‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas when a stranger entered a prewar building that in its heyday used to be a ballroom for the hoi polloi, a place where the common folk who couldn’t afford the ritzier establishments came to dance their cares away. The section of the city in which it was built was in a constant state of flux, so the ballroom eventually transformed into a department store warehouse, then a community center, and when funding and interest ran out and the neighborhood became a place police wouldn’t go after dark for fear of their safety, the abandoned and condemned property served as a makeshift shelter for homeless children.
Inside, it reeked of the stench of hopelessness and was packed to capacity with children covered in the grime of neglect, their young, despondent faces smudged with the soot of abandonment.
The stranger was a portly, bespectacled man wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur, and black leather belt and boots. His nose and cheeks were red as roses and his white beard was full and seemed to roll in upon itself like a fluffy cloud. Despite his size, he maneuvered through the sea of children as quiet as the hush of evening.
Children who were up at the late hour woke those who were asleep but such was the aura of the man that none of them were alarmed or threatened by his sudden presence, and the sensations of starvation and being chilled to the bone were temporarily replaced with a sense of awe. It was akin to coming face to face with a real live unicorn or some other mythical creature.
Regardless of their ages, the children all gathered around and whispered his name, Santa! Kris Kringle! Papa Noël! Father Christmas! because it was apparent who the man was. Not an imposter from a mall or a bell-ringer from the street, this was the genuine article.
“Are you real?” asked a bedraggled boy in the middle of the crowd.
“Why, yes, Jude Herbert, I am as real as you are,” the one and only Claus answered to the boy’s delighted surprise.
“You know my name?”
“Of course, I know all your names,” the Keeper of the List nodded and began pointing to and naming every child in the room. “Alisha Moss, Finley Hopkins, Sienna Simmons,” and so forth and so on.
“Where’s your bag?”
“In all the pictures I’ve seen you always carry a bag full of presents,” said Dinesh Mehta. “That’s what you do, right? Give presents to kids?”
“The gift I have for you wouldn’t fit inside a sack.”
“He ain’t gonna give us no presents,” said Gabriel Ford. “When has he ever? I ain’t never got nothing from Santa Claus, have you?”
Glad and hopeful expressions dropped from the surrounding faces in rapid succession.
“It is true,” the Christmas Man, admitted. “I haven’t been able to get to all of you before today, but not because you are unloved or undeserving. I know this is a poor excuse but my resources are limited and I sincerely apologize for not making an appearance before today.”
“So, you’re gonna give us presents?” Hope Allison asked. “Really and truly?”
“Indeed I am, but first I want to ask you all a question: Where does all my magic come from?”
A multitude of hands shot into the air to a chorus of Ooo! Ooo! I know! I know! And those too impatient to wait to be called on, yelled, Magic food! Magic bell! Your magic hat! Pixie dust! Nicholas the Saint delighted in seeing them forget their worries for a moment and just be children.
He waited patiently until all the guessing had been exhausted before he cupped his red-mittened hands together and held them out.
“All good guesses but here is where all the magic stems from,” he said and opened his hands. Floating in midair just above his palms was the image of a heart, not a biological one but the type that people drew in pictures, but this heart was made of golden shimmering light.
“What’s that?” asked a young blond-haired girl.
“This, Shelina van der Schaaf, is a Christmas heart.”
“I want one!” exclaimed a small boy.
“You have one, Vasyl Vavera,” Sinterklaas said.
“Everyone has a Christmas heart.”
“I don’t have one,” young Yobanna Chukwumoge said, pulling all his filthy pockets inside out. “I don’t have anything, see?”
“That’s because you’re not looking in the right place,” Grandfather Frost said. From a pouch tucked in his belt, he produced a handful of dust and blew it into the air above the crowd. Instead of settling like normal dust, the shimmering particles hung in the air around the children. “What you need to do is open your hand, palm side up and place it in front of your chest. Now say to yourself, Show me my Christmas heart.”
The children all followed Pelznickel’s instructions and just above their palms shimmering hearts appeared. Some glowed brighter than others but they were all beautiful.
“This is the power source that keeps my workshops running, that helps my reindeers fly, that allows me to visit all the houses of children in the entire world in a single night, which is the problem. There are so many people in the world, new ones being born every second and the demand keeps getting bigger and bigger and it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep up, so I came to ask for your help.”
“But you’re Santa Claus and we’re just poor kids,” Kisanet Eyob pointed out. “How can we help you?”
“You may not be aware of this but all of you share the same wish. You all want a home, you want to be a part of a family, you want to be loved, and I have come here to give you that, with no strings attached.”
“But you also need our Christmas hearts, don’t you?” asked Zygfryd Zawadzki.
“I would like to borrow some of that energy, yes, and there are so many of you, I would only need a tiny bit from each heart. And you are free to say no, that will not affect my Christmas gift to you, you are all welcomed to share my home with me, and Mrs. Claus has hot baths and meals waiting for all of you.”
“Will it hurt?” asked Erick Santos Gomes. “When you take our hearts?”
“I’ll only be borrowing the smallest bit of energy. Your heart will be fine, Erick, you won’t feel a thing.”
The children began agreeing because they somehow knew Santa was telling the truth, but over the din of the excited children, Santa noticed the absence of one voice.
“Is something troubling you, Ruby Kirby?” Santa asked.
The children quieted down and stared at Father Christmas in befuddlement. They looked around to see whom he was talking to.
Over the heads of the throng he said, “If you said something, I couldn’t make it out. I’m far older than I look and my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Can you please come a bit closer?”
The crowd of children parted like the Red Sea and an emaciated little girl with dead eyes that held a thousand-yard stare, timidly made her way to the Christmas-Bringer.
“What seems to be the problem, my dear?” he asked.
“You need magic,” Ruby’s voice was as soft as pity. “I don’t have any.”
“Of course you do.”
“No, I don’t,” Ruby placed her open palm in front of her chest and said, “Show me my Christmas heart.”
The heart that floated above her hand looked more like the biological kind and it was not made of light but of rough metal with uneven edges, with scars all over it, and in places there were replacement pieces that didn’t fit perfectly, where it had been broken and improperly mended. There were also deep gouges where some pieces were missing.
The Christmas Kringle took a knee so that he was eye level with Ruby and said, “You may see a mess of scars, but I see a heart that has been battle-tested, a heart that has known love and loss, a heart resourceful enough to pick up the pieces of shattered affection and patch itself back together. And do you know how I know your heart is perfect?”
“How?” asked Ruby.
“Because that’s the exact same way my Christmas heart used to look. You may not know it to look at me now, but when I was your age I was a loner. Even in a crowded room, I was alone but it was mostly of my own doing because I did not seek out interactions with other people, in fact, I actively avoided it.”
“I guess because everyone in my life up to that point had let me down and abandoned me, so I made up my mind that I didn’t need anybody. But that wasn’t my destiny, you see. I met a couple who showed me that kindness towards others was such a fragile thing and it was never more than one generation away from extinction. Because it isn’t ingrained in our nature, it’s something that has to be taught and reinforced constantly by each generation, for once it dies, it is gone for good. Those who have known kindness have the propensity to show it to others, but where kindness was never known, only cruelty lurks.”
“So, you changed? But how did you do it?”
“By doing the hardest thing I ever had to do. I ignored all the negative voices in my head and I went out and made a friend, and that friend introduced me to his friends and before I knew it, I wasn’t by myself anymore.”
“But how did you do it?” Ruby asked again, not quite understanding his solution.
“You’re standing in a room full of people holding their hearts in their hands, what do you think you should do?”
Ruby hung her head, squeezed her eyes shut to stem the flow of tears, yet some sneaked past her eyelid defenses and rolled down her cheeks. She held her Christmas heart out in front of her and asked, “Will someone please be my friend and help me fix my Christmas heart?”
One by one the children took turns stepping up and touching their hearts to Ruby’s heart. With all that attention, she expected it to change but it remained metal and different from all the rest.
“It didn’t work,” a crestfallen Ruby said with tears welling once again.
“Didn’t it? Take a closer look,” the Holiday Sleigher suggested.
Ruby brought the heart up to her eye, “All I see is rusty metal.”
“But what about in the cracks? In the bits that are missing?”
And sure enough, Ruby detected a glow pulsing inside a metal cranny, keeping time with her own heartbeat. “Is that…?”
“It’s the birth of your new Christmas heart. Just like you, it requires time to grow but you need to take care of it, nurture and share it for it to reach its maximum potential. Can you do that?”
“I promise,” the little girl nodded and this time her tears were happy ones. “So, when are you taking us to your home?” she asked.
“Why, we’re already here,” said the jolly old saint. “If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself.”
The children raced to the front doors and flung them open wide, and sure enough, the entire building had somehow crossed the magical Arctic Circle and was now sitting in the winter wonderland village in Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland, the official hometown of Santa Claus.
“But how?” Ruby asked
“The magic of the Christmas hearts brought us here, even yours, Ruby.”
Ruby Kirby tucked her Christmas heart away and smiled ear to ear as Santa Claus lifted her in his arms and carried her across the field of soft powder snow to her new home.
And that just about does it for the 12 Plays of Christmas series. I want to thank all of you who followed me on this experimental journey. I know I run this phrase into the ground but, it’s very much appreciated. Oh, and…
MERRY CHRISTMAS! Wishing you all a happy holiday season (whether you celebrate or not) and may you receive the best gift of all: a wonderful life full of happiness, love, joy, laughter, tranquility and prosperity!