It was a crisp wintery night in the city. The streets were busy with the frantic shoppers, grid locked traffic and workers trying to keep the keep the sidewalks clear of the ever mounting snow blanketing the busy city. But while it was transforming the well lit metropolis into a winter wonderland, the sounds of bells and singing holiday melodies drifted over the air of non-stop honking cars and street life.
It is in moments of these that the feeling of joy and good tidings would inspire many people; sharing a good gesture, helping those out who are in need and visiting the sick to spread cheer. Watching from high above the window of the children’s hospital, nine-year-old Ella Darcy was not one of the lucky ones getting any visits.
She didn’t enjoy the holiday and wanted nothing to do with the volunteer staff who showed up to bring some of that holiday cheer. Instead, she sat in her hospital room alone, watching the people down below the city going crazy over this one day of the year. She rubbed her bald head and sighed with discontentment. Cancer had been with her for nearly two years and she wasn’t getting any better. She remembered having full locks of black curly hair - but slowly the disease and the chemo rid her of those precious curls.
On her tray table beside the bed was the note from her mother saying she’d be back to see her sometime tonight. It didn’t say when exactly. But she knew her mother had to work late on a night like this. She was a police officer taking any shifts she could to book extra time off to be with her daughter. Her father was a busy lawyer who never really came by. Not because he didn’t want too and not because he didn’t love her. But the divorce of the two parents had become bitter and neither one could be in the room long enough. The shouting and arguing about things of the past, financial situations and even about visitations to the hospital. They couldn’t share a room if they tried. Not even when Ella asked or begged of them too.
The little girl walked over to the door and closed it off from all the sounds of laughing and happy children. They were singing carols and ringing bells as the staff handed out treats. It seemed like they at least would get joy from the season if only for the briefest of moments. Ella shed a tear and switched off the lights. Christmas wasn’t merry a time for her. She shuffled over to the bed and laid down in a sombre mood.
“Christmas sucks.” She said to herself. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to live. I don’t know what I want anymore. All you people can go away for all I care. I’ll be glad when it’s over.”
“Sounds like you all right. Just like last year and the year before that.” A voice spoke from the corner of the darkened room.
“Who’s there?” Ella shot up with horror. “Who’s in my room? Thomas Bradley, if that’s you again I’m gonna punch you in that damaged arm again!”
“Thomas Bradley? Oh, yes… I remember that one. He had it coming.” The voice said again. “Definitely not a good way to stay off the naughty list. But, try not to be too hard on him. It was a rough year for him as well. And he was too shy to apologize to you. I told him he should… or else that stocking won’t be as filled. You should have seen the look on his face.”
Ella could now see the person sitting in the corner. He was an old white man with white hair and beard. He was dressed in red with a white fur-trimmed coat and hat. She thought it was just her imagination, the meds kicking in and giving her one heck of an illusion. But then a sudden realization came upon her face and made her realize who this was - or was supposed to be.
“Santa?” She said with surprise.
With a familiar laugh he stood up and came into the light, the jolly man walked over to the girl with a beaming smile. The light over her bed switched on with no aid and caused her to gawk in awe. The man’s presence stunned her and curled up her legs to her chest. He held his black belt with the sliver buckle and gave another delighted chuckle while watching her reaction.
“No way.” She finally muttered. “You’re not real. Get out of my room! You’re just some creepy man in a Santa suit… I’m gonna tell the nurse you came in and -”
“Ella, Ella, Ella…” Santa shook his head disappointedly. “You still don’t believe do you. Even when I’m standing right here. You’re just like your parents… always needing proof and facts.”
“You don’t know me!” She scoffed. “You know nothing about me or my folks!”
“Ella Darcy, of 360 Bell Street, Georgetown.” He said with authority. “The house with the red brick, yellow porch and the damaged swing set in the backyard if I remember correctly… you shouldn’t have blamed a friend for that. You broke it and were afraid your parents would punish you very badly for it. It was around that time they fought all the time wasn’t it? And they forgot about fixing it till you moved out.”
Again the girl stared in wonder. Thinking hard for a moment, she remembered that it was her that broke the swings. It terrified Ella that he knew so many details. But for someone to know that much and about how she felt… it meant only one thing. He was Santa Claus. The really, real Santa Claus and not some guy from the hospital party. Santa was just as she imagined, a thick and curly snowy white beard with a moustache hung like rounded hooks. It complimented his kind and tender smile he continually gave. She quickly sat up in bed and smiled back. This was a moment she never thought would happen in a million years.
“It is you! I don’t believe it. You actually exist.”
“Yes, I do.” He nodded. “Thank you so much for finally seeing it. Now then, I got the letter you sent to me. Which is why I’m here.”
“The letter?’ Ella questioned. “What letter?”
“This one-” Santa said as he took it out of his pocket. “The letter you wrote to me about wanting nothing but three things. Hard not to miss when it’s written so clear and bold on the front.”
“I remember, yeah… but that was last year.” She said looking at in his hand. Wrinkled and yellowing, the letter even had the odour of the black cherry marker she used. “What took you so long?”
He sat down beside her and placed the letter on the table next to her mother’s note. Santa paused in thought as he eyed the girl looking at him with confusion. With a slow sigh and stroke of his white beard, he finally gave an explanation.
“Ella, I wasn’t sure what I could do. You wanted me to cure your cancer, mend your parents’ marriage and take you back to that old house of yours. Then I saw your list of ‘demands’ or rather the many questions about me, the north pole, Mrs. Claus and all the other ones that I wasn’t sure how to respond. But was the three things you wanted for Christmas that made me take notice. I’m so sorry my dear girl. But some things are beyond even my powers. I can’t cure people and I’m not a healer of marriages. The house belongs to a new family…they even kept the swing and fixed it.”
“Oh…” She said with disappointment.
“The one thing that made me come to see you…was the last statement you made in it. You said that God was a myth, and that I was more a saviour than he. That it was better to ask me to cure you then asking something that doesn’t have a face to talk too.”
“You being here proves it.” She smiled. “Don’t you see? Your real and it’s not.”
“It?” Santa frowned. “God is an ‘it’ to you?”
“God is just a figment of imagination that humans made up to make themselves feel better. And no one religious group believe in the same one. Did you now know that? They think it’s going to come and save them all. A quick prayer and they’re miraculous cured! Shows what they know, huh? And then there the others who say God is dead….and…”
“Enough.” Santa said raising his hand. “You know, Ella, people are not crazy for wanting faith. It’s what keeps humanity together in times of need and finding believe in wonders far beyond the facts. Sometimes, there are no answers… no quick explanation of who, what, why or how. So if there is no rational answer for them, where do you go from there? I had the same run around conversation with Stephen Hawking once. There was a man who liked a challenge. He could believe in something like dark matter and wormholes, but nothing for a God that controls it all?”
“Really? You visited Hawking? The Science guy?” The girl laughed.
“A stubborn man if I ever met one. But I had to remind him who gave him those books of Einstein’s theories when he was a boy, and that some things are not always written in the stars for him to see or touch.”
“Even he said God wasn’t real.” Ella smirked. “Just a bunch of fantasies humanity created to make themselves feel better.”
“Well, that’s not exactly what he said.” Santa chuckled as he patted her leg. “But I’m sure that was his general argument. He believed more in the universe than the higher power that created it. But we all see God in many forms. Some see it in science and mathematical equations, and others just the state of being who they are. I see God in all of you, and the wonder of life all around us each and every day.”
“M’kay-” The girl said looking bored. “Let’s talk about the other questions I gave you.” She opened the letter and showed them. “You know… how did you become you? How did you meet Mrs. Claus and when did you meet her? Why are you all these different names and not just Santa Claus?”
The jolly man just laughed again and smiled at her. He could see she was hard pressed to get answers, but was glad he could have her think of something else other than her current state of health. He pursed his lips and thought about the questions she pointed at. Taking the letter gently, he looked at them with strained vision and let out a barely audible breath of frustration. He shifted his eyes and noticed the anticipation reflecting back in Ella’s. The girl eagerly awaited as Santa struggled to give the answers she sought.
He stood up for a moment, walked over to the window and took in the city’s sight. The snow had covered the city and made glisten with the many lights. Christmas lights especially adorned the many shops and building fronts. But from the main view he could see was that of City Hall; a large decorated Christmas tree stood proudly in the centreand shimmered with twinkling, soft LED lights strung all around it. He tapped his black belt to the tune of ‘Carol of the Bells’ that was being played outside in the hospital hall and glanced back to Ella.
“You hear that song?”
“Yeah, Carol of the Bells-” She shrugged. “What of it?”
“You and your parents used to sing it every Christmas together. That was your tradition, You would be the first verse, then your father, and then your mother would join in.”
“You’re stalling Mr. Claus.” She said with folded arms. “I think you’re afraid to answer them.”
Tapping his belt again to the tune, the white-bearded saint continued to study her face. It was like was looking for something or waiting for her to react. But then a gleam of realization came into his eye and his smile returned in full. With a confident stroll, Santa stood by her bed, rubbed his beard and leaned in close.
“I will make a bargain with you.” He said to her still grinning. “I’ll give you the answers in stories of my adventures… but… in exchange you will give something back to me.”
“Like what?” She asked.
“I’ll let you know at the end. Do we have a deal?”
“Hey, I’m not some dumb kid here.” Ella quipped sharply. “My dad’s a lawyer and my mom is a wise beat cop…so I’m not gonna get trapped into something I can’t get out of.”
Claus laughed again in his usual manner. She was a spunky child for sure. And he liked her ‘no nonsense’ replies. There was no need to soften the conversation as she was more than willing to be honest back to him. That’s what Santa could sense from her. The red-suited man returned to sit on her bed and stared back at her. She could see his eyes where the deepest of ocean ice blue.
They were mesmerizing to look at and somewhat haunting as he tried to be equally forward with her. A slight shiver came down Ella’s back as confronting an icon of Christmas was a bit intimidating.
“Ella, I know you’re smart.” He said with a smile. “But I’m not one to back down either. I’ll leave right now, no stories or answers to questions and all if you don’t agree to my proposal. What I will offer you at the end of it might be a chance too good to pass up. Consider it an extra gift that few have ever been given. I’m only offering this once and never again. So… do you agree or do I go back on my sleigh and head back to the North pole?”
“So you do live at the North pole!” The girl grinned with a pointed finger at him. “Hah! That’s one question answered. I didn’t have to listen to any story or agree to anything.”
Santa frowned for a moment and slapped the bed in frustration. This girl confounded him. She was definitely the daughter of a cop and lawyer. So focused on getting answers out of him it was like being in a courtroom or police interrogation. It was not the response he wanted to hear and made sure the girl understood that as well. Santa Claus stood up and took the letter back from her. He folded it up and placed it back in his pocket. He looked at her again with disappointment and walked away. Ella’s smile diminished and quickly shot out of bed to stop him from leaving. But as she rushed over halfway, a moment of weakness came in her legs and collapsed to the floor. The room was spinning in her mind and she coughed uncontrollably.
Santa quickly came over to her aid and helped her back onto the bed. The girl breathed rapidly and coughed in pain. The Cancer in her was getting worst and the sudden excitement must have too much for her. As the cough subsided and her breathing returned to normal, she held the man’s white gloved hand tightly and brought him closer for a hug. She cried in his arms and cursed the disease for making her so sick.
“I’m so sorry my child.” Santa Claus held her tight and patted her head lovingly. “It’s terrible what you must endure. But this too shall pass in time.”
“I don’t….I don’t want too. I don’t want to die, Santa.” She quivered in response. “Please, don’t go. I’ll agree to whatever you want. Tell those stories of yours. Just don’t leave me. Don’t leave me to die alone. I’m sorry. I agree to your terms.”
A bell chimed outside in the hallway as she agreed to it. Suddenly all the laughing, the music and sound in the hallway halted. The city had gone mute as well. She could hear no blaring horns, sirens or general background noise drifting up at all. A bell chimed again as the girl looked up at the wall clock opposite of her bed and gasped. The clock had stopped, and the room was quiet. Everything was quiet. Santa Claus pulled away from her and wiped the tears with his gloved hand.
A smile on his face gave the girl reassurance that everything would be fine. She couldn’t explain the feeling of that. A level of trust and kindness that was beyond description in her mind. It didn’t matter; she agreed to his bargain and wanted answers he promised her.
Continuing to sit close, the cheerful saint briefly rubbed his nose and prepared to get comfortable to share the stories.
“Thank you, Ella, thank you. Now, the time is on hold until our deal is done. And once it is over, I’ll let you decide if what I offer is what you want or not. Okay?”
“Okay, sure.” She sniffled.
He brought out a handkerchief and gave it to her to wipe her tears and blow her nose. Which she did - and then tried to hand it back to him. Santa looked at it in slight disgust, but gave a kind grin and motioned to her to keep it. The girl shrugged and poised herself to listen.
“You know death is a natural part of life, my dear.” He said. “Even those who seek to stop it or slow the process will ultimately succumb its fate. We can either fear it or embrace it. By fearing it we become distant and push everyone away who loves us… and left with nothing but regret and sadness for all. But by embracing it, we can show that death has no hold over us. Joy and peace will replace sadness. That our journey doesn’t end there, but opens a door to a whole new beginning.”
“That sounds nice.” Ella replied.
“I gave that as part of a eulogy once. When I was a young cleric, that is. Did you know I was once a man of the cloth?”
“What does that mean?” Ella shrugged.
“Oh, well… that means I was a priest.” Santa smirked. “In fact, I was once a bishop.”
“But you’re not now, right?”
“No, that was a long, long time ago. In another life… you see…” He said with a pause. “I died.”
“Woah… woah… what a minute.” She interrupted. “Died? Your dead? Santa Claus is dead?”
“Well, I’m better now.” He laughed.
“Aw, man - you’re messin’ with me aren’t ya?” She scowled.
“I’m telling the truth. I died and became… well… me.”
“Do you want to hear this or not?” Santa pointed at her. “I still can stop this and walk away. Your choice.”
“Okay, okay…” The girl said with frustration.
“Yes, I died.” He continued. “But not in the way you would think. I guess the higher power had different plans for yours truly.”
“What do you men by ‘different plans’? What did God do to you?”
Santa looked around and leaned in carefully as if he wanted no one else to hear what he was about to say. Which Ella thought was strange because there was only her and him in the room. But she humoured the man and leaned in closer as well.
“I think…. I was granted the gift…”
“Magic, my dear.” He said as he held out a very old round ornament. It was dusted with a sparkling gold. A light began to shine from within and illuminated the room with its glow. "The gift of Christmas Magic.”
Ella didn’t know what to say at first. But decided not to say anything at all. She smiled at his silly behaviour and giggled when he winked. The jolly old elf laughed and prepared to tell her of his amazing adventures of Christmas.