ve taken his place. You see, kid, Santa might be immortal, but I’m not. I’m just a mortal man. Santa can extend my usefulness to about a century, but no more. One day, I’m gonna croak. And then he’s gonna need somebody else to handle his dirty work for him. And when that time comes, he wants it to be you.”
“But. But I’m not an evil farmer! I’m just a kid!”
“Yeah. An evil kid. With the stuff you’ve done… You should be thankful Santa’s taken an interest.”
“Things I’ve done? What--?”
Ruprecht rolled his eyes. “Remember your sister, kid?”
“Sister? I don’t have any sister.”
“Not anymore, you don‘t. Not after you shoved her down the stairs. And that parakeet your mom used to have? You twisted its head off like a bottle cap. The school bully you put in a wheelchair after he made fun of your Santa Claus obsession? And the rat poison in your dad’s egg nog? I mean, I know you never got caught, but didn’t you ever wonder about all those switches you got? Santa sees you when you’re sleeping, kid. He knows when you’re awake. So no offense, but… You’re a monster, for goodness‘ sake.”
I was utterly confused. I didn’t have a sister, and my father had died when I was a baby. No, wait. He was there that first Christmas morning after I saw Santa. But that can’t be right. Wait. Wait…
“You really don’t remember, do you? I’m sorry, kid. I had no idea. Just… Just trust me on this, okay? You made the Naughty List seven years running, and your heart is filled with the mystery of Christmas. That makes you a prime candidate to be the next Ruprecht. It’s your only chance to escape the pit, really. So sign. Sign on the dotted line, and everything will be okay.”
He still held the contract out to me. With numb fingers, I took it. I walked over to my father’s old writing desk, the one with the picture of him tossing me the football when I was ten. I took a pen from the caddy, and I signed.
Ruprecht nodded and gave me a sympathetic smile. “Good. That’s good. It really will be alright, you know. Once you spend a few decades cleaning out the reindeer stables and watching Santa at work, you really do start to see the world differently. And not just because you’re everywhere at once on Christmas. You learn things. Like generosity being the real path to salvation. And when you see those kids you drowned in the river growing up to become productive members of society? Well… That’s a lesson you’ll have to learn for yourself.
“Now, listen. I‘ve got a few years left in me yet, but not that many. I’m tired, and I’ve become just about as good a person as I can. One of these days, I’m gonna drop, and Santa’s gonna bury me outside the workshop. And then he’ll come for you. You won’t see him again until that day, but it’ll come. I’d tell you to keep your nose clean until then, but… I know it won’t do any good. It never did for me. So just wait, and your time will come. And until then … Merry Christmas!”
With that, he was gone, and the snow outside continued to fall. I went numbly back upstairs to bed, and dreamed myself back to normal. That was years ago, when I was a boy. I’m a man now, with manly concerns. I have a job, and I vote, and I worry about the distressingly high murder rate in my small southern town. But I’m still filled with the spirit of Christmas. And I still wait up by the tree every year, reading from the Unbekanntes Weihnachten of Johannes von Endlosschrauben. I read until midnight, waiting for Santa. And when he doesn’t appear, I stumble off to bed. But Ruprecht must be old indeed by now, and I know my day is coming. The day when the snows come again, and I will be by Santa’s side forever.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.