On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.
Seven: Independence Day
Penelope was an elf from the mail room. The most important part of her job, one she took very seriously, was to collect the letters from children all over the world, open them, and catalogue their requests. Other elves would then cross-reference the letters with the naughty and nice list, determine to what extent the orders would be fulfilled, and then send the information on to the packaging department. It was, arguably, one of the most critical jobs at the North Pole. However, during the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, children were not yet concerned with Christmas and writing their letters to Santa, so mail room elves — although omnipresent at the Pole — had a lot of downtime. They wandered the factory, delivering catalogues and magazines and birthday cards to those elves who were receiving them, and spending a lot of time talking to the people they were delivering to simply because they had no other way to occupy their time.
Penny, as it turned out, was the perfect information-gathering elf for Mrs. Claus.
“Morning, Mrs. C!” Penny called out, knocking on her door. “I’ve got your new Oriental Trading for this month!”
Mrs. Claus opened the door, beaming. “Wonderful dear. Would you care to come in for some cookies? Star-shaped, freshly baked.”
“Don’t mind if I do!” Penny glanced behind her at the elves walking by on the street. Several of them waved to Mrs. Claus. None of them paid any attention to Penny. This was as it should be. She stepped into the Claus home and closed the door.
“I’ve been talking to people like you asked, Mrs. C. ‘Hey, how’s life down on the factory floor? Is everything getting done? How is it, working for Edgar?’ Stuff like that.”
“Yes, I know what you were supposed to ask, tell me the answers.”
“Well, old Menelaus down in toy trains, he’s like, ‘Edgar is Edgar, y’know? He doesn’t let up.’ And Archie in wrapping told me, ‘Getting it done? What is there to wrap in July?’ Oh, and Telly said–”
Mrs. Claus put her hands up. “Penny, dear, please. Just give me the synopsis.”
“People aren’t happy.”
“Why not? Aren’t they getting their work done?”
“Yeah, but they aren’t really proud of the work. They say it’s going too fast, taking up too many resources. A lot of them aren’t pleased with that robot game he’s pushing so hard. They’re afraid kids will catch their fingers and get hurt.”
“I thought Edgar said he fixed that problem.”
“He researched it, but when he found out how much time it would add on the assembly line to put on some sort of finger guard, he nixed it.”
Mrs. Claus’s cheeks drained. “That’s inexcusable. He’s actually placing the speed of the line ahead of the safety of the children?”
“And it’s not just the robot. There are other toys too — an electronic game where the battery casing comes loose too easy, a doll with hair that can be pulled out by a baby… When the boss was here, people would show him these problems and he’d demand they got fixed. Edgar just looks into how much it costs or how long it would take to fix and lets most of them roll by.”
“That’s it. I’m going to have a little talk with him right now.”
“Beg your pardon, Mrs. C., but I don’t think that will do any good.”
“Because a lot of people have come to him with these complaints, and nobody has listened. A few people have even been fired.”
“Fired? How do you fire an elf?”
“I don’t know, but I’m told Benjy got kicked off the Bobblehead line and nobody has seen him since.”
“Well I’m going to put a stop to it! I’ll throw Edgar out on his ear!”
“How? The boss left Edgar in charge until he got back. You know how elves are. They’re not going to disobey an order from the big guy himself. Not even if you tell them to.”
Mrs. Claus sat down and covered her face. “We have a big problem, don’t we?”
“Yeah.” Penny peeked around. “Um… didn’t you say something about star-shaped cookies?”
July 4, 10:14 a.m.
The door to the apartment opened and there he stood in his finery: blue coat, red and white striped pants, brilliantly star-spangled top hat. His eye glinted and his beard curled against his chest. “Santa Claus!” he boomed. “The time has come–”
“Hey, Sam,” Santa said. He and Gary were on the couch, watching the pregame for the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest, Blinky in the kitchen marinating a few steaks. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Uncle Sam looked at them, dumbfounded. “What… your mortal friend… aren’t you even a little surprised?”
“It’s the Fourth of July, Sam,” Santa said. “I would have been more surprised if you didn’t show up.”
Gary beamed. “You know me?”
“You’re an American, aren’t you? I know all of my nieces and nephews, Gary. But how do you know me?”
“Santa filled me in on what’s been happening. You guys really won’t let him go back to the North Pole? Aren’t you afraid Christmas is going to suck this year?”
Sam glowered. “You know, Gary, I have my own problems to worry about.”
“No kidding. I watch the news. It’s got to be a rough time to be you.”
Sam sat down on the couch between them, and glanced at the TV. “Nathan’s?”
“You know it.”
He sighed. “You know something, Gary? It is a rough time to be me. People are fighting, people don’t trust each other, everyone is convinced the darkest of days have come. You know what makes it really hard, though?”
“It’s always this way.”
“What are you talking about? Just a few years ago–”
“It was the other side that was up in arms. And before that, everyone was terrified. And earlier was that whole Watergate thing. And the Civil War, you remember that? Do you really think this country today is more divided than it was in the 1860s? Heck, even World War II was a mess. Today, your movies make it look like it was some huge, unifying moment when all of America came together and united against a common enemy and all that. But there were millions of people who didn’t support the war, even after Pearl Harbor. There were even groups that were pro-Germany.”
“I know. I took history class.”
“You know it, Gary, but do you ever really think about it? About what it was like? Or do you just watch The Fighting Sullivans and assume it was always that way?”
“The Fighting who?”
“Saving Private Ryan,” Santa said. “You’ve got to update your references, Sam.”
“So Santa is supposed to be doing your job, right? What is that, exactly? It’s not like you deliver candy or fireworks or anything.”
“It’s going to be another internal one, isn’t it?” Santa asked. “On a lot of these holidays, the icons just absorb the emotion of the moment. Is that what we’re doing today, Sam?”
Sam looked to Santa, then to Gary. “You know what? It’s the Fourth of July. Let’s go to a barbecue.”
To Gary’s shock — but not Santa’s — before he even finished saying it they were outside. No longer sitting in Gary’s apartment, they were in a park. It was a long one, near a road that trickled with cars every few seconds. There were huge trees scattered for optimum shade and lots of benches surrounding play areas. Dozens of people were there with pets, coolers, and folding chairs. Children played on swings, a baseball game raged in the distance, and a half-dozen men in khaki shorts holding bottles of beer stood around a series of grills, each with a different meat. Gary saw hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, brisket… his mouth began to water.
“Where are we?” Gary asked.
“America,” Sam said. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s any more specific than that. Tell me, what do you see here?”
“Well, yes. But there are people here from different families, different races, different cultures. Eating together.”
“It’s your melting pot,” Santa said. “Good for you.”
“This is what it should be,” Sam said. “Now take a look at another park.”
As he said it, Gary saw a blonde-haired woman looking in their direction. There was a moment of shock and she started to shout at them, but he never heard what she was going to say. After a brief ripple of disorientation, the happy people with their delectable brisket were gone. Instead, there was a mob. Actually, Gary realized, there were two mobs. On one side, people held poorly-spelled signs and wore t-shirts denouncing the administration, their policies, and America in general. On the other, people held poorly-spelled signs and wore t-shirts in support of the administration, their policies, and America in general. Gary missed the brisket.
“This looks more like the news.”
“Of course it does,” Santa said. “Now tell me, Gary, what do you think there are more of today? Parks like this one, or parks like the one we were at before?”
“The first one, I hope.”
“Of course there are. But which one do you think will get more coverage on the news?”
Gary didn’t have to answer.
Sam shoved his hands down deep into his pockets and sighed. “My nieces and nephews, all of them. And they have so much more in common than they realize.”
“But the differences are toxic,” Gary said
Santa shook his head. “No. Differences are inevitable among mortals. If you go to the North Pole, you’ll see elves that all have the same goals and the same ideas, and they’re all doing what they’re told without question. And it works fine for me. But mortals need those differences. The problem isn’t that people have differences. It’s that they don’t listen to them.”
As the two mobs screamed at each other, the cars on the road crept past slowly. Most of them, at least. It was, after all, the Fourth of July, and it always seemed like there was somebody who wanted to celebrate his independence by doing something stupid. The screeching sound came first, but it was far too late to arrest the progress of the Jeep that didn’t realize it was driving past a protest. It slammed into the back of a compact car, which jolted forward and hit an SUV, which in turn skidded into the opposite lane of traffic and was hit again. By the time the chain reaction ended, some seven cars had been hit, were smoking, and were no longer moving.
The mobs had stopped screaming. It was silent.
“Oh my god, where’s my phone?” Gary said. “I need to call–”
“Don’t do anything,” Santa said. “Watch this. Sam didn’t pick this park by accident.”
As Gary watched, the picket signs fell and the mobs rushed towards the wreck. People pulled open the doors to the smashed cars, helping people out if they could. Someone in a shirt with an X through the president’s face took off his belt and handed it to a woman whose shirt bore an eagle with talons ripping up a United Nations seal, and together they put a tourniquet on an old woman who bled from the arm. The door to the SUV was blocked by the second car that had struck it. Six people grabbed the smaller car and began to count. “ONE! TWO! THREE! HEAVE!” With their backs turned and the fronts of their shirts obscured, Gary had no idea who had originally been in which group.
“There’s a metaphor here, isn’t it?” he said.
“No subtle enough?” Sam asked.
“No really, no.”
Sam smiled. “Well, that’s America for you too. We pretty much gave up on subtlety when we put on costumes and dumped a bunch of tea into the harbor.”
“So what’s the lesson here, Gary?” Santa asked. “Stating the implied moral out loud is also pretty American.”
“The differences between people aren’t as important as what makes them the same, I get it.”
“Why don’t we fast-forward a little?” Sam asked. There was a ripple and Gary glanced down at his watch. It jumped ahead by two hours. One last tow truck was pulling away the SUV, the ambulances were gone, and except for some broken glass on the road, one could be forgiven for not knowing there had been a crash at all. The protesters had returned to the park and were picking up their signs.
“So they just go home now? Having learned a valuable lesson?”
“Hey, who’s that clown in the Uncle Sam costume?” one of the protesters asked, pointing.
“He can see you?” Gary asked.
“We’ve already gone through that,” Santa said. “Try to keep up.”
The protester waved his sign at them. “What’s it like, wearing a symbol of fascism?”
“Leave him alone!” one of the picketers from the other side shouted. “He can wear anything he wants! Ever heard of ‘America’?”
The anger rippled back through the respective mobs and they started screaming at each other again. Gary’s eyes bugged out, looking back and forth in disbelief. “But… just a minute ago…”
“My favorite thing about my nieces and nephews is how quickly they come together when they need each other,” Sam said. “My least favorite thing is how quickly they forget about that when they don’t. Come on.”
The trio blipped one last time and they were back in Gary’s apartment. Santa sat down and picked up the remote control. “Good, they’re going to replay the hot dog eating contest. Gary, it’s true that the differences aren’t that important, but that’s not what Sam was getting at. The tragedy is when people refuse to accept those differences. And I’m not even talking about the big things like race or religion, I mean when people get infuriated over something as simple as a costume. If your country seems divided, it’s not because people are farther apart than they used to be, it’s because you’ve been convinced that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically evil.”
“You said that very well, Santa.”
“It’s the same with the holidays, Sam. I knew what you were going to angle at before you even showed up.”
“So what do we do about it?” Gary asked. “I mean… how do we fix it?”
“You really want to know? How to fix something, I mean?”
He smiled. “Well, that alone puts you ahead of most people. Most of them would rather shout about the problem than actually solve it. But it’s simple — turn off the 24-hour news cycle of catastrophe, go out and talk to my other kids, and actually listen to them. And if you disagree, try to figure out why they believe what they believe instead of just deciding they’re stupid and have nothing to contribute. Most of the time, you’ll find that real solutions lie somewhere in-between.”
“You’re making a speech again, Sam.”
He laughed. “One last thing Americans are good at, Santa. Okay, I’ll go now. Have a hot dog for me.”
As he shimmered away, Blinky came in from the kitchen. He frowned. “Sam?”
“Yep,” Santa said.
“I figured. Well, the steaks are done.”
“Great, I’m starving.” Gary trotted off to the kitchen and Santa sighed.
“How was you Independence Day lesson?”
“It’s the same one people learn every year, Blinky. It would be nice if it would last, but… well, you know Americans.”
“Yep.” He patted Santa on the back. “Look on the bright side. At least there aren’t any holidays in August.”
* * *
Jim Clark put another hot dog on another bun, looking out at the small woman sitting on a bench by herself. He came to this park every year. He brought his kids here, had met his wife at one of these picnics. He saw the same faces one fourth of July after another, watched as children grew up and had families of their own. He had never seen this woman before, nor had he seen anyone at the barbecue look so despondent.
“Hot dog?” he asked her.
She smiled, but there was no joy in her face as she took the food. “Thank you.”
“Miss, are you okay?”
“I just…” She reached up and wiped her eye. “I thought I saw someone I knew.”
To be continued…
To be continued…