A thousand years ago, when Santa Claus first opened his workshop at the North Pole, he called a meeting with the elves. He was worried. Exactly what did they suggest he do to have his sleigh pulled all around the world in just the 12 hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning?
No airplanes had been invented yet. There were no helicopters, no blimps, no dirigibles. What to do?
“What about having a flock of birds pull the sleigh for the night?” one of the elves asked.
“No birds,” Santa said. “Too small.”
“Well, we have those big flying dinosaurs,” another elf said.
“You mean the pterodactyls? I’m not sitting in a sleigh behind any team of funky-smelling flying pterodactyls.”
“How about eight flying dragons?”
“They breathe fire. Think of something else.”
The elves and Santa sat quietly for a while.
“Well, why don’t we have a contest?” Santa asked. “Ask all the countries in the world to enter.”
And so that’s what they did. The word went out. And offers came in from everywhere. From India and Brazil and Ethiopia, from Russia and Japan and South Africa and Australia, and from New Zealand and Canada and Egypt and France and a host of other places, even from Antarctica, which said it had a group of eight flying penguins. All together there were almost 200 offers.
Santa spent a week reading about all the different possibilities. And then he made a decision. He’d select the best six. And he’d invite them up to the North Pole to compete.
One week later, the entries from six countries flew in with their flying animals to set up camp just outside the North Pole and wait their turn to strut their stuff. A runway was dug through the snow. A grandstand was built. It was like an Olympics, but one that was not in any hurry. In fact, the competition would last six years. Each of the six would have the delivery job for one Christmas. Santa would take notes on how they did. And then he’d decide.
Soon, a very special Olympic Village was constructed on the outskirts of the North Pole for the entrants, and the handlers moved their creatures in, eight each, and trained there. What a wonderful time it was. There were bears and kangaroos and camels and giraffes and elephants and reindeer. (But no penguins. They were cute, Santa said, but a team of eight just didn’t have the heft.)
That first year, with everybody watching, Santa climbed into the sleigh at the end of the runway with his chief elf, cracked the whip and asked the entrants to head off. But they didn’t. In fact, the eight big black bears from Russia just stood there harrumphing and growling and every once in a while, looking back and staring at him.
“On Vladimir, on Boris, on Mischa, on Gennadiy, on Alexis, on Dmitry, on Irina on Sasha,” Santa Claus shouted, and with that he cracked the whip a second time and this time the bears got themselves assembled, two in a row, four from front to back and excitedly began roaring and snapping as their keepers put the harnesses on them, after which, off they went galumphing down the runway until, yes, up in the air they went flapping their big black paws until they were up high into the sky and off over the horizon, the bells around their harnesses jingling, heading South, toward the first stop that year, which was Iceland.
Twelve hours later, Santa was back. The bears were exhausted. The presents were delivered. But it had not been easy.
An elf walked over with a clipboard and wrote down the report as Santa spoke it.
“Ate all the shingles off a roof in Scotland. Three of them got into a wrestling match in Borneo and held us up until a winner was declared. Growling and snarling on a rooftop woke up the kids in Mexico. Not good. Not good at all. But they tried hard and they got the job done.”
The next year, the eight kangaroos from Australia, an all-girl team, were hooked up to the front of the sleigh. They hippity- hopped all over the place for a while, but then Santa got in the sleigh with the chief elf, cracked the whip, and asked the kangaroos to move. And once again, they didn’t.
So then Santa yelled at them, in his strong baritone voice, “on Amelia, on Olivia, on Sophie, on Zoe, on Charlotte, on Madison, on Chloe and on Emily,” and this time they all hopped into place, two in a row and four rows front-to-back and down the runway they hippity-hopped, yipping away until they finally took off with a thump thump thump of their two little back feet, and then with a flapping of their even littler arms they took off from the runway and turned to head over the horizon toward the south, the bells around their harnesses jingling, first stop Alaska.
Twelve hours later, they were back. And Santa filled out his report.
“Ran off with presents in their pouches in Indonesia. We had to round them up. Hopping around on the roofs of homes in Germany loosened chimney bricks at several houses. Not quite as fast as the bears, but tolerable. And they tried hard.”
The elf shut the cover on his clipboard. Nobody would be allowed to read these entries except Mr. and Mrs. Claus themselves, and then only after it was all over.
The third year, the Indian trainers walked their elephants over to the runway, which had been doubled in both length and width so the elephants would have more than enough space to take off.
This was considered to be a sort of miraculous achievement if they could do it, and so a contingent from the United Nations had come up to the North Pole to watch this. There was also a contingent from the Ringling Brothers Circus and from some new group called PETA, which apparently was looking after the elephants’ rights, and there were the network news people, people from The Huffington Post and Slate and Dan’s Papers and The New York Times and several religious leaders and even some presidents and kings.
The elephants were quiet and orderly as they were hooked up to the sleigh, but when Santa snapped his whip, nothing happened. They just stood there, their trunks hanging down, looking like elephants. And so Santa cracked the whip a second time and this time shouted their names: “On Nagesh, on Vishnu, on Omar, on Narendra, on Saanjh, on Akmal, on Neelkanta on Mukesh,” and with that all the elephants got in line in four columns of two, and at the count of three heave-hoed and heave-hoed and slowly began to walk down the runway, dragging their trunks, and then they plodded a little with their trunks swinging, and then they broke into a trot, raised their trunks to point forward, pulled their ears back and ran and ran and then miraculously, just before the very end of the new extension of the runway, just before they would have plowed into a snow bank, they began flap, flap, flapping their ears frantically so just in time, off they went—a miracle—and then getting higher and higher and higher they flew with Santa and his chief elf until they disappeared into a rain cloud that happened to be over the southern sky at that time, heading off to Siberia, which would be their first stop. They didn’t jingle however, because the harnesses had to be made supersized for each elephant and there just hadn’t been time to sew in the bells.
Twelve hours later, they were back, appearing in the sunny winter sky over the runway, where they circled around and made a clumsy, awkward sort of Perils of Pauline landing that seemed even more miraculous, after which the elephants staggered to a halt.
Honk!!! bellowed the elephants. The elf walked over with the clipboard and wrote down the report as Santa dictated.
“Got the job done, but just barely. In North Korea, they landed on the roof of what turned out to be a barn, and the whole thing collapsed in a crash and we had to get out of there, covered with hay, fast. One of the elephants bailed out over Pakistan. Nagesh. Said she had had enough and wanted to get back to India, where she was revered. Nobody noticed, but we got back here with just seven. So it was a so-so trip.”
The fourth year, it was the turn of the eight camels from Egypt. They were a stubborn lot, or at least they seemed so as they pulled and spit as their handlers tried to line them up at the head of the sleigh. Once in place, however, they behaved better than any animals that had come before, just pawing the ground and looking out as if they were eager to get the job done. Or something. Santa and his lead elf climbed into the sleigh and Santa had to crack his whip just once—the camels didn’t even flinch—and he shouted out their names: “On Cleopatra, on Ahhotep, on Akila, on Mosi, on Nefret, on Haji, on Seti on Odion,” and off they went down the runway at a slow leisurely walk, and then they came to a halt. This wasn’t getting them anywhere.
With that, one of the handlers turned them around, walked them back to the starting line and there, after consulting with the other handlers, put a piece of steak on a stick, and then stuck the stick out of the harness in front of the two lead camels and up high about a foot, and then Santa shouted “Hay-yah!” as one of the handlers instructed, and off they went a second time. And this time, with the steak in front, the camels somehow got themselves off the ground. Nobody knew how they did it. They weren’t wiggling their little ears or swishing their tails or anything. It was another miracle, but there they were, off, their bells jingling, heading off to the south, toward Finland, which would be their first stop.
Twelve hours later, they were all back. Santa was tired from going up and down the chimneys once again, but the camels were ready to go off chasing that steak a second time if asked. Indeed, they stamped their hooves on the ground, straining to be let off after it again. They’d get it yet.
Santa dictated his report.
“Did what I told them to do,” he said. “But there was no cheerfulness in it. Just a job. We need some animals that care. I don’t think it’s camels.”
The next year was the fifth and next to last year. And up to the plate strode the six giraffes from South Africa, their heads held high, looking eager to go. Santa and his chief elf climbed in the back and Santa called out their names.
“On Shandu, on Sekgdokhane, on Janet, on Charlize, on Imani, on Nelson, on Tau on Ntsumi.”
And all the giraffes turned their heads to look back and down at Santa. What was it he wanted?
“I want you to turn around and head off!!” he shouted.
But they did no such thing. And so Santa cracked his whip in the air and that did it. Off they went, their necks and heads forward, their ropey tails out straight behind them, their bells jingling, charging down the runway at a trot and then a canter and then a full gallop until, wow, there they went, up in the air and off.
“Whoooie!!” shouted Santa. It was like with the elephants. He had just not seen how they had done that either. But he didn’t care. Now he would try to see if he could get the giraffes’ heads and necks to bob up and down in unison, like tall grass in a breeze, and just when he thought that thought, they did that. So he thought something else. Make a banked turn 30 degrees to the left. And they did that, too. They worked by thought control. First stop, the capital of Greenland, the town of Nuuk.
“Whooie!” Santa shouted again.
In the back seat, the chief elf put his hands over his eyes.
Twelve hours later, Santa was back. The giraffes were a bit confused and out of sync with one another, but they made a reasonably good landing considering all they had been through.
An elf walked over with the clipboard and wrote down the report as Santa spoke.
“Got the job done faster than you might have expected,” he said, “but the giraffes stopped twice, once in San Juan and once in Kyoto, Japan, to just silently gossip with one another. I don’t know how they did that, but they did it and they wouldn’t listen to me at all until they were done, about an hour each time. And besides that, no offense intended, they just looked very funny there up front. Don’t think these will do.”
At this point, there was just one entrant to go, and there on the runway, the chief elf called over some other elves and listened to Santa for a while, and then the elf who had organized the competition said if necessary they had crocodiles from Brazil they could call in, and some slithery snakes from Saudi Arabia, too, but Santa said, well, maybe we’ll wait and give this last entry a try, though I can’t imagine they are any good if these others aren’t. Who decided on these entries, anyway?
The last entry was the deer from Long Island, North America. The United States hadn’t been invented at that time, so the entry had just come from one of the few parts of the place that had been settled, which was the East End, and there was one deer from each of the eight towns, the best from each, from Montauk, East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Southampton, Greenport, Westhampton Beach, Southold and Shelter Island. These deer were cute and graceful, and they had black noses and long eyelashes. They were the last entry chosen, having beaten out the crocodiles from Brazil by one point.
The elves, when they saw the deer for the first time, took to calling them Reindeer, because, they had been told, erroneously, that it rained a great deal on Long Island.
Well, I don’t have to tell you what happened. There they were, prancing in unison, all lined up in their two rows inside their barn, and out they came all together in a lockstep march to their places in front of the sleigh. And when they got there, they snorted and stamped their feet, and then they themselves, without any help, hooked themselves up to the front of the sleigh—how about that—and then a NINTH deer trotted over. He was slightly bigger than the others and he had a shiny red nose that glowed, a great rack of antlers and the most beautiful sleigh bells that Santa had ever seen around his neck.
“Did we make those here?” Santa asked, leaning over to talk to the chief elf in the back.
“Not that I know,” came the reply.
And so Santa leaned forward, cracked his whip in the air and shouted their names.
“On Donner, on Blitzen, on Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer, on Vixen, on Comet and Cupid!!!”
And whoosh, off they went in a big graceful blur down the runway, their ears back, their eyes front, the fastest takeoff in the shortest time of any of the others in the whole six years, even considering all the practice sessions.
Now they were high in the sky.
Where’s our first stop? Santa wondered. He was so excited. He couldn’t remember. Well, the reindeer would know. And so he sat back in his seat, smiled, took out a thermos of hot chocolate Mrs. Claus had prepared for him, and took a sip.
“Merry Christmas,” Santa shouted out to all the stars in the night sky. “And to all, a good night!!!”