(Inspired by this tweet, and with apologies to Gerry Davis)
From the War Diaries of Jolly the Elf
It all began, unsurprisingly enough, with a present.
Well, I say “unsurprisingly enough”, but at the North Pole we don’t tend to receive presents. Indeed, we’re known for delivering them, not receiving them.
Nonetheless, it turned up on the sixth of December. St. Nicholas’ Day. It was wrapped in red paper and green bows, and had “happy deathday” written on the tag. So of course Merry thought it was a gift for Santa, and he opened it. The old man doesn’t have time to look at all of his own mail, and Merry, God help him, was the elf on post duty that day.
The explosion took out half of the east wing. Luckily for us, that part of the factory’s not got any workers in any more — turns out that kids don’t tend to want wooden rocking horses any more, and that was all that area was geared up to build. If Merry had decided to open it near the area where we make the mobile phones or the Batman Lego, that could have had catastrophic consequences. As it was, Merry was the only casualty. At least, for then.
The explosion was big enough to shake all of us, though, and enough to sober up Santa, who rushed to the scene and broke down in tears when he saw Merry’s body. Somehow, some of the wrapping had survived, and the “happy deathday” card was still in Merry’s hand.
When Santa saw it, that big voice boomed out in a way I’d never heard before, sending rumbles through my guts and striking terror into my heart. “Who did this?” he yelled. “Was it that bastard Arius? I won’t slap him this time; I’ll punch him so hard his head and body separate and become different substances!”
I eventually got him calmed down, and explained that no, it wasn’t Arius. Santa’s usually a good boss, but he has a bee in his bonnet about Arius ever since the Nicea Incident, as we call it — and he won’t believe the old heretic’s been dead nearly seventeen hundred years. Every year, he still puts him on the Naughty List, “Just In Case”, he always says, capital letters firmly in place.
But if it wasn’t Arius, maybe it was something worse.
We’d always worried about the possibility of a war on Christmas — there were, after all, reports of it every year in the newspapers, and we’d even had NORAD tracking the Sleigh for the last sixty-plus years in case the worst happened — but we’d always thought it a remote possibility at best. No-one could really be mad enough to want to go to war against an abstract concept, could they? But apparently they could. And worse, they’d nearly succeeded. If that parcel bomb had reached its intended recipient, if Santa had been assassinated, they would have cut off the head of the whole operation. Christmas would have been cancelled forever.
(Yes, Santa can die. He’s not immortal, just very, very, very old. He even has a Deathday celebration every year on the sixth, though that’s a kind of joke — he didn’t really die in 343AD, he just came North.)
We had to assume the worst. We had less than three weeks left until the big day, and we could take no chances. The North Pole had to go into complete lockdown, of course, until the Eve itself, and all mail was immediately diverted to the Lapland branch office, where Joulupukki had his tonttu sort through the letters and compile the lists for us, which they then sent over by fax. Santa’s not keen on modern technology — he still doesn’t really see what’s wrong with vellum — but we had an old fax machine that had been made in the eighties for a child who had ended up on the Naughty List, so we’d kept it and used it occasionally.
The big man fretted about all this, of course — he doesn’t trust Joulupukki to do a proper job, says he has “idolatrous Pagan leanings” — but the Elfin Safety department pointed out we simply couldn’t allow the risk of another bomb getting into HQ, and he reluctantly agreed.
We had to assume that this wasn’t an isolated incident, so we had to look for suspects. We called on all our undercover shelf agents to report back on any Naughty List activity, but they sent back no reports of any substance. Whoever this was, they weren’t on our radar at all. We were beginning to wonder, even, if this might be the work of someone on the Nice List.
What we hadn’t guessed, and what we could never have accounted for, was that we might have an infiltrator in our own ranks. We’d assumed we were free of Humbuggers and Grinches, but we’d not been careful enough to weed out potential saboteurs. And we didn’t realise our error until the night of the eighteenth, just one week before Christmas.
We’d not had any major incidents since the St Nicholas Day attack, and we were beginning to get off our guard just slightly. Maybe, we thought, it had been a one-off. A crank, perhaps, or maybe someone visited by the Ghosts who had realised the folly of his actions. We were still on edge, of course, but we thought we’d taken precautions that would prevent anything too awful.
We still thought that until we were woken to the sound of a terrible clanking from the Vintage Toy Warehouse, where Santa insisted we keep what he called “the proper toys” in case they ever came back into fashion again. We rushed to the warehouse door, and stood there in the snow in our nightgowns and caps, watching in horror as the door bulged, buckled, and strained under the impact of a fearsome pounding.
The door crashed open, and we peered at the interior, barely visible in the dark of the cold polar night, the only light coming from the silent stars going by, and their reflections on the snow, which cast a bluish haze. At first, all we saw was the utter blackness inside the warehouse, but slowly the silhouettes resolved themselves into something at once familiar and horrifying. There before us were familiar figures, somehow grown to full human size and become uncanny in the process. Slowly they lifted up their arms, pointed them at us, and moved forward, clanking with every step. Their large, silver bodies seemed practically indestructible and their ruthless drive seemed untempered by any consideration other than basic logic.
The tin soldiers were on the march.
The huge silver monsters that had once been toys had achieved their first objective — to make us panic and run screaming, scattering in all directions, As we screamed, dashing through the snow, I saw my friends Happy and Joyful heading in the same direction as I was. They’d clearly had the same idea — to get to the chemical plant where we made the Dad Presents.
You might not know this, if you’ve not spent much time at the Pole, but Dads all get the same presents — a few cans of smelly stuff, in a cardboard box. The smelly stuff is called things like “aftershave lotion” and “shaving cream”, and is all to do with a strange ritual that Dads have, where they scrape their beards off every morning. Quite why Dads do that, no-one knows — certainly none of us Elves would dream of such a thing, and obviously the Big Man himself doesn’t — but they do, and they do it every day. And so once a year, at Christmas, the Dads all get a box of stink to make them smell after they’ve scraped themselves.
This stink-stuff, like all presents, is made in our factories at the North Pole, but unlike most of the toys, it’s made using quite volatile chemicals, and so we keep it in a big stone building with very thick walls and doors, so that any explosions are contained. If anywhere was going to be safe from the tin soldiers, it was going to be there.
I ran towards Happy and Joyful, but as I did so I tripped on the point of one of my shoes, and went tumbling head over heels. I ended up sliding on my stomach over the smooth snow, but luckily I came to a halt at the door to the Dad Plant. Happy and Joyful arrived a few seconds later, and thankfully Joyful had the keys on her, because I’d not thought to pick mine up when running out of bed. As she opened the door, I dusted myself down — I was only slightly scraped, not seriously injured — and tried to think about the beauty of the stars twinkling in the Christmas sky, rather than about the screams of my friends coming from all around us, or the ominous clanking sound that grew ever closer.
Eventually Joyful managed to get the thick wooden door open and we ran inside, quickly barring it behind us. None of the other elves had run this way, and we had to hope that they wouldn’t try now, because there’d be no way to let them in without also letting the tin soldiers in with us.
I looked around the plant. I’d never really been in this part of Santa’s Workshop before, and it was far less joyful than the rest. Instead of candy canes and dolls’ houses, there were just giant vats labelled with things like “potassium hydroxide”, “propolene glycol” and “triethanolamine”, along with rows of empty aerosol cans and spray bottles. The whole place smelled horrid, and I wished I could be back in my nice warm bed, instead of shivering in my nightgown in a room full of horrible smells.
Unfortunately my nice warm bed was in my nice warm bedroom, and to get to my nice warm bedroom I’d have had to go through the not-so-nice marching monstrosities, which seemed somehow to have sensed that we were in the plant, and were converging on us. I could hear them clanking around outside, with the clanks coming from every direction. We couldn’t see them — there were no windows, so it could maintain structural integrity — but we could hear them, the noises coming first from one stone wall, then another. And there was a terrible banging at the door. When it didn’t break down, they started firing their guns at it, and we could see the wood shaking under the pressure, though thankfully it was thick enough that the bullets didn’t penetrate it.
And then… there was silence for a moment, and then something worse. A sort of sliding, shrieking, sound, like nails on a chalkboard, but magnified a thousandfold. The whole building was full of the metallic screech, which seemed slowly to be moving upward.
“What are they doing?” Happy asked, terrified.
“I don’t know,” replied Joyful.
“I do.” I said. I’d just realised what they were doing. I pointed upwards, to the one entry point in the entire building. “They’re going to come through the chimney.”
Happy fell on his knees and started praying, while Joyful ran for the door. I pulled her back. “No, we can’t go out there. They’re still out there as well.”
“What can we do?” Joyful cried.
“I’m trying to think.”
And then it hit me.
“Quickly, get as many spray bottles as you can! And cover your mouths. It’s going to get smelly in here!”
We gathered together about twenty spray bottles, and started filling them with potassium hydroxide from the vat. We got the first one done just in time — the first tin soldier fell out of the chimney with a clank just as I got the top on.
“Keep filling them. I’ll deal with this!”
I grabbed the spray bottle, pointed it at the soldier, and started spraying the potassium hydroxide at its chest. It let out an unearthly shriek and collapsed to its knees, its chest bubbling and liquefying, as a foul odour rose up from it.
“What happened?” Happy asked.
I smiled. “Call it a Jolly cocktail. Tin reacts with hydrogen peroxide. We’re melting them like the Wicked Witch of the West!”
We ran to the door, opened it a crack, and started spraying the peroxide at the arms which clawed to get in. The shrieks of the wounded tin soldiers rose to a cacophonous peak, and we were able to get the door open wider and start spraying the monsters. It only seemed to take a little corrosion before each one would fall down, defeated, and we were soon able to escape and make our way across the frozen ground to the central hall.
Normally we only gathered in the hall for joyous occasions, but this time we all gathered there, almost instinctively, to try to discover what was going on. Santa got up on the stage, where he usually gave his farewell speech before embarking on his yearly voyage. Like all of us, he was still in his nightgown, and he looked shaken.
“My dear, dear, friends,” he said, “I must bring you the most terrible news. We are being attacked by an aggressor of a type we have never known before. This is not a mere denial of the spirit of Christmas, this is a perversion of it, by someone who understands it as well as any of us.
“This attack has been put together by someone who can use and manipulate Christmas magic as well as even I can, and whose only goal is to destroy Christmas altogether. Someone who can ensure he is not on the Naughty List. Someone who can perform the Nutcracker spell to animate toy soldiers. I am afraid there’s only one possibility.”
We all knew what he was going to say, but we still waited in hope of something other than the worst.
“We are facing an attack from the Krampus.”
The next few days were filled with work, even more than usual. Not only did we have to create all the toys and the journey plan as always, and do it short-staffed because of the elves who had been injured in the tin soldier attack, but we also had to build fortifications, set up defences, and use up most of our magic on counterspells, to ensure that no further misuse of Christmas magic could happen. We only had to get through to the twenty-fourth, and then the flight itself, but we knew that that would be the time when Krampus was most likely to make his move.
As always, when Santa took off, I sat next to him and elfed the NORAD hotline. The US missile defence organisation always tracked Santa, every year, and I had to stay in constant contact with them, and with mission control at the North Pole, throughout, so that they would be informed of any deviation from the planned course, and not worry that Santa had somehow gone rogue. Santa’s sleigh weighs several hundred thousand tons when fully laden with presents, and travels at six hundred and fifty miles per second — should a suicide bomber gain control of the sleigh, they could cause an explosion on the same scale as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs (and in fact some elf scientists have occasionally hypothesised that some sort of dinosaurian Santa figure — a santaclausus rex — may have inadvertantly been responsible for that event), so NORAD remain ever-ready to take the most extreme emergency measures.
So I was there, with my headset on, looking at the screen which superimposed NORAD’s radar feed, our own planned trajectory, and local weather systems, more nervous than I’d ever been in my life. This was it. If the Krampus was going to attack at all, it was going to be now.
And then I saw it. The trajectory itself. “Santa, who set up this trajectory.”
“You did, didn’t you?”
“No. I didn’t do this. Mine was like this, but not… not quite the same…”
“Oh, that’s right!” Santa said, “NORAD said they’d made some changes, something to do with air traffic. Why?”
“Abort the mission now, and head straight to NORAD HQ!” I yelled. “The Krampus is there!”
I looked again at the map. There was no doubt at all — that trajectory was no normal trajectory. It was a sigil that would have been completed at the precise moment we got to the first child’s house. The magic powering the sleigh would have stopped, and the sleigh would instantly have disintegrated.
We arrived NORAD HQ at Peterson Air Force Base, and after some argument with the armed guards at the perimeter we were allowed inside, but there was no sign of the Krampus. In fact, they claimed they’d never seen him there.
“The only unusual occurrence today has been the President’s visit,” the General in charge of the installation told Santa. “He came along with some of his staff. He said he’d always wanted to see how we track you, and that that’s why he ran for office. He said, and I quote, that he’s a big league fan of yours.”
That rang alarm bells for me, because I knew we’d had that particular President on the naughty list every year since he’d been born — indeed, all US Presidents have been on the naughty list every year, except for Jimmy Carter once.
“The President is working with the Krampus!” I said. “Get back on the sleigh and get to the White House!”
We got there, and burst into the Oval Office, again after several rounds of negotiation with bemused staffers who insisted on pulling Santa’s beard even after he’d shown them his ID. But when we got in there, we were in for a shock.
The Krampus was there, as was the President, who was sat at his desk, looking at his phone. But the Krampus was struggling in the grips of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
“What’s going on here?” asked Santa. “We don’t normally ever see you three together, and… what’s going on?”
“We wouldn’t normally be together, no,” said the Ghost of Christmas Past. “But when I came to haunt the President, he didn’t even look up. Just said ‘Fake news’ and carried on looking at his phone.”
Christmas Future pointed at the phone.
“That’s right,” said Present, “so I come in an hour later and there’s Past, still trying to talk to him and getting nowhere. So I try it myself, and he just mutters something about how this is going to be the biggest Christmas ever.”
Christmas Future pointed at himself.
“Yeah,” said Past, “we spent another hour trying to get through to him, and just nothing. And then Future arrived — and then the Krampus turned up!”
We left the President to his tweeting and dragged the Krampus out. The Ghosts took him off to keep him safe in their netherworld while we made the deliveries, a little behind schedule but within normal mission parameters. We returned to the North Pole exhausted but satisfied. Christmas had been saved, at least for this year.
And then I saw the tweet. “Some bony spirit tells me that next year there will be no Christmas at all! Fake news! Under my presidency, next Christmas will be even better! Don’t believe the very wrong lying ghosts.”
I shuddered. We’d only won a battle. The war on Christmas was clearly still to come.
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