The Last Christmas, Chapter 3

Charles awoke in the morning feeling more refreshed than he had in years. The bed was soft and fluffy, and he experienced a moment of confused bliss as he lay beneath the warm sheets, until he remembered that he was Santa Claus, and that the previous person to wear that mantle had been a monster. 

He’d practically filled the notebook the night before, mostly with questions that he would need an elf to answer. He put on the red and white suit again, brushed his teeth, and then rang the bell. The same elf from before, Matilda, opened the door with a heavy tray of food balanced precariously in one hand.

“I thought you would like some breakfast,” she said with a smile. If the conversation of the last night was haunting her as it was Charles, she wasn’t showing it.

Charles sat down at a rustic oak table in the dining room and looked at the spread she had prepared. There was bacon, three varieties of eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy, orange juice, milk, eggnog, pancakes, waffles, two different bowls of cereal, a variety of fresh fruit, oatmeal, and three doughnuts.

“We didn’t know what you might want,” said Matilda apologetically, “So I decided to offer a little bit of everything. Let me know what you prefer are and I can get you the breakfast of your choice tomorrow, or I can fetch more immediately if this isn’t okay.”

Charles dug in, and was halfway through the plate when he realized that he was eating far more than normal.

“I’m unusually hungry,” he said, with a doughnut poised halfway to his mouth. Matilda said nothing. “Kelvin said that I would get fatter, is that what he meant?”

“Yes,” said Matilda. She offered nothing more.

Charles finished eating the doughnut and looked at her with narrowed eyes. “Being Santa makes a person hungry?”

“Santa should be jolly,” she replied.

“You’re allowed to evade questions?” he asked.

“There’s no prohibition against it,” she replied.

“Well,” said Charles, “There is now. Why exactly am I hungry?”

“It’s part of the spirit of Christmas,” explained Matilda. “We alter your brain just a little bit so that you’ll put on weight and be more jolly.”

“You … you can do that?” asked Charles.

“Yes,” replied Matilda with a nod. “Though we don’t do it in ways that would alter your will. That’s the whole point of having a Santa, to make sure that we follow the Christmas spirit.”

Charles immediately thought of the previous Santa. Perhaps the elves were simply insane, and meddled with the mind of their Santa in ways that they didn’t foresee, or perhaps they were lying to him. There certainly seemed to be a sort of institutional incompetence about them, for all of their wonderful abilities and devices. When he’d been given the tour the day before, he’d seen a hundred optimizations that he’d like to make, given the time, and apparently there was more time than anything else. The thought of them playing with his brain and turning him into some kind of murderous, rapist monster was terrifying, if oddly plausible.

“What if I asked you to change me back, or I said that I don’t want to be fat?” he asked.

Matilda frowned. “That wouldn’t be in the Christmas spirit,” she said.

“You said, yesterday, that anything I wanted was by definition the Christmas spirit, that a merry Santa means a merry Christmas,” said Charles.

“I – I did,” said Matilda. “And they’re both true.”

As Charles watched her, he saw a trickle of blood drop down from her nose and roll until it hit her lips. “Jesus,” he said quickly. “Forget I said anything, I want to be fat.”

“Okay,” said Matilda, seemingly unaware that anything had happened. She absent mindedly licked at the blood that had come from her nose. “Are you enjoying your breakfast?”

“Yes,” said Charles. “It’s very good, thank you.”

He finished everything on his plate, and added another entry to his notebook. Elves can suffer/die from contradictions in the Christmas spirit? Find out what Christmas spirit is. There were more important things to worry about in the meantime though.

“Matilda, why doesn’t anyone know about us?” asked Charles. “Why do people think that Santa is a myth if I’m – if this whole thing is real? Are we wiping their memories or something?”

“No,” she said. “We don’t do that. We just make very sure to leave doubt in the minds of children and parents. It requires very carefully selecting gifts and placing them with care.” Charles was very careful to note that it was something that they didn’t do, not that it was something that they couldn’t do.

“Why though?” asked Charles. “Why not let people know that Santa is real? Why make it a matter of faith?”

“After he saw the first atomic weapons, Santa feared that the North Pole would be discovered if we were too obvious, and that if they discovered us they would bomb us,” said Matilda.

“Which Santa?” asked Charles.

“The one you replaced,” answered Matilda.

“Wait, how old was he?” asked Charles.

“He was born in 1864, and experienced three thousand two hundred and sixty four subjective years in the North Pole, not including the time spent delivering presents, naturally,” said Matilda. Charles could feel the blood draining from his face as he thought about how long that man had been abusing the elves.

“So … he decided that everything should be a total secret?” asked Charles. “And that’s why it’s secret, not because it’s something intrinsic to the spirit of Christmas?”

“That is correct,” said Matilda.

“And secrecy is the reason that poor children don’t get as many toys?” he asked.

“It’s one of the reasons,” said Matilda. “If you give a nice gift to a poor child, their parents will sometimes take it and sell it, which isn’t in the Christmas spirit at all.”

Charles closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m hesitant to just reverse all these decisions that were made without first knowing all the reasons behind them, but it seems idiotic to me that we have an effectively unlimited source of material wealth and we’re using it only on a single day of the year to give presents to only children, and in such a way that those who need the least get the most.”

Matilda said nothing, but raised an eyebrow.

“It’s unfair,” said Charles.

“Life is unfair,” said Matilda.

“Does it have to be?” asked Charles. “Is that the Christmas spirit?”

“I don’t know,” said Matilda. “Fairness doesn’t enter into it, I don’t think. Why should Christmas be fair if life isn’t fair?”

“Because,” said Charles slowly. “We can make it fair. Not just Christmas, but life.” He looked towards the door that led out of his chambers. “I need time to think. Tell me, is time still passing out there?”

“Time is passing in the North Pole, but not in the wider world,” said Matilda. “In theory it’s possible to decouple these rooms from the rest of the North Pole in the opposite direction, so that the only time that’s passing is here.”

“Do it,” said Charles. “I don’t want the elves wasting thousands of years on things that I might want to change.”

“Is it alright if I make the arrangements while you’re at a standstill?” she asked. “It might take years to engineer.”

Charles rubbed his forehead. “Sure, but make sure that you’re in here with me while I think, I have more questions.”

Matilda quickly exited the room and reentered in a different outfit – equally festive – a second later.

“It took some doing, but we’re cut off from the normal flow of time, and the rest of the North Pole is waiting for us to resume. All you have to do is ring the bell to reconnect,” she said.

“Okay,” said Charles. “So, the giving of presents is bound to a single day of the year, in accordance with the spirit of Christmas.” Matilda nodded. “There’s no real need to keep secret, just a convention. Is there an upper limit on the value of presents we can give?”

“No,” said Matilda. “If you want to throw out all of the rules that the old Santa established, and the rules of the Santa before him, there’s nothing we could make that we couldn’t give to a child.”

“Next question – what are the limits on what the elves can produce?” he asked.

“The only limits are physical reality,” said Matilda.

“Which I’ve come to learn is a bit more fluid than in years past,” said Charles. “So, for example, we could give every child a brick of gold?”

“All the ones on the Nice list,” said Matilda.

“Only, we wouldn’t want to do that anyway, because it would make gold practically worthless. We could give every child pretty much anything we wanted, but the real question is what we could give them that would make the most difference.” He tapped his lips with this finger. “A computer, maybe? A laptop that could help boost education in the third world?”

“We know what the children want,” said Matilda. “So long as they write a letter to Santa, we can read over their shoulder and figure it out. And if they don’t write Santa, we can think of something appropriate.”

“Right,” said Charles, “But I’m not trying to figure out what they want, I’m trying to do the most good.”

“Hrm,” said Matilda. “Doing good isn’t part of the Christmas spirit.”

“It’s not?” asked Charles. “But that doesn’t make any sense, why do we even have a naughty or nice list then? Isn’t the whole point to differentiate good from bad?”

“Naughty and nice are determined by Santa,” said Matilda. “You tell us what’s naughty and what’s nice, and we use the viewers to put children on the list.”

“But you had already started on the list, when I went into the List Room with Kelvin, right?” asked Charles.

“We weren’t under the impression that you would change it. The last Santa left it as it was for his entire time here.” She shrugged. “If you want to change how naughty and nice are determined, we’ll start the list over.”

Charles gave this some thought. They’d said that it took fifty thousand years per Christmas to review all of the children. If he made them redo the list, it would mean hundreds of generations of elves living and dying in order to get Christmas ready. “Hold off on that for now,” said Charles. “So doing good isn’t part of the Christmas spirit, but it’s not directly contradicted by the Christmas spirit, right? Let me back up for a moment – what exactly defines the Christmas spirit?”

“The Christmas spirit is when a child opens presents in the morning,” said Matilda. “It’s a sip of eggnog, it’s snowball fights, it’s Jack Frost nipping at your nose, it’s -“

“I’m sorry,” said Charles. “Let me stop you right there. You’re listing off things that have the quality of being in the Christmas spirit, but you haven’t actually offered me a definition. How could I tell whether something is in the Christmas spirit?”

“I’m afraid that I don’t understand the question,” said Matilda.

“What I mean to say is that – let’s say that I have a new concept or item, what we’ll call a widget. How do I know whether or not it’s part of the Christmas spirit?” he asked.

“Well, what is a widget?” asked Matilda.

“You’re missing the point,” replied Charles with a sigh. “We have two sets here, right? We have the set of all things that are in the Christmas spirit, and the set of all things that aren’t in the Christmas spirit.”

“Also the set of all things that contradict the Christmas spirit,” said Matilda.

“Right, a third category that I hadn’t realized existed until you said something,” said Charles. “Now, is there a useful and hopefully concise way to distinguish between these three groupings without actually having to know everything that’s in all the sets?”

“No,” said Matilda.

“Well … how do elves learn what’s in the Christmas spirit? Do you learn it growing up, are you taught it by your parents … ?” asked Charles.

“We just know,” said Matilda.

Charles was just about ready to beat his head against the table until he wasn’t able to feel his brain anymore. In the worst case scenario, he could just repeatedly ask Matilda over and over whether this or that thing was part of the Christmas spirit, but that seemed overly laborious and prone to error. If Matilda was typical of the elves, that meant that he could do them some damage by asking them to go against the Christmas spirit, or even pointing out contradictions, and he couldn’t think of a good, ethical way to test how much damage he’d do to the elves if he got the Christmas spirit wrong. Reluctantly, he got out a pen and paper and began to figure it out.

The Christmas spirit was confusing. Charles had built himself a diagram, with one large area labeled “CS” for “Christmas spirit”. The CS set contained objects (eggnog, gingerbread houses, candy canes), people (Santa Claus, elves), locations (the North Pole), actions (opening presents, going down chimneys), and even colors (red and green). By the time he finally called it quits, he was starting to suspect that perhaps there really was no single defining factor of all of the things in the CS set, especially since Matilda claimed that sometimes things stopped being part of the Christmas spirit. He should have figured that from the start, since Christmas was a cultural phenomenon, but he did come away from the question and answer session with some useful information.

It seemed that the elves only really explicitly cared about those things within the CS set which they were in charge of, namely the creation and distribution of presents, the North Pole, making the list and checking it twice, the sleigh, the reindeer, and Santa. They had an affection for everything else within the CS set, and it explained much of their fashion, decoration, diet, and architectural choices, but none of that was an absolute requirement, and Charles really had no intent on changing any of it. What the elves got up to in their free time was really not his concern, so long as they weren’t altering his mind.

“Okay,” he said to Matilda at the end of the day. “There’s still a lot that I don’t know, but we’ve made some good headway. I think I can see a way to do what I want to do while still keeping within the Christmas spirit.”

“Good!” she said with a smile. “The Christmas spirit is very important.”

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