At the end of the table sat Sparkle, Chief of Elvish Operations for North Pole Affiliates, the sales arm of CQI. “How are things going, Sparkle? Christmas is right around the corner! HO, HO, HO! Can someone get me some hot cocoa?”
“Have a seat, Santa,” Sparkle said tersely. “We need to talk about some ... issues.”
“Issues? Why, of course! Magic! Gifts! Joy and snow! Chocolate and candy canes.”
“No, not those.” Sparkle adjusted himself on his tall stool; the members of the board could not look in Santa's eyes. Tumble, Fleetfoot, Chuckle, and the others seemed strained. Their usual Elvish attire was replaced with tiny business suits. They seemed out of place. Santa, ever astute, noticed the strain.
“We need to discuss the list,” said Tumble.
“Of course! I haven't even checked it once. But then, it's only September!”
“Right,” said Tumble. “That's the thing. You can't check it. It's a privacy issue.”
“HO, HO ... ho?” Santa reflected. “How am I supposed to check the list if I can't see it? I have the magic! I know who's naughty and nice!”
“Things are different now,” said Snarky, a new elf who had recently moved from Mirkwood. “You can't just go around judging people and looking into their businesses! Who do you think you are, Mr. Claus? One might consider you intolerant! I mean, who are you to say who is naughty and nice? Who are you to say who deserves a gift? We now believe in Universal Gifts!”
“Well,” said Santa, “I'm a bit of a saint, actually. I'm ageless and eternally young.” (He took off his mitten, and counted on fingers.) “I can transport across time, and I can see the hearts of men and women to know if they're good or bad and to know what they truly desire.”
“See!” Snarky hopped down from his seat and turned to the board. ‘It’s like I said. He's a religious nut, and CQI is not the place for someone as outdated as Santa Claus!”
Snarky is a very unhappy elf, Santa thought to himself as he tapped fresh tobacco flavored with cinnamon into his pipe. It was an observation only. A curious quirk of Santa's power was that he could not read the thoughts of elves.
“Do you know there's no smoking here?” Flashy the elf, a longtime friend and coworker, fanned the smoke away with his hand. “After breathing your secondhand pollution for 600 years, it's a wonder I don't have cancer!”
Santa snuffed it out, his eyes twinkling with annoyance. “There isn't much Christmas spirit here! Is everyone in a bad mood? Let's get back to the list. Tell me again why I can't see the list?”
Tumble cleared his throat. “It's the Holiday Information Privacy and Acquisition Act. We had a retreat, and it was decided that bad kids deserve nice things as much as good kids, and it's not your business to pick. The best way to do that was to make sure you don't see the list.”
“Well, who sees it?” asked the confused Kringle.
“Don't worry about that. We have a committee, and a new Elven Merriment Records system. The algorithm works just fine. We've decided to give everyone gifts.” Tumble and Sparkle nodded to one another in triumph.
“Well, that's just stupid,” Santa said, as the room collectively gasped. He never said stupid. Not to anyone! Not even the year Bumpy the elf invented the Pet Rock.
Santa continued. “You can't give everyone a gift that way! Some gifts are bad. And some kids are bad! Do we even have enough staff to give everyone a gift? I mean, there's magic, and there's production!”
A sinister voice in the back of the room spoke up. “You just let us worry about the work. Let me introduce myself. I'm Gotti the elf. You just do like we say, and everything will be just fine.”
Santa took him in, top to bottom, noticing the bulge under his suit jacket, which Gotti the elf patted menacingly. He remembered someone very much like him on the naughty list.
“Seriously! Remember the year that the Hager kids wanted a crate of explosives? I mean, we can't exactly give kids that sort of thing! And they were very, very bad! If we give them all what they want, someone will get hurt!”
An elf from legal spoke up. “Technically, you're still Santa. So you retain liability, whereas we don't. Unless you want to resign. You know, we've been looking at some other ‘Santas,’ and we have a lot of options. Younger, faster, smarter, thinner. And really, isn't it time we had a female Santa?” Holly the elf nodded, looking at Kris Kringle over her glasses.
“Are they saints who can do holiday magic?” Santa asked, as calmly as he could.
There was a rustling of papers as the corporate elves looked away. “That's an issue for our research division.” Santa laughed and nodded.
Snarky interjected, “Forget the list. There's also the ‘score.’ We in administration have been tracking Kid Satisfaction Scores for some time. And frankly, you're not doing very well.”
Santa was so confused, his belly stopped shaking like a bowl full of jelly. “You little rats have been going behind my back and monitoring me with the kids? I love the kids! What right do you have to....” Snarky pressed a button as he looked at Sparkle. “See, he's a problem! What an attitude. I'm calling security just in case.”
“Yes, Santa. After a couple of thousand years, we felt we could improve on your operation. And for some time now, about 50 years, we've been checking ‘our’ list. A bunch of the guys have gotten their MBAs, and that's why we decided to take things to the next level. And the kids want more stuff, better stuff, cooler stuff, and you aren't delivering. We're docking you.”
“Docking my what? I own the whole shooting match! Me and the Missus! We conjured it from a magical snowflake!”
Snarky smiled. “Well, not now. The corporation owns it. As for what to ‘dock,’ well, we haven't quite worked that out. You don't make any money for all your effort. But we're not as noble as you. And the investors want us to care about the bottom line.”
“One more thing,” laughed Chuckle. “When was your last Christmas education course? We think you're a bit rusty.” That was the last straw.
Santa stood to his full height, and in the room the candles and lamps sputtered as he rose up, larger than life. “The bottom line is that I am Santa Claus. I am the expert. I am the lover of children and lights, snow and wonder. I am the master of magic and enchanted reindeer, and my wife and I have lived for millennia in the barren wasteland of the North Pole. And none of you, not one, is qualified to tell me how or what to do with my job!”
He sat down thunderously, lighted his pipe, and called for a cup of egg nog. “With rum, if you please.”
Tears were shed, and the board apologized profusely. Laughter rang out, and even Snarky and Sparkle said, “You know you're really very valuable to us!”
And the next morning when Santa arrived, he was given his 30-day notice. In the workshop, a young, thin man in red skinny jeans and a red sports coat, latte in hand, directed operations. His abs were toned and his beard black; he nodded to St. Nick. “What's up, old man?”
And Christmas, run by elves unwilling to listen and unprepared for the job ahead, was never the same again.
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