By Nathan Oser
Not everyone can say their dad is Santa—not like the little boy over there in the schoolhouse window. Third-grade classroom, second row from the back, the one doodling on his boot. He may not have the belly or the beard yet, but that birds’ nest of hair you see has kept as white as freshly-fallen snow since the day he was born. His name is Noel. Noel Claus. And up here at The Pole his dad is known as “The Big Guy.”
It’s not something he likes to talk about, and I’m guessing that has more to do with shame than humility. You see, Noel Claus is a troublemaker.
In the short eight years of his life Noel has managed to spend six on the naughty list. Although we all remember that one Christmas when he switched the two lists around. Good little girls and boys all over the world ended up with coal in their stockings and tears in their eyes because of that prank. If you’ve ever gotten a lump of the black stuff, perhaps it was Noel’s fault. If not, well, then you lucked out that year you were naughty.
Sometimes Noel’s temper can be so short it makes folks wonder whether his terrible twos ever really ended, and if he might not still be teething. Others whisper that he’s only so bad because he prefers coal to toys. That’s a bit of an exaggeration—no kid wants a lump of coal—but he sure can be contrary when he feels like it. Donner Fielding once suggested he spell his name backwards and call himself Leon on account of being so contrary. Noel snarled and agreed, then sent Don home with a big old charley horse on his arm to help the kid remember to mind his own business.
Noel has always been a bit of a loner. Sure he’s different than the others—he’s the only one in school who isn’t an elf, though it’s not that obvious to look at him. Plenty of elves have white hair just like his—take Holly Tinsel, for instance, the girl who sits in front of Noel—and though they do have pointy ears, none of them are quite so diminutive as all the stories like to make out. Some, indeed, tower to nearly a quarter of my own height, and only need two ladders to fix my star.
My name is Yule, and if you thought there was a barber pole at the very center of town, you were wrong. It’s just me, the oldest Christmas tree in history, twenty five feet tall, planted by The Big Guy himself (a couple generations back, anyway). With the help of my diligent little pinecones I act as warden to the town, “guarding the goods” as The Missus might say, and lighting up The Pole with holiday spirit. To put it simply, I’m a watchman. And lately I’ve been watching Noel. Something tells me that boy is due for a change.
See what I mean for yourself, there in the snowy window. Ms. Vonden is about to administer a science test. “You’re going to have to change, Noel, before we begin,” she says.
“Seats and boots.”
The boy lets loose a big old huff and a frown. He stands and slogs toward a desk out in the hall—his usual test-taking seat—where his eyes can’t wander forward to Holly’s like they so often do. “But I don’t have another pair, Ms. Vonden,” he says. “I only got a lump of coal for Christmas last year. No new boots.”
“Then next time you write test answers on your soles, don’t use permanent ink. You can have them back at the end of the day.”
Night falls early up here at The Pole. Three o’clock when it gets this close to Christmas. Let me turn on my lights so we can see what happens after school.
Just as I suspected. While all the other kids come bursting out the big front doors with the cheerful chime of the bell, Noel comes stomping out slowly, deliberately, with his boots knotted together and slung over a shoulder. Out of spite he walks all the way home through the freezing snow in sock-feet. It doesn’t matter if Ms. Vonden notices or not—it’s all in his head. And in case you’re curious, my pinecones tell me he failed the test.
When he reaches home the first thing he does is check the mailbox, which at the Claus residence is no ordinary mailbox. It’s a huge old tin affair always stuffed full with handwritten letters, postmarked from all across the globe—a few even from The Pole. Actually, I think I recognize the return address of the one there at the end of the stack. Yes, it’s from the Tinsel place, the best-decorated house in town, out near the iceskating lake.
Normally this is about the time when Noel picks up a fistful of snow and shoves it in to melt atop the letters. Today, though, something stops him. He pulls the big stack of envelopes from the mailbox and carries them inside. A few minutes later he comes back out, socks changed and coat pockets heavy and bulging with some mysterious clumpy objects—the beginnings of some new mischief is all I can guess. And isn’t that the torn edge of a single envelope poking out the side of one pocket there? Just what is he up to?
Out back of the Claus’s is The Workshop where all the Christmas magic happens, and Noel slips in through the service door.
Hear the machines creaking and cranking and the banging of the elves’ hammers? It’s business as usual, Santa and his helpers all putting in overtime. Why don’t I send out a couple of my pinecones so we can follow what goes on inside before the break whistle blows and supper starts?
How’s that? Can you see Noel sitting down at a workbench with his mom and dad and a few of the elves? They’re all eating their TV dinners and Noel starts to lie about how well his test went at school today.
“Way to go!” his dad bellows, dimples forming in his rosy cheeks.
Noel consults his boots a few times to tell them what he learned.
“That’s absolutely wonderful, dear,” his mom says. “I never knew certain frogs didn’t have tongues!”
“Keep it up, son, and you’ll have to write me a letter of all the presents you want this Christmas.”
Noel turns his head down at this and quietly finishes his food. He’s heard the old song enough times to feel bad about lying now: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows…”
And then everyone goes back to work.
Noel hangs out for a while to watch his dad oversee and arrange the inventory, then leaves so he won’t be in the way.
No one blames Noel’s parents for how naughty he is, least of all Noel. It’s understood that they have an important job to do. From the look in his eyes you can tell Noel loves them too, and wants nothing more than to be like his dad. His pops casts a long shadow, though, that’s for sure. And with so many children counting on The Big Guy—with so many expectations—it’s hard for him to please everyone at once. It’s pretty hard for Noel too.
The lumps are still there, heavy in his coat pockets when he steps back outside into the cold—I wonder what they are. He strolls around town for a while, past the candy cane shop and the glitter store, then stops when he reaches a house lit up nearly as bright as I am with dozens of strings of old-fashioned Christmas lights. There’s a sign in the front yard that says “Festival of Lights FIRST PRIZE.” And the mailbox reads “Tinsel.” That’s Holly’s last name. Could that opened letter in his pocket be hers?
Noel knocks on the door after going down the long path of lights and ribbons and electric reindeer. It’s Holly’s mom who answers. “Noel? Hi, there. What can I do for you?”
Noel kicks his foot back and forth in the snow on the porch and looks up at the icicles on the eaves. “Is Holly home?” he asks.
“Sorry, dear. She said she’d be outside somewhere, building a snowman.”
Noel leaves and heads for the skating lake so he can walk through the deep snowbanks and take measurements on his pants legs. He pretends they’re dipsticks in a car motor. It’s a game he likes to play by himself, and after so many winters his balance is impeccable. Foot in, foot out, foot in, foot out. He only has two feet, but he’s already three feet deep. Then he edges close to the icy lake and pulls a dark object from his coat pocket. He tosses it up and down a few times to feel the heft of it.
Could it be?
A lump of coal.
I should have known!
After a long moment of contemplation—almost as if he were taking time to say goodbye to the thing—he wings it over the frozen lake. He takes out another from a different pocket. He throws all six of them, one by one, into the dark center of the ice and lets out a big sigh when he’s done.
A few steps back in the other direction he hears a CRACK! He looks up for falling tree branches, but there are none. BANG! The sky is cloudy, but there’s no thunder. CRUNCH!
He finally turns, only to see the ice is breaking all up and down the lake. And there—I don’t know how he spotted it before I did—in the center of the lake is the silhouette of a little girl, stuck in one of the fissures and sinking into the icy water!
Noel dashes free of the snowdrift without loosing his footing and without a second thought. He slips and slides across the flimsy, fractured ice, and heads for the girl. It looks like Holly—Noel has spent countless lessons staring forward at her when he should have been paying attention to the teacher, and her mom said she was playing outside, didn’t she? Now she’s calling out to him for help. Or could it be just another scream coming from the splintering ice?
Noel barely makes it to the center of the lake before Holly is gone. He darts a hand out for hers and takes hold of a mitten. He yanks with all his might and tumbles back on his britches. When he looks a second time, though, he sees the dark figure is still sinking into the lake and all he saved was an arm—the arm of a snowman.
After shaking off the shock he tosses the mittened stick aside and rises to his feet. The head of the snowman sinks completely out of sight. It wasn’t Holly. It looked like her though. It really did.
With the ice still letting out loud, angry pops and freight train shrills, Noel goes racing in zigs and zags around the cracks, and leaps into the snowbank. Just in time! From the safety of solid ground he watches as the last of the ice splits apart and falls like the opened lid of a soup can into the murk.
He might have been a hero for saving the life of a little girl, but he wasn’t. No one had been around to see him, and all he’d saved was the twiggy arm of a snowman. He realizes it must have been the one Holly built. And they must have just missed each other going the other way. His muscles relax at the thought that she’s probably already at home by now, sitting snug and warm by the fire.
But would you look at that! Now that he’s caught his breath and is coming back into town, doesn’t his chin look a bit higher than before? And he’s smiling! A real smile, equal parts relief, confidence, and pride, I believe. He would have saved Holly, after all, if it was her. But he didn’t have to, and it didn’t matter if anyone saw or not.
Something inside him has definitely changed. I can almost feel it as he stops beneath me and stares up at my shining gold star.
A minute or two passes and he’s still there, looking about at all my sparkling ornaments. He reaches up to put a hand on a low-hanging nutcracker, then moves the hand over to a red-ribboned sprig of mistletoe. He plucks it from the branch and conceals it in his pocket. And as he does, the torn letter from earlier, half sticking out, falls to the ground.
But he’s gone, back in the direction of the lake and the brightest house in town, before he can realize he dropped it. What do you say we take a peak?
Dear Santa, it says.
I don’t really want any toys for Christmas this year. Not that I don’t appreciate all your gifts! I do! But I thought of something that would make me even happier this Christmas. We all know Noel can be naughty at times, but I think he’s really nice at heart. Have you ever seen him playing in the snow by himself, buried up to his waist? Of course you have. You know everything! Maybe you and I could be a little naughty and break the rules this year, and you could give him my present instead. Thanks, Santa!
Heart-warming, isn’t it? I’ll bet I know where Noel is taking that mistletoe. I’ll bet, too, that it’s not the last gift he ever gives—this year, or the next, or for many many years to come.
It’s going to be a merry Christmas, folks. And happy new year!