Happy holidays, merry readers! Welcome to our holiday installment of Flashback Friday, decked out in glorious tinsel and familial responsibilities! This week, I’m taking a look back at my favorite Christmas-themed story to make your holiday spirit soar to new depths. So grab a cup of eggnog and a spoonful regret as I attempt to stir feelings of good cheer in your heart or, at the very least, make another round of Dirty Christmas with the coworkers a hair more tolerable.
The short story I’ll be taking a gander at is by superstar writer Neil Gaiman, he of Sandman, The Books of Magic, and everything-he-touches-turns-to-gold fame. Back in 1998, Gaiman released a collection of short stories called Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, a remarkable compilation of prose. (Also check out his collection Fragile Things and go seclude yourself in your bedroom while avoiding your aunt asking you once again what you’re doing with your life during Christmas dinner.) One of the tales he included in the collection is entitled “Nicholas Was…” which Gaiman had used for a Christmas card to send off to his friends and loved ones. The short story provided a very unique spin on the legend of St. Nicholas, the jolly, home-invading voyeur most commonly referred to as Santa Claus. Read on:
older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die.
The dwarfish natives of the Arctic caverns did not speak his language, but conversed in their own, twittering tongue, conducted incomprehensible rituals, when they were not actually working in the factories.
Once every year they forced him, sobbing and protesting, into Endless Night. During the journey he would stand near every child in the world, leave one of the dwarves’ invisible gifts by its bedside. The children slept, frozen in time.
He envied Prometheus and Loki, Sisyphus and Judas. His punishment was harsher.
There are so many reasons to love this short story, chiefly because of the new light it casts on the Santa Claus myth and tropes related to his legend. Even as a kid, it always struck me as odd that ol’ St. Nick had an army of elves at his disposal that he used to do his bidding, making toys for the Earth’s children while he only worked one night a year. To me, it always reeked of Willy Wonka-Oompa Loompa indentured servitude. While Santa sat in his castle, judging the world’s children like some kind of slovenly Egyptian god, the elves did the real work, trudging through their lives, day and night, crafting a train set for some rich ankle-biter who would get tired of it after three days of use. The whole set-up had an odor of a caste system, a class ladder up which the elves would never climb. Santa kept his thumb on the means of production, reaping all the praise for bestowing the elf-made gifts while the toymakers themselves remained a holiday afterthought.
As such, it’s pretty awesome to see the myth of Santa as glorious benefactor of good children eviscerated by Gaiman in a scant hundred words. Instead of Santa acting as a de facto slave driver for his weird morality play, with the kids of Earth as the actors, the elves have all the power here, forcing St. Nick to do their bidding. The power structure is flipped. The proletariat wins the day. Also, the mentions of Prometheus, Loki, Judas, and Sisyphus are a nice touch, as they underlie how the elves in this story have tied Santa to a judgment that will never be reversed. It’s a beautiful thing.
On that festive note, that’s all for this week. Here’s wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and hoping that you’ll all consider reading “Nicholas Was…” by the fireplace on Christmas Eve to your children. Next week, in honor of New Year’s and broken resolutions, I’ll throw my gaze at the old comic book chestnut of character revamped. Until next time, here’s hoping Krampus doesn’t visit you this Christmas!