By Mitchell HadleyThere’s been a lot of confusion over the years about Santa Claus, and it’s no wonder. He’s been portrayed as, among other things, a divorced father, an insane old man, a cartoonish figure who discriminates against misfit toys and red-nosed reindeer, a pitchman for products from soft drinks to greeting cards, and so on.
To get to the bottom of it all, I decided to place a call to the press office at the North Pole, and soon I was talking, via webcam, with Santa’s Chief Elf. “Call me Eddie,” he said, and although that seemed like a strange name for an elf, I obliged.
I started by thanking Eddie for taking time out of his busy day to talk with me.
“Actually,” he said, “our busiest time is during the summer, when we ramp up our production line. We were one of the few sectors of the economy to increase productivity during the second and third quarters. Now it’s just a matter of finalizing the lists – checking them twice, you know – and getting the sleigh loaded, and we’ll have things pretty much wrapped up. Get it – wrapped up!” He chuckled at his own joke.
“That’s very amusing,” I replied. “No wonder elves have a reputation for being jolly.”
He sighed. “It’s not all fun and games being an elf, let me tell you. People think all we do is build toys, feed reindeer, eat Christmas cookies and laugh at Santa’s jokes. But try listening to Christmas music 24/7 for 365 days a year. It gets old in a hurry. How many times can anyone listen to Celine Dion and Mariah Carey ruin a perfectly good song? Makes you think you’ve wound up on the wrong list,” he said sadly.
I’d never thought of that, I admitted.
“And then you’ve got all those stupid jokes about the Mr. Spock’s ears, and kids asking us if the North Pole is on the planet Vulcan. See if you can put up with that for fifty years. And then just when that started to die down, Lord of the Rings comes along and elves are back in the news again. For the last time, our branch of the family makes toys instead of weapons.”
“I had no idea,” I acknowledged. “You have my sympathies.”
He waived his hand. “Ah, don’t mind me. It’s not that bad, especially if you like Christmas – and all us elves do, I guess it’s kind of in our genetic code. You know, seeing all those happy kids opening presents under the tree, how can an elf not get a lump in his throat after that? And the Boss – Santa, I mean – what a generous guy. It really is the best job in the world. Besides, how many opportunities does an elf have in the workplace nowadays?”
“This is a side of your work people don’t usually get to see,” I said.
There were a lot of misconceptions, Eddie acknowledged, especially with how the media sensationalized everything. But it had always been that way, he added. “For centuries there were all these rumors flying around about Santa. You know, what he looked like, where he came from, what his real name was, the date he came each year. It was getting so even the Boss had a little trouble telling fact from myth. Finally we decided it was time to get the definitive story out, and that’s where Clement Clark Moore came in.
“He was the Boss’ first authorized biographer, and let me tell you, he had a real eye for detail. Sure, he took some liberties here and there. In case you haven’t noticed, Santa’s not quite the ‘elf’ that Moore makes him out to be. There’s no way he’s fitting in a miniature anything. But in those days the Boss was still a little self-conscious about his weight – he and Mrs. Santa were starting to pack it on a bit – so I think he had a word with Moore in private, and Clem ‘air-brushed’ the description a bit. Call it literary license.
“Then we had Thomas Nast up to do the official portrait. At first the Boss was a little uncomfortable about it. You know, kept asking the Missus if the suit made him look fat. But when he saw how the finished product captured his personality so well, he realized the upside of the marketing potential. Plus, he really liked how Nast captured that twinkle in his eye. He did a few more of the Boss over the years, but that first one remained his favorite. Even today, he has the original hanging above the hearth in the living room.”
That must be something to see, I said.
Back then it was nice working with people interested in setting the real story down, Eddie continued, but once movies and television got into the act, things changed. “They kept talking about how they had to create a story with ‘dramatic tension,’ or something like that. If you ask me, they’re just trying to make a buck off of us any way they can, without having to give us a cut. We tried working with them for awhile, but we finally gave up after Dudley Moore ripped off my character for his movie.”
It must be frustrating, I sympathized.
Eddie nodded. “Probably the worst one was that movie a few years ago with what’s-his-name, the tool guy.”
“That’s the one. We actually brought the technical director up for a few weeks to get the lay of the land. You know, as a favor to someone who’d been on the ‘good’ list. So we gave this guy a tour, let him take pictures, showed him how things work. He was pretty impressed, kept asking us if we’d ever worked with George Lucas. When he left he promised this would be the most authentic Santa movie ever made. He even sent us some of the rough cuts as they were shooting. At last, we thought, someone is going to finally tell it like it is.
“So imagine our disappointment when we went to the premiere and saw what they’d done. Sure, they got most of the sfx right, but the rest of the story? How Santa falls off the roof, and this guy Allen comes along and picks up a card and the next thing anyone knows, he’s the new Santa? What a load of – well, you get the idea.
“Look,” he continued, “there’s only one Santa Claus, and there will only ever be one Santa. Furthermore, in almost two thousand years he’s never fallen off a roof. Our insurers got a little nervous seeing that in the film. And then there was the ‘divorced dad’ subtext – well, let me tell you, the Boss didn’t like it one bit.”
I never realized how much misinformation was out there, I said.
“Then there was that Kelsey Grammar movie where he plays Santa’s son. Boy, the Missus wasn’t happy about that. She kept asking the Boss, ‘Just what are you doing on those long trips, anyway?’ We thought about suing, but Fred told us it would probably be too hard to prove malicious intent, so we just dropped it. The movie was a bomb, anyway.” He chuckled with satisfaction.
“You know, Fred Gailey. After he got the Boss off on that trumped-up lunacy charge while he was earning some extra dough at Macy’s, the Boss was so pleased he put Fred on a retainer. He doesn’t have to do much anymore, but we still call him every once in a while.”
“Oh, that Fred.” I paused for a moment. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you trying to tell me the story in Miracle on 34th Street really happened?”
Eddie smiled slyly. “Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Let’s just say it didn’t get that authentic look by accident. We had complete creative control over the final cut on that one. We made sure every detail was correct – for example, you notice you didn’t see any red-nosed reindeer in that window display at the start of the movie.”
“Where is Rudolph, by the way,” I asked.
“Now that’s another thing,” he said, his voice rising again. “For the last time, there are only eight reindeer. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen. No Rudolph. No red-nosed reindeers. No reindeer families, no little reindeer, no reindeer games. Flying reindeer don’t grow on trees, you know. There have only been eight, and there will only ever be eight. Just like there’s only one Santa. But then,” he continued, shaking his head, “that’s what happens when some freelancer tries to turn your workplace into a marketing gimmick. A few years ago we finally gave up and built an animated robot reindeer with a remote control red nose to use for publicity shots, and that shut people up. But that thing stays in the factory when the real work starts on Christmas Eve.” He sat back, plainly exhausted by his tirade.
There were more questions I wanted to ask – about wormholes and neutron drives and what the Boss thought about Santa Claus, Indiana – but I knew time was running short, so I thanked Eddie again for talking to me.
“No problem,” he said. “It’s nice to set the record straight. I’ll see to it there’s a little something extra in your Christmas stocking this year.”
I asked him if there was anything he wanted to add.
“Just this,” he said. “Remember kids, Santa isn’t on a diet, and he’s not lactose-intolerant. So be sure to have the cookies and milk waiting. Oh, and if you want to leave a tip for us elves, well, that’s OK too.”