This story is dedicated to every parent, family member or friend who has no earthly idea how to answer that extremely difficult question which often crops up at this time of year. I call it "The Answer"
Well, now. That is a good question. And an important question, too. And I suppose the best way to answer it would be to tell you a sort of a story. Is it a true story? Hmm…well, let me tell it first and then…well, let me just tell it…
Imagine that a very, very long time ago, there lived a man. A good man. A kind man. A man with a heart full of love and compassion for others. Now, imagine that this kind, loving man lived in a small village, far, far away from here. Life was hard in this little village. The people were poor, the winters were brutal, and they had to work hard just to get by. There wasn’t much time for fun or playing in this small, northern village.
Now, our kindly friend…his name? Well, let’s call him “Nicholas.” Anyway, he felt sorry for his neighbors, but mostly he felt sorry for the children. Their lives were cold and dark and they had very little to smile about. Nicholas loved all children, even though he had none of his own. And it broke his heart to see their sad faces.
But what could he do? Nicholas wasn’t a farmer, so he couldn’t grow more food for the hungry village. He wasn’t a herdsman, so he couldn’t raise cattle or oxen, or even the large, hairy deer that lived nearby to provide food and pelts. He couldn’t make the winters milder, couldn’t ease the burdens of the villagers.
The only thing he could do, the one thing he had always been very good at, was carving wood.
Yes, Nicholas was a carpenter. And a good one, too. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t fasten out of wood. That was how he made his living. He made tables and chairs and things in his workshop and sold them to the villagers. Or he would repair things for them. He was very handy with his tools. And it occurred to Nicholas one day that it might make the children of his village just a little bit less sad if they had some toys to play with.
So, one winter’s night, Nicholas spent a few hours in his workshop making toys. Carving little animals out of leftover chunks of wood. One for every boy and girl in the village. Then, he put on his heavy red coat and tiptoed all over the village, leaving the toys on the children’s windowsills so that they would be the first thing they saw when the awoke the next morning.
But, he had taken longer than he had meant to, and the sun was coming up just as he delivered the last toy—a little black kitten with green eyes; he was giving this one to a girl he knew whose real pet had died not long ago. The rays of the rising sun woke the little girl and she saw Nicholas, just for a fraction of a moment. But, with the light coming from behind him, she couldn’t make out his face. All she saw was a large, bearded figure in a red coat. And Nicholas ran away before she could get a better look.
Why did he run away? Why did he sneak around town? Why didn’t Nicholas want anyone to know that it was he who had delivered the toys? I don’t know for sure. Maybe he felt that a true act of charity should be anonymous. Maybe he didn’t want a lot of attention. Or maybe he was just trying to bring some magic into the lives of these poor children, by letting them wonder who it was who had brought them gifts in the night.
If that was his intention, it certainly worked. The next day, all the children of the village would talk about was the Mysterious Toyman who had brought them such lovely toys and then disappeared without a trace…or, almost without a trace.
“I saw him!” said the little girl with the little black kitten. “It was a big man with a beard and a big red jacket!”
For days and days afterward, the entire village was talking about the Toyman, wondering who (or what) he could be. All sorts of crazy stories grew out of that one little girl’s description. From a big, bearded man with a red coat, the Toyman became a giant, or an elf, or a wizard, or an angel. It was all Nicholas could do to keep from chuckling anytime anyone mentioned the strange and mysterious giver of gifts.
If I’m being honest, I think some people probably knew who it was. I mean, Nicholas was a big guy with a beard and people had seen him wearing his red coat. And, after all, who was a better woodcarver? But, if anyone had guessed Nicholas’s secret, they kept it to themselves. The mystery of the Toyman was more exciting for the children than the truth would have been.
Of course, the biggest question the children asked about the Toyman was “When will he be back?” Nicholas hadn’t really thought about this. But the whole thing had felt so good and brought so many smiles to the faces of the children, he felt like he had to do it again. Frankly, he would have been happy to do it every day for the rest of his life. Make the toys during the day, deliver them at night, he would have been contented. But, that would not have been too practical. After all, he had his own work to do. Giving away toys is all well and good, but a man has to eat. Not to mention that giving the children a new toy every day would likely make them spoiled.
So, Nicholas decided the Toyman would return on the same night every year. Which night? Well, it wasn’t hard to choose. What better night to give from the heart and add a little magic and wonder to a cold, dreary world than Christmas Eve?
The years went by and the Toyman became a legend. He was woven into the mythology of the little village, which was slowly growing into more of a small town. The first children to receive his gifts were grown up and had children of their own, so the story was passed down to them. And, as with most stories, it changed a little with each retelling.
“He flies across the sky.”
“His magic sack is always full, no matter how many gifts he takes out of it.”
“His beard sweeps the ground.”
“He’ll come this year, if you’ve been good.”
“He won’t come if you’re not asleep.”
Of course, Nicholas heard all of these stories. It only warmed his heart to hear his legend growing along with the town. But the bigger the town, the more people there were. Which meant more children, more gifts and more stops on Nicholas’s route. Being the Toyman was getting harder and Nicholas was not as young as he used to be. His full, thick beard was turning whiter by the day. He was slowing down, losing his strength. When he had started, he’d been able to fit all the toys he’d needed into a large sack which he carried on his back. Now he needed a sled to carry all the presents through the snow.
(And, just between us, he was putting on a bit of weight, too. I mean, he was always a big guy, but, you know, as you get older, it’s harder to…well, never mind)
The good news is that he wasn’t alone anymore. He had some friends to help him. Young people from the town who had figured out the Toyman’s identity, felt inspired by what he was doing, and wanted to be a part of it themselves. So, Nicholas taught his “little helpers” how to make the toys, how to guide the sled (which later became a large sleigh, pulled by some of those big, hairy deer) and, most important of all, how to do it without waking the children
The Toyman’s legacy continued to grow along with the town and the stories people told about him.
“He lives underground and he only comes out once a year.”
“He’s king of the elves and all the other elves help him make the toys.”
“His sleigh is pulled by flying reindeer!”
“He has an evil brother who punishes bad kids!”
Admittedly, some of the stories were less plausible than others.
In any case, Nicholas kept going, year after year.
Even when his hands could no longer grip his tools…
Even when his eyes began to fail and he couldn’t steer the sleigh at night…
Even when he got so old and frail that he couldn’t get into or out of the sleigh on his own…
Through it all, he kept going. Every Christmas Eve, without fail, for as long as he lived.
But no one lasts forever.
Nicholas passed away, peacefully in his sleep, his heart full of love and pride, secure in the knowledge that, during his life, he had thought of others before himself and that, in his own humble way, he had left the world a happier place than he had found it. And that is the most any of us can hope for when our time to depart had come.
Now, you might think that this is the end of the story…but it’s not. Because that very next Christmas, the children of the large town (more of a small city by now) once again awoke to see toys left for them by the Kindly Old Toyman.
How? How could Nicholas have left those gifts if he was no longer alive? Well, of course, he couldn’t…not physically, anyway.
It was his helpers who had really made those toys and delivered them, the way Nicholas had taught them to. They did it just the way he had, and they did it in his name, to honor his memory and to keep his spirit alive.
Because, the fact of the matter is that people die. There’s no getting around that. But ideas can live forever. Dreams can live forever. And love lives on, even when the ones we love are gone. So, even though Nicholas was gone from this world, the Toyman would live forever.
And he has.
Because the people of Nicholas’s town began to travel. To leave the town behind and make their homes elsewhere in the wide world. And, wherever they settled, they brought their own version of the Legend of the Christmas Toyman. They shared the legend with their children and they kept it alive by giving them gifts on Christmas Eve. Where had it come from? Who had brought it?
Why, the Toyman of course.
Or Pere Noelle…or Sinterklaas...Kris Kringle…St. Nicholas…Father Christmas…Santa Claus.
Is this what happened? Can the person we know as Santa Claus really be traced back to some altruistic carpenter who lived goodness knows how many years ago? I have no idea. It’s doubtful we’ll ever really know where it all began. Someone gave someone a gift without taking credit for it, someone else made up a story to explain it, that got mixed up with a few historical figures (there really was a St. Nicholas, after all) and then a guy wrote a poem about the Night Before Christmas and another guy drew a picture of a fat guy in red for a soft drink company.
But, that’s not the point. The point is that it doesn’t matter how much of this story is true, or if any of it is. It doesn’t matter what we call him, or if he even exists. The point is that every time a person gives of themselves, gives with a heart full of unselfish love, just for the sheer joy of giving…then that person is Santa Claus.
So, if you’re asking me “is there an immortal fat guy who lives at the North Pole, flies around in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, squeezes down chimneys and subsists on nothing but milk and cookies?”…then, no. Of course not. There couldn’t be such a person.
On the other hand, if you’re asking me “is there a Santa Claus?” Well, yes. Of course there is. And there always will be.
Or, rather, not quite the end, because I've written some other Christmas stories...
NOTHING FOR CHRISTMAS is about two old friends who are down on their luck, but won't let anything (not even reality) stop them from having a happy holiday.
Here's another story which strives to answer a puzzling holiday question: DO TURTLES HAVE CHRISTMAS?
THE TRIBULATIONS OF MISS ELLA FUNT is a video story I wrote/illustrated a few years ago with the help of my local branch of Toys For Tots (an excellent cause, I might add)
And, finally, there's my play, THE WORKSHOP, which is all about Santa and his elves working hard to make Christmas magical.
Thanks for reading/watching and have a Merry Everything!