When the fourth Christmas in a row came and went with no presents present beneath our tree, my dad drove me to the North Pole. We made the trip in his green Pontiac station wagon, trekking first by normal highway to the Yukon and then through the ancient path of Candycane Lane. My dad knew the ritual that took Candycane Lane from the place between places to our own existential plane, you see, and with one long Norse recitation and a dead goat he opened the way to Santa’s palace.
I’m not sure why dad took me across those eternal barren wastes. I’m certain he could have just contented himself with telling me there was no Santa and buying his kid the presents on his own dime, like most parents. He said it was a matter of principle. Mom said he was cheap. I think it was some combination thereof.
The palace emerged from ice fog after exactly half of our gas had been expended—no one could be stranded in the place between places. It was a Gothic masterpiece, polished black stone giving off an opalescent glow. At the towering doors, eight reindeer stood their endless vigil, each twenty feet tall, eyes black and antlers pocked and fossilized. A single elf waited to greet us, standing at-ease between the feet of vicious, blood-nosed Rudolph.
“What is your business here, mortals?” He barked to my father.
“I demand an audience.” My dad shot back.
“Turn back now, plead and scuffle with lesser kings.”
“Just open the gate, before I drive through it.”
The elf gave a wry smile to this boldness, and did as he was told. The doors swung in and we drove through, down a long grand hall lined with great pillars, each carved with different poems from the Prose Edda.
We stopped at a staircase at the end, and dad led the way up. I was cold, hungry, tired, and a little sick. I thought he was nuts for taking us on this journey. And then I saw Santa’s workshop.
It was vast—we stepped across a stone bridge over a pit a mile deep and five hundred yards wide, and lining the hole were thousands of little alcoves where elves did their work. In each spot I saw them manufacturing iPhones out of little more than plastic and bits of wire, transmuting wood into precious metals for jewelry, imbuing stuffed animals with magic so they would warm the hearts of their recipients on dire nights.
There, presiding above it all, Santa Claus. He scared the hell out of me.
Santa is not a fat, jolly old man. He is more like a golem, a monstrosity sitting on his throne with a beard that ran down between his knobbly knees and onto the cold slabs of the floor. His eyes were sunken and gray. His hands were gigantic and worn. He did not speak.
“Why have you forsaken me?” My dad roared, and the workshop went silent. “Four years now, four years and my son hasn’t even been given a lousy wood train.”
Santa Claus shifted in his throne, leaned forward. “Ye pretend to forget. I knoweth the truth.”
“What truth? Damn you, you owe it to see my boy has a happy Christmas! Before he’s too old, before the season loses its magic.”
“I owe him nothing.” Santa shot to his feet. “Peter! Peter! Tell this foolish man why his Christmas no longer hath joy.”
From behind Santa’s throne a form emerged. It was black and alien, much taller than Santa—nearly as tall as the reindeer. The air itself recoiled from this being as it moved, and rays of light seemed bold to grace its ashen skin. It spoke in a hissing, hoarse voice.
“Samson Ogdenson. Ye hath been very naughty. Ye hath stolen, adulterated, fought, drank more than your share, and selfishly hoarded your wealth. Ye are not fit to stand before our king or even my own grotesque countenance.”
“The sins of the father are not those of the son.” I’d seen my dad fight people in power before—restaurant managers, tow truck drivers, even a town councilman—but here I was in awe. He took a step toward Black Peter and fought. “My boy is kindhearted and intelligent. He studies hard, he takes care of his sister. He has had his heart broken by this meaningless act of vengeance against me four times now.
“This is not the act of a kind God of Gifts. It is the work of a petty demigod who forgets his origins and his place in the world. If you want to punish me, it’s up to Black Peter to drop some anthracite in my stocking and up to you to decide what kind of person my boy is.”
And then my dad did something I really couldn’t believe, even after all this. He jumped forth, reached into the bag that hung from Black Peter’s belt, pulled a lump of coal from it, and whipped it at Santa. My dad threw a rock at Santa Claus.
Santa teetered, eyes bulging, clutching the side of his skull as it started to bleed and making an expression like his world had just fell out from under him. He stared at my father, and then at the thousands of shocked elves gawking back. Even Black Peter showed surprise and fear.
“I want justice.” My father said, his voice low. “And you are no longer fit to dispatch it.”
He turned, took my hand, and led me across the bridge and back to the Pontiac. We pulled out of there, back down Candycane Lane, out of the place between places. Dad looked like he’d aged ten years. Once home I settled in for a long sleep with confusing dreams, no longer disappointed with our Christmas.
That morning, the twenty-seventh, I wandered downstairs before mom or dad woke up to get myself a glass of juice. I found littering the kitchen large black footprints, with greasy fingerprints in a few places. There, sitting under the tree by the living room window, was a pile of beautifully-wrapped gifts. And over the fireplace was dad’s stocking, stuffed to overfilling with lumps of coal.