Christmas in an era of reverse exclusion

Appeared in the North Shore News – December 30, 2016

A few days ago, you may recall, some Canadians celebrated Christmas, the birth of Jesus.

Many others didn’t. Christianity isn’t their faith. Sensitive to them, and eyes on demographics and possibly dollar signs, greeting card designers proclaim ‘‘Happy Holidays,’’ or replace Jesus with Santa Claus, that jolly old elf with a sleighful of gifts.

TV seasonal fare wraps female-meets-male love stories around a Christmas theme (my private term for this formulaic tosh is goopies).

Overwhelmingly, radio stations jingle the bells, don’t limn the faith – oddly, otherwise stonily secular CBC devotes the day to appropriate music, including carols.

So it’s a shock, I mean a real 2016 cultural shock, that in a business paper – this paper’s sister publication, Business in Vancouver – this headline jumped out over an opinion piece published just before Christmas: ‘‘Somewhere on the road to political correctness, we lost Christmas.’’

The author’s parents were immigrants. She recalled how in 1974 she and her sisters were in tears when this chubby man in a red suit visited her school with gifts for the children: ‘‘He never visited us.’’ Her parents, who arrived here with $7 and little English, learned that incredibly difficult tongue, unmastered by none, and befriended neighbours.

Years passed, and the writer ‘‘found myself on the defensive after my employer, a Canadian TV station, surveyed employees and decided to replace the annual Christmas party with a ‘Winter Festival’ in February.’’

She voted against. Colleagues glared at her. She praises Canada’s developing inclusion, like extension of the right to vote, and protection of religious freedom. And – you may not call this a bombshell, I call it a bombshell: ‘‘Yet as government and employers work to acknowledge and respect the multicultural nature of our society, political correctness has become a one-way road that’s left Christmas out in the cold. It doesn’t seem to matter that Christmas is the country’s most significant tradition or that Statistics Canada says two-thirds of Canadians identify as Christians.’’

There’s more: “In my opinion, we are in an era of reverse exclusion and intolerance, in which saying ‘Merry Christmas’ risks giving offence, even though Christmas has a cultural significance for many non-Christians.’’

Here I briefly intrude. It is jaw-dropping that her thoughts made the public prints. It shouldn’t have taken bravery, but in Canadaland 2016 it does. Millions of us native-born paleface Euro-North Americans prefer to judiciously keep any traditional religious beliefs to ourselves. Universities, bastion of rights? A late UVic professor mocked them as ‘‘islands of repression in a sea of freedom.”

Now heed this: The writer’s name is Renu Bakshi, and be shaken into thought if you wish by her final paragraph: ‘‘So, from my Hindu family to yours, Merry Christmas.”

• • •

Be warned. The following may upset some readers as utterly tasteless.

Malcolm Parry, excellent columnist for a well-known downtown newspaper and a North Shore resident, read that I’d had a bit of a swoon from an allergenic attack. He remembered his late pal Denis Mason, who similarly ‘‘one moment was sitting in bed reading his book, and then, following the equivalent of a movie hard cut, was surrounded by hospital personnel doing restorative things to him.’’

Mason, something of a West Van character, and once owner of a Bentley three-litre, which requires a certain eccentricity, was an exceptional jazz drummer – in London he had regularly backed famed blind pianist George Shearing. In retirement

Mason played with the Docs of Dixieland, “a traditional jazz group composed, as the name suggests, of medical doctors, who somehow lacked a drummer.’’

(You’d think with all that experience with surgical instruments … well, never mind.)

The possibly offensive bit: “One of the band’s volunteer gigs was at Lions Gate Hospital’s palliative care facility. And where the Docs ended sets by playing” — a pause here for readers too young to know the once-popular song, but the title tells enough – “After You’ve Gone.”

Far from being upset by this grim reminder of impending departure, reported Parry – who fell deathly ill himself several years ago – “the patients always insisted on it, said Denis,” who was pleased “to find a sense of humour alive and well in folk who were quite the opposite.”

Maybe they found gallows amusement in Woody Allen’s famous comment, “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

• • •

Once more, hard-drinking actor Pat O’Brien’s advice: “Never drink on New Year’s Eve. That’s amateur night.”

© Trevor Lautens, 2017

Cheers to Potters and Scrooges of our day

Appeared in the North Shore News – December 18, 2015

At Christmas, our hearts should go out to those who are all too easily ignored throughout the year.

They are the invisible people of our society. In our busy day-to-day lives we seldom give them a thought. When they come to our attention in the media, we’re briefly aware of them. Then we move on.

But they are fellow human beings. They have needs like all of us. They deserve more than a 15-second clip on the evening TV news, or a few paragraphs deep inside the newspapers.

By now, Constant Reader will have alertly guessed the identity of the sort of people I’m referring to.

They are the rich — the well-heeled who write great big whacking cheques for the less fortunate, the hungry, the sick. They may even take leave from the absorbing (and rarely easy) task of making money and personally get into the trenches of their causes when they can find the time.

Oddly, their closest soulmates are many working poor who are near enough to poverty themselves, yet who, proportionate to their incomes, give more to the needy than a lot of the more affluent do.
It hardly needs saying: An automatic dislike of the rich — partly envy, doubtless — is entrenched in our culture.

Try to remember a favourable depiction of the wealthy in books, plays, film.

Think Scrooge, before redemption. Charlie Chaplin, born in poverty and a bitter anti-capitalist while becoming probably Hollywood’s richest man of his time, enshrined on film the common portrayal of the rich as arrogant stuffed shirts (i.e., perfect targets for rude fun). And Christmas standards like It’s a Wonderful Life never let you forget that maybe the meanest man ever portrayed in movies was Lionel Barrymore.

The individual who gave to the greatest number the greatest gift of all — knowledge — was Andrew Carnegie. He funded more than 2,500 libraries, two of them around 1900 in still-young British Columbia. In our times the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Warren Buffet announced multi-billion-dollar donations, not for self-aggrandizement but to encourage others.

Trying to list local philanthropists is a risky business, rich with perils. Overlooking many is guaranteed. Others shun publicity. Then there’s the arbitrary dividing line between big, bigger and humongously biggest donors.

What follows will mix a few recent West Vancouver philanthropists with others elsewhere. And note well: Rich patrons don’t provide frills. They provide essentials. They make up serious shortfalls in public budgets, for everything from theatre — it’s recently been reported that in 2014 almost a quarter of arts revenue in B.C. was provided by private donors’ money — to advanced hospital technology.

Hospitals, medical research, libraries and food banks are popular recipients. Jimmy Pattison’s benefactions — not to overlook his economic contribution in providing roughly 40,000 jobs — are widely known. Frank Giustra’s Radcliffe Foundation has helped many. The Zajak family’s ranch hosts children with serious illnesses. Robert Ho’s HOpe Centre is a towering contribution to Lions Gate Hospital.

Djavad Mowafaghian is high on any list, supporting the arts and children’s health and education. Realtor Bob Rennie, a serious art collector, is a big contributor to the Vancouver Art Gallery (and strong advocate of keeping it where it so visibly is). Sergio Cocchia and wife Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia continue a family tradition of community generosity. So does Martha Lou Henley, daughter of Jean Southam, of the newspaper family that underwrote many causes.

Robert Welch’s name adorns a meeting room in West Van’s library. Marjorie Anne Sauder and husband William are responsible not only for UBC’s Sauder School of Business but for a host of donations for health causes.

Alison Lawton is a youthful 45 in a philanthropic field dominated, understandably, by older males. The late Yulanda Faris was a mainstay of Vancouver Opera and other good works. Carol Newell’s donations may have done more to save the environment than the late talkfest in Paris. Kay Meek’s name will live forever on her theatre, which, by the way, is thriving these days, sometimes hoisting the sold-out sign.

The latest member of the blessed wealthy is Paul Myers, owner of Keith Plumbing & Heating, its orange and red trucks a familiar sight, whose cheque for the Lions Gate Hospital Foundation reportedly was largest by an individual to any such foundation in B.C.

The list inescapably leaves out more than it includes. Suggest other nominees and they’ll be mentioned here. But you get the idea: We owe a lot to those who not only produce wealth but privately redistribute it, and whose good works can’t compete with the crime, chaos and corruption on the front pages and TV news.

Merry Christmas, rich people! Take that, Lionel Barrymore!

• • •

And a special Merry Christmas to R.P., who drives like at the wheel of a Ferrari and stops like a chauffeur for a Rolls Royce.

© Trevor Lautens, 2015

Times taxing poor Scrooge

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 J14

VANCOUVER — Finance Minister Ebenezer Scrooge VI stared from his office window at the unpopulated square below. The building was empty, silent. His face was a study. Reflective? Troubled? Conflicted? Perhaps all.

It had been a long road for the Scrooges from the once-considerable 19th-century firm of Scrooge & Marley. Scrooge’s uncle several times removed, the first Ebenezer — so the family oral story went — had some ghostly experiences on Christmas Eve.

The British Society for Psychical Research investigated and found no conclusive evidence. The certainty was that overnight Scrooge was transformed. A hard businessman, he abruptly began distributing his fortune among the needy. He died broke, but smiling.

In succeeding generations, continuing with Scrooge’s nephew, this became a family tradition — almost an obsession. Its enterprises, including a prosthetics company, flourished, only to dwindle through excessively helping the poor, and then somehow they picked up and repeated the cycle.

Ebenezer VI’s father, who immigrated to Vancouver and lived on the streets, his only companion his dog, literally gave away the shirt on his back. Again family fortunes miraculously revived, thanks to the dog, who learned fantastic tricks and become a Las Vegas headliner.

Ebenezer VI’s reverie was broken by a deferential tap on his door. It was his deputy minister of finance, Jones.

“Ha, Jones, I welcome you,” cried Ebenezer. “I’m new, of course, and doubtless was chosen finance minister for the family’s gift for amassing fortunes — not for its genius in losing them. Can we talk, away from daily pressures? I’d like your advice. Not metrics and least-cost optimums, or whatever. What’s the essence?”

Jones had a deserved ministry reputation for both ability and cynicism. He drily replied: “Not enough money in, too much out. Had a chance to go over the books?”

“Enough to confirm that we’re in serious straits. The deficit is staggering. The debt is worse,” Ebenezer replied.

“All we have to do is to generate more national wealth, and tax it,” Jones smiled.

“Merely compete in trade with aggressive and creative people in 190-odd countries, some selling what we’re selling,” Ebenezer mused.

“We have great natural resources, Minister.”

“And, if some have their way, best left in the ground and not disturb the wildlife and the trees,” Ebenezer winced. “It happens that an environment society is one of the family’s most beloved charities. As for taxes, can your people dream up any more? Or make business and individuals enjoy paying them, out of sheer public spirit?”

“Answer to the first question, no. The second, also no. People insist they’re taxed to the max.”

“I disagree,” Ebenezer said ruefully. “I get sincere advice every day from groups demanding higher taxes. For other people.”

“I’ve noticed that it’s much easier spending the public’s money than my own,” Jones replied. “That’s one category that’s expanding — the country’s Gross National Advice. Not just from the Opposition.”

“Yes. Think-tanks, columnists, academics, hot-line listeners, social media fans, all convinced they can run government better than the government. Some might even be right,” Ebenezer smiled.

“Now, your reputation preceded you,” Jones said. “Since your great-uncle saw the light, or whatever he saw, the Scrooges have been famous philanthropists.”

“First, though, we earned the money. Then we helped,” Ebenezer said. “I’m uneasy in government, spending money we don’t have. Passing on the debt to future generations.”

“Future generations have this special characteristic,” Jones said sardonically. “They aren’t here.”

“And the hungry are, and monetary theory and balance of trade figures don’t feed them,” Ebenezer replied.

The sun was setting. The two men walked to the silent hallway.

“You asked my advice, Minister,” Jones said. “My opinion is: We’ll muddle through. I suggest you go home, have some supper, relax, and maybe you’ll get some brilliant insight, a bolt from the blue, in the night. Merry Christmas.”

“Ah,” Ebenezer Scrooge VI remembered, “it is Christmas Eve, isn’t it?”

Retired Vancouver Sun editorial board member Trevor Lautens is a columnist for Vancouver’s North Shore News and Business in Vancouver.

© Trevor Lautens, 2012

The greatest gift I ever received

Appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press – December 23, 2011

VANCOUVER — I sat down to write about the greatest gift I’ve ever received. But, like a river in flood that carves a new channel, it became about my mother.

Here, hard-eyed, I declare a sour disposition toward columns about (a) one’s mother and (b) books, the gift my mother began and in death still gives.

Mothers, books: two topics that usually stick in the throat with cloying sweetness. The man who, damp-eyed, states he loves books is as suspect as the one who announces he loves women. All of them? I’ll kindly show you duds of both.

But — the gift.

My mother, Bertha Irene George, tiny and plump in my memory, grew up in small-town Manitoba and had a Grade 10 education.

Born in 1908 in the dawn of movies, which she adored, her own reading was monopolized by Photoplay, Modern Screen and Modern Romances — evil literature hidden under a sofa cushion where I was sure to find them.

But, though my brother Gary and I were to scratch out a living as the fable-writers called newspapermen, our mother was incomparably the best storyteller.

She made a fairy tale of her hometown, Morden. Too late I realized that under her open-hearted, child-like joy with life’s smallest diversions and comic scenes was a gift for concealing disappointment.

But that’s a topic for another day that will never come. Back to that gift.

One day, she took me to the library, and afterwards, descending the imposing stone balustrade (it was a Carnegie), I stopped and stared at my new card, excited.

I knew, as children know before they know, that it would open locks.

If I stand on my tippy-toes and reach way, way up to the top shelf, like the child I have never outgrown, I can pull down my earliest remembered books:

Animal Stories by Thornton W. Burgess. I wrote to his Springfield, Massachusetts home, he sent an autographed picture and handwritten note, and I was sure an author was the most glamorous person on Earth, announced by a flourish of trumpets, petals strewn in his path, his name whispered with awe when he strode the streets or entered a café.

The bitterness of rejection, the publisher’s harsh contract, never occurred.

Next was Ernest Thompson Seton. One of his claims was that he was “naturalist to the government of Manitoba.” The last paragraph of his wolf story, Lobo, King of Currumpaw, I can still quote after a drink or two.

The bulky Animals of the World was my Christmas present, age eight, in 1942, and around then, P.A. Taverner’s Birds of Canada, never surpassed in magisterial depth and tart opinion.

Sometime in those days an anchor-weight Underwood appeared on the dining room table. Mother’s doing?

One day, alone, I cautiously approached it as if it were a trap. So it was. My fingers were caught and have not yet been released.

I began reviewing books at age 11 or 12, a canny book editor in my hometown, Rhys Crossan, deciding that if you want a boys’ book reviewed, you should send for a boy to do it. My memory is that all my reviews rigidly began: “This is a book about…”

My mother typed my handwritten words for submission to the editor and doubtless improved them.

She was an encouraging booster, a backer, but never specifically encouraged writing, reading, or anything else.

Parenting and other paid, pop-psychology experts hadn’t been invented yet, thank God.

My Winnipeg-born father, a Canadian Press teletype operator and mechanic, said even less. Maybe both thought I’d grow out of it, like little boys who announce they’re going to be firemen.

Accidentally, I slowly created a malignant cornucopia of books — five bookcases within my sight as I write, three more plus 13 unwieldy stacks in my bedroom, books on my bed, books crawling up the steps to my office, and newspapers and magazines (and clumps of my own columns back to 1958 that want to be books when they grow up).

I was recently invited to speak to the North Shore University Women’s Club in suburban Vancouver and was presented with a book. I gave gracious thanks, but drew a loud, knowing laugh when I stated candidly that my wife would rather I came home with another woman than with another book.

I blame mother. Who, I trust, is reading Photoplay somewhere.

© Trevor Lautens, 2011

An early Christmas schnoodle

This is not a new column, but since we recently passed the one-year mark of having Kaylan in our lives, it seemed fitting to post the piece on the new website. TL

From Winnipeg Free Press – December 24, 2009


VANCOUVER — In the household where these words were written, Christmas arrived early this year. To be precise, on May 17.

You may question whether the following qualifies as a Christmas story. I can only reply that, like the enduring masterpiece by Charles Dickens, it revolves around a tiny cripple who touches many hearts, a gift of priceless proportions.

On that day the phone rang (as it so often does). It was my Littlest, no longer so little, alas. She was calling from the West Vancouver veterinary clinic where she worked summers between grappling with science studies in Ontario.

To attempt to reproduce her words would be vain. We need audio.

The burden of what she said was: There’s this poor little dog that the vet (she was filling in for the regular vet) brought in, and he’s so cute, and he was hit by a car two years ago, and he lost part of his leg and had a dislocated hip, and she fixed him up and the owner wouldn’t take him back, so she kept him with her other dogs, and she’s tried to have him adopted but nobody will take him, so could we have him, please?

(As an aside: I was gratified that in these days when fathers are routinely cast as blithering idiots and pathetic fools, I was actually being consulted like a respected paterfamilias.)

I said …

But before I could get a word out, my Biggest came on the line, and then my wife — because, by one of life’s flukes, the latter pair had dropped in to see where the Littlest worked, and, boy, do those details slow down this story?

When the three had finished their coaxing, wheedling, and sniffling, I stated cynically: “We already have a dog” (Booker, the most permanently hungry black Lab in captivity) “and a cat” (Max, a typical cat, cross and ungrateful). “On Sunday you, Biggest, will return to Victoria. On Monday morning you, Mom, will go back to work. And at summer’s end you, Littlest, will hit the books again in Guelph, and who the hell d’you think will be left to look after this damaged dog?”

The answer was predictable. Thanks be to God, or to the roll of the cosmic dice or whatever, that answer was: Me. Undeserving me.

Though no dog could share himself around the family more than this little squirt.

The people who had turned down the dog — the vet explained that when she offered him to a certain well-known animal agency, she was told nobody would adopt such a dog and they’d just put him down — fortunately don’t know what they missed.

He came into the house that day with his injured left front leg in the air, paw partly missing, a resulting bounce in his step like the old door-to-door salesman’s, and liquid brown eyes for which the phrase “melts your heart” was cobbled and tried out in the minor leagues for its appearance here today.

Kaylan — the name came along with the limp — loves all laps. He cuddles against all thighs. He democratically leaps on all beds and swiftly falls asleep, often shifting in the night to another bed in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings. In the dark I sometimes reach out and touch his small body, and for a moment am perfectly at peace.

And — almost painful in its poignancy — when a family member comes home, Kaylan does an ecstatic tight-circle, straight-up-and-down bounce, then rockets up the stairs and proudly returns to present the arrival with a “toy” — one of the Littlest’s stuffed dolls. One favourite teddy is three times as big as he is.

“He’s a joy,” said the Middlest, my son, who previously had the least interest in our dogs.

Booker accepted Kaylan with classic easy-going Lab tolerance. Max the Cat, not so much. The two seem mutually fascinated and repelled. The odd chase up the steps to Max’s kingdom seems instigated by either or both.

Kaylan is a nature-lover, as long as it’s squirrels. Motionless, usually barkless, he stares for hours at their (unwanted, but who can blame anything with a mouth and a hunger?) patronage of the bird feeders.

Early on — matted hair, ears thick with fur uncut because of underlying skin infections — he went to the canine beauty salon and came back another dog altogether.

His antecedents were a matter of speculation. Recently a schnauzer owner stated with an authoritative air: “He’s a schnauzer, poodle cross. A schnoodle.”

New to me. When my wife heard this, she went hysterical. A schnoodle! We have a schnoodle!

Hundreds of passersby have asked about his injury. He runs with the bad leg half-raised in an amiable wave to everyone approaching, meanwhile bouncing like the Energizer Bunny. He draws pity. I remark that he’s happier than the sympathizers and I are. He has no existential dread. He has not read Sartre or Freud. He does not fear death.

But on our very first walk on West Vancouver’s Ambleside Beach, something happened.

A young woman, a teenager or not much older, stopped with what became the customary pat, pity and questions. I replied with a summation of Kaylan’s life, which sometimes includes the sick-making, third-hand story that he was hit when his original owner threw him out of his moving car in downtown Vancouver — the vet had treated him and kept him for two years herself with a house full of other dogs.

“But you’re fine now, aren’t you, Kaylan?” I said, unoriginally, bending down to scratch him.

Only then did I see it. A flash of metal. The young woman had an artificial leg.

I straightened up, the inside of my face white, whatever colour on the outside.

“How did it happen?” The awkward, well-meant question seemed almost obscene.

The woman smiled. “The usual,” she said. And no more.

I had not really looked at her until then. And then I saw one of the most transcendentally beautiful faces of my life, a face illuminated with such stunning grace that it did not seem to belong to this earth. Fanciful though it will seem, to this day I’m not sure that it did.

This is not much of a dog story. It is not much of a Christmas story. It is not much of a story. It is shapeless and has no real ending. I could not have made it up.

© Trevor Lautens, 2009

Render Unto Santa The Things That Are Santa’s

For release Dec. 19, 2008

The elves had filled the sleigh beyond full. The young elves were certain it was far too heavy and would never, ever budge. The old elves looked wise, as the old in heaven and on earth and everywhere in between do, and quietly advised them to wait and see. The old elves were unexcited. They had seen too
many miracles.

Warm from their great effort, all the elves – in every corner of the North Pole, in the toy shop, in quality control, in the planning department, in the cafeteria (when it comes to eating, elves hit far above their weight), in the barn, and of course the sweating packers and loaders – stood expectantly around the sleigh, their breath making icy haloes in the cold, cold air. The reindeer impatiently pawed the frozen turf, their breath in long twin cylinders. Not strong enough to pull the sleigh? Just watch us! They shook
with anticipation, making their sleigh bells ring out as if it was Christmas. Which, of course, it was.

Santa and Mrs. Claus appeared at their cottage door, to great applause. Santa waved and blew the elves kisses. Mrs. Claus fidgeted and fussed, checking Santa’s suit buttons, fluffing up his scarf, trying not to look anxious.

“Be sure to keep warm and do drive carefully,” she said. “So much traffic in the skies these days!”

Santa chuckled softly, deeply, from the bottom of his chest: “Ho, ho, ho.  Now don’t you worry about a thing, my dear. Have the reindeer and sleigh ever failed me?”

“I do hope you won’t need that one with the dreadful red nose,” said Mrs. Claus. “So tasteless! And I really dislike the way the others fawned over him that year!”

“The night will be perfectly clear,” Santa assured her. “I’ll let you know when I’m close enough to put the tea on. Goodbye!” And he kissed her cheek and turned to the sleigh.

His Top Elves stepped forward. “Fine night, sir,” said Snowy, the director of the Itinerary Department.

“The sleigh is in perfect order and the runners have been thoroughly greased,” said Chilly, chief of the Service Department.

“Whereas,” said Icy, head of the Legal Department, ” Santa Claus, doing business as Santa Claus Corporation Unlimited, the party of the first part, and whereas the nations of the world of the second part, having divers statutes, tort laws, property rights, local bylaws and acts and regulations pertaining to responsibility for accidents, misrepresentation, safety of chimneys, defective toys …”

“Yes, yes,” said Santa soothingly, “no need to go through the list, Icy, you always look after such matters very capably.”

” … and responsibility for purity of milk and cookies left under the Christmas trees, etc. etc.,” said Icy, stiffly, insisting on getting that point in.

“Well done, all,” said Santa affectionately. “Now, the sun is just dipping below the horizon. Perfect timing! Goodbye!” And he sat down, shook the reins once, and reindeer, sleigh and Santa shot off in a flurry of snow and quickly disappeared.

Before settling down to the night’s work, Santa decided to take the slow and scenic route from the North Pole through a galaxy or two, where the twinkling stars briefly glowed even brighter in friendly acknowledgement as they passed. Then Santa put down the reins and turned on the GPS to return to
Planet Earth. The diversion had taken less than the smallest part of a human-measured second, for Santa of course operated on SST, Santa Standard Time. In truth it is a timeless time without beginning or end.

The sleigh glided smoothly and silently into Earth’s skies. Below Santa could see the lonely lights of farmhouses in the darkness, and clusters of lights that meant cities. And with his crinkly eyes he could tenderly see into the homes where families slept – tired mothers and dads, restless children so excited it had taken them a long time to nod off, cats curled up on warm vents, and at the foot of beds snoring dogs who would quickly come alert at the slightest suspicious noise.

But Santa made no noise. There were few chimneys these days – as mankind measured time – but it is well established that Santa is a resourceful elf, and able to slip under doors, through keyholes, cracks in walls, and, sometimes most difficult, into hardened human hearts. And everywhere he left gifts, not always the gifts asked for, as he knew well, and not as many as people would want if they had limitless choice. One did not have to be an elf to know that among this race of men there are those for whom even enough is not enough.

At last the sleigh was empty. Their night’s work well done, the proud reindeer seemed to dance with the prospect of a swift dash home. Santa punched some data into his computer and prepared to sign out.

A message flashed on the screen: “One missing.”

One missing! How could that be? Santa never missed anyone. For even those who didn’t “believe” in him were always left with a gift – nudging them to doubt their doubt.

Santa’s pride was hurt. He turned off the GPS. He would find the missing recipient. He would navigate the traditional way, by the stars. He gave the reins a shake and the reindeer sprang joyously into the skies.

His travel brought him into open countryside over what he thought might be a small motorcycle or garden tool shed, or was it a low barn of some kind? In no time at all – quite literally, for, to repeat, Santa is timeless – he was inside.

The room was totally bare, even coldly stark. It was empty except for a Very Old Man seated in a chair, which, in contrast, was magnificent, almost a throne. The Very Old Man nodded cordially.

Santa looked closely. No, rather he was an exceedingly handsome Young Man in full strength of manhood. On further examination it was not a man at all but a Woman of breathtaking mature beauty. But Santa strained to see – not a Woman after all, instead a Girl no more than 10 years old. Then her fine features seemed to melt into that of a Boy. Santa shook his head, for he had repeatedly been mistaken – it was a Child, the rich chair a small plain bed. Santa removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. Mrs. Claus had scolded him to get his prescription changed, and how right she was.

“Good evening, Santa,” said the Child. “I was expecting you.”

“Good evening to you,” said Santa. That a child spoke so clearly was startling, but no more than his appearance, which continually and fluidly morphed into the other forms. “But I’m afraid I will disappoint you. You were not on my list. I have no gift for you.”

“I need no gift other than your welcome visit,” said the Child. “I too distribute gifts to those who wish to receive them.”

Santa’s white eyebrows rose. “Then we are competitors!” he smiled.

“No,” said the Child, “we are comrades, Spirits, you and I, to the race we both love and cherish. For you are the Spirit of Things Seen, and I of Things Unseen.”

“Ah,” said Santa. “I wish my lawyer, Icy, an impressive intellectual elf, were here to debate this. I fear I am out of my depth. Icy understands ideas, including human ideas. Though I sometimes wonder if elf flesh is so different from human flesh after all.”

“Just as Spirits will always have something of the human in them,” the Child replied. “How else could we enter their sorrows and their joys, and their wounds and their triumphs?”

“I just distribute gifts,” Santa said humbly. “Things.”

“You are the gatekeeper of goodness,” said the Child. “How many children learn their very first lessons of goodness from you? And your jolly face and figure bring smiles to even the wearied old. Yours is the republic of Earth’s gifts, as mine is the kingdom of the searching soul. The bodily first need food, water, light – material things that are the clothes of the soul.”

“I have seen my material gifts misused,” Santa said, unnecessarily, for it was clear that the Child equally knew the spoken and the unspoken.

“Gifts come in all colours,” the Child said. “Possessions have no morality in them. The way of the world is for some to make, for others to sell, for others to use, and for yet others to misuse. Even the hungry and the dispossessed are a special gift to the world. The world is a teacher. It was not misdesigned. It is perfect of its kind – an experiment, and each life an experiment in it. What benefit would there be if each of those you and I love and care for were handed a script?”

The reindeer were stamping impatiently on the roof.

“I too must go,” said the Child, and abruptly he disappeared and was replaced by a youth, bearded, with green-tinted hair, flashing a beautiful smile and astride a motorcycle – Santa’s first impression that the structure was a motorcycle shed was correct. “I will do good this night in this guise, because like you I can take many forms and leave no signature. Good night, sweet elf!” And the Spirit vanished.

When Santa landed at the North Pole his elves were gathered outside his cottage, Mrs. Claus anxiously waiting at the door.

Snowy, the director of the Itinerary Department, stepped forward worriedly. “If I had a watch,” he said, “and if there were such a thing as time here, I would think you were a nanosecond late. Did I make a mistake in planning?”

Chilly, chief of the Service Department said tremblingly: “I hope the sleigh didn’t break down?”

Said Icy, head of the Legal Department: “Whereas the return of Santa, party of the first part, was inexplicably delayed, his elves, party of the second part, did debate assembling and dispatching a search party …”

Santa left his reindeer with affectionate pats, and hugged Mrs. Claus, who hid her worry by scolding him for giving everyone a fright.

“Everything went just fine,” he reassured the elves. “The light in the sky made navigation even better than at other Christmases. Now let us all have a well-earned rest, for tomorrow we will be back at work. That is the joyful task of elves. We must make our toys.”

© Trevor Lautens, 2008