Nicholas stared out of the window at the night sky, unable to sleep. “How did it come to this?” he wondered. It had started out so well – being nice to children, giving them little gifts, bringing a bit of magic and joy into their little lives. The big mistake was teaming up with that dastardly deer, Rudi “The Nose”. If only he hadn’t listened to Dasher and Dancer, he thought, but he couldn’t really blame them. Like him, they weren’t getting any younger and it seemed like children demanded more each year. It was a struggle to get everything done, and there was little joy in the work. So when Dasher and Dancer mentioned this reindeer they had met at a special club they belonged to, Nicholas agreed to meet him and hear his ideas.
Rudi made it sound so easy. He would provide a bigger sleigh and a couple of extra reindeer to help pull it. Greater speed and greater capacity would get the job done with less effort. When, next Christmas, Rudi suggested an even larger sleigh, Nicholas didn’t need convincing.
The next winter, elves started knocking on the workshop door, looking for casual work. They came just at the right time, when Nicholas was wondering how he would ever source and wrap the huge number of presents the children were asking for, let alone load them onto the sleigh in a sensible order. The elves were a god-send, or perhaps, a little voice whispered within him, a deer-send.
Before long, Nicholas’s latest sleigh was so big that he had to employ nine reindeer to pull it. He also had fifteen elves on permanent staff throughout the year. Not only did he have to pay their wages, but he had paid for a new cabin to be built for them to live in. Well, he hadn’t paid for it yet. Like always, Rudi’s terms had been very attractive, if rather vague, and Nicholas was sure that his expanding enterprise would soon start turning a profit.
At least, he had been sure. But each year, the costs seemed to increase. It wasn’t just the elves and their cabins, the extra reindeer and the upgrades to the sleigh and the vast industrial facility they still quaintly called the workshop. Children who, long ago, had been happy with nuts, oranges and sweets in a stocking, now wanted electronics and all sorts of expensive gadgets, leaving huge plastic sacks out for Nicholas to fill. When Rudi started to mention getting some return on his investment and started to mention numbers, Nicholas was stunned. He hadn’t noticed how much he’d let things get out of hand. Rudi started getting a lot less pleasant. The elves started complaining about their pay and conditions. Even the reindeer became surly and Nicholas was sure they were calling him names. It seemed that Rudi had some kind of hold on them all. Nicholas couldn’t help feeling it had something to do with that strange, almost-glowing, red nose of his.
It was the night before Christmas Eve and Nicholas couldn’t sleep, he was so worried. As he lay in his bed, looking through the window at the stars, one star seemed to shine more brightly, as if it were calling to him. He tip-toed past the snoring elves and through the workshop, piled high with toys and games, computers and TVs, all destined for children’s bedrooms in a few hours’ time. Past the sleeping reindeer, and he was outside in the silence of the night.
There was the star! Nicholas walked along the path made in the snow by the star’s light until he came to a cave. In the cave were three men kneeling in front of a feeding trough. In the trough was a baby, and the light shining from the baby was brighter than any star (or any reindeer’s nose, for that matter).
Nicholas watched as the three men offered presents to the baby. Nicholas crept in and knelt beside them. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. I had forgotten who it was all for. Every gift was for you. Every child was you. And I’ve forgotten that. I’ve forgotten what love looks like and what love looks for.” As Nicholas knelt in front of the baby, his tears rolling down onto the ground, he felt a hand touch his shoulder. It was the child’s mother. She gently helped him up, wiped his face, kissed his cheek and turned him towards the workshop. “Thank you,” he said. Nicholas knew what he had to do.
Around the back of the workshop, Nicholas quietly opened the door of a tumble-down shed. With all his strength he pulled out the old sleigh. Once on the snow, the going was easier and by the time the sun started to rise, Nicholas was well on his way, away from Rudi, away from the elves, away from the gleaming piles of stuff, away to a new life with nothing but an empty sleigh and a heart so full he thought it might burst.
* * *
The presents still arrive in children’s bedrooms every Christmas Eve, just like before. Children still write their lists and dream of a jolly man in red coming down the chimney with a sack full of toys. Whether the toys are actually delivered by a jolly man in red or by an over-worked elf on a tight schedule, no one is awake to see.
Meanwhile, sometimes, and not only at Christmas, a young woman at her wits’ end to see any option other than the streets will awaken to find a small bag of money next to her pillow. Sometimes, sailors who have survived a terrible storm will tell tall tales about seeing a man through the spray, standing on the prow, pointing at a star that guided the ship to safety. Sometimes, a prisoner, wrongly accused, will be awoken and told that her fine has been paid and she can go free. Sometimes, a child who hasn’t eaten for days will discover an orange and some nuts in their shoes in the morning.
And there’s a shabby-looking mini-cab driver in Basingstoke with a slight Norwegian accent, who can’t be found as often as he can, whose old car doesn’t so much rattle as jingle, who doesn’t say much, but when he looks at you it’s as if he’s looking at royalty. Many of his customers don’t even notice, but some who do find their heart swelling and something thawing inside them and a few wonder if it might be possible in these days to be a saint.