“I’m really sorry I can’t come to you,” he said on the phone in that familiar deep, jolly voice. “But I just can’t get away now.”
“I understand,” I said.
“Now if this had been the summertime…” he continued.
“No problem,” I said.
To get to the North Pole, I took the Hampton Jitney to the Airport Connection in Queens, took a taxi to LaGuardia, flew on United Flight 831 to Anchorage, Alaska with a stopover in Vancouver, took a twin engine Cherokee to Nome, and then boarded a train called the Midnight Express, where I had my own private compartment for the 12-hour trip to North Pole City.
North Pole City?
You didn’t think that the elves were able to make toys for a few billion children in the world from a small village or town, did you?
Santa had told me over the phone not to expect to see the sun at all during my stay in North Pole City.
“It’s the dead of winter here,” he said. “And for four months the sun doesn’t even rise. You might be a little confused at first that it is so dark in our city all the time. But I’ll tell you what I tell everybody who comes here this time of here. You should have been here in the summertime. Then the sun never sets. Ho, ho, ho.”
The last leg of my trip to Santa’s office from the Southeast Train Terminal was inside a horse-drawn carriage that rode through the darkness down the snowy main street of the city on skis. We jingled along—yes, the horses wore jingle bells—and soon I was watching television at the Marriott North Pole, sitting on the bed, using the clicker. I saw A Christmas Story. It was just like home. Then I slept like a rock.
I arrived at Santa’s office the next day. He has a corner office on the penthouse floor of what is known as the Tower, the tallest of the skyscrapers here in North Pole City. It rises 45 stories into the sky.
Because everything had been so official and impressive so far, I was surprised when I walked into Santa’s large office to find that it was a mess. There were papers and reports piled everywhere, several broken Barbie and Ken dolls in one corner, a complete railroad train set on the floor that I had to step over, a dart board on the wall and several Super Soaker guns leaning against Santa’s overflowing desk.
Santa himself looked up from a video game he was playing when I walked in, then he stood up and offered me his hand.
“Have a seat,” he said. “Don’t mind the stuff on the chair. Just put it on the floor.”
I did so.
“Now ask me anything you want. I’ve set aside a half hour for you. Care for something to drink?”
“No, thank you.”
“Okay. Well, first of all I had no idea the North Pole was such a big city. And it looks new.”
“Pretty new. And it wasn’t always a city. It started out as just a workshop and two elves, with me and the Misses living upstairs. Then we got a post office and it became a hamlet, then a village, then a town, then this big city.”
“Where is Mrs. Claus?”
“No, for furniture. We just built this big new house.”
“And the workshop?”
“Factories. Factories and factories and factories. So many elves I can’t even count them.”
“How long have you been here at the North Pole? ”
“A hundred and twenty two years. We came from Russia a hundred and twenty three years ago. Spent a year in New York. Then came here. ”
“That’s a long time. ”
“So before that you were Santa Claus in Russia? ”
“No. I was St. Nicholas in Russia. And before that my father was St. Nicholas and before that his father was St. Nicholas.”
“How long was that?”
“Oh, about 500 years. Each of them 500 years. I think dad said they started about 800 A.D. ”
“So you’ll be Santa for 500 years? ”
“I guess so. Unless I fall out of the sleigh over the Indian Ocean. Or get hit by a truck or something.”
“How did the name get changed from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus? ”
“Well, we had to leave Russia.”
“Persecution. And it was a hard life. We lived in a little wooden shack and we had nothing, really nothing, and every six months the Cossacks would ride into town on their horses—they had shiny uniforms and helmets and flashing swords—and they would make us pay a tax to the Czar. And we had nothing. I remember we used to make these little toys for the children there and the Cossacks would come—you could hear them coming from far off, with the thundering hoof beats of their horses—and we’d hide the toys, and they’d come into town and we’d offer them up something like a clod of dirt or a pretty rock or something, and they’d search the house and find, like, a ping-pong ball gun and then they would beat us. ”
“Doesn’t sound good. ”
“Nope. Wasn’t good. So one day I decided to come to America. We took a boat across the Atlantic and we arrived at Ellis Island. Mrs. Claus and I were dressed in rags and had all our possessions in a blanket tied together with string, and this customs man asked me my name and I said St. Nicholas, and he said we don’t let crazies into America who think they are Saints but you look like nice people so think of something else so I said Santa Claus.”
“Just like that ”
“Just like that. He wrote it down.”
“What does it mean?”
“How do I know? It just came out. We’d come all this way. I was desperate. It was just the first thing that came to mind. Santa Claus. He liked it. ”
“Worked out pretty well.”
“It kinda rolls off your lips.”
“So we settled in New York for a while. In a railroad flat on the Lower East Side. And I started making toys for the kids again. Busy place, the Lower East Side in 1876. Wall-to-wall people. Immigrants from all over. Give me your tired, your poor, your… ”
“But you moved pretty quickly to the North Pole. ”
“Yes. I met a rich man who said he would set me up. He liked what I did, making toys for the kids. I owe everything to him. He bought a million acres up here. Paid for me and Mrs. Claus to come up. Paid for a couple of elves. And the workshop. My hat is off to him. ”
“Who is he?”
“I can’t tell you. He prefers to remain anonymous. But you wouldn’t believe it if I told you who he was.”
“No I can’t tell you. I promised. He just did a good thing for me. He’s done good things for a lot of people. Always behind the scenes. He provided the funding for the Red Cross. And the Easter Bunny Company. And he provided the seed money for Apple. But I can’t tell you who he is.”
“A really nice guy though.”
“And the North Pole has slowly built up here?”
“It’s just been phenomenal. Look out the window. See for yourself. We will be bringing joy to billions of children this Christmas. That amount of happiness is unprecedented. It’s way over the top.”
“And you deliver it all yourself?”
“You must have a very fast sleigh.”
“Very fast. Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
“I think those are the slogans for somebody else.”
“We just hired some new public relations people.”
“And I’m told you have spent time in the Hamptons? You know this newspaper is published in the Hamptons.”
“Oh yes. I have fond memories of the Hamptons. That year we spent in New York, my wife and I went out there. But it was nothing like it is now let me tell you. Dirt roads. Cattle. Indians.”
“What did you do when you were out there? ”
“Oh, the usual. The beach. A little tennis. Dinner at Nick & Toni’s.”
“What does the future hold for Santa Claus?”
“Next year, we are going to go public. It will be the biggest public offering of all time. A zillion shares. Four different brokerage houses are handling it. Buy early and often. That’s my advice to everybody. You won’t
“And this is the first time you are announcing this?”
“Yes. Breaking news. I want you to have it.”
“Thanks, ” I said.
At that moment, a pretty young secretary elf poked her head in the door.
“Your 11 o’clock is here, Mr. Claus, ” she said.
“Thank you,” Santa said. He turned to me, shrugged and smiled. “Lawyers. Well, I hope you’ve got enough for a story,” he said.
“When is this going public going to happen?” I asked.
“Right after New Year’s,” he said. “There are a lot of pieces to it. At least that is what they tell me. You have any kids?”
“Yes,” I said.
He reached under his desk, pulled out something and stood up. Then he handed what he had pulled out to me. There were three tiny gift-wrapped boxes.
“For your kids,” he said. “These toys are going to be the latest rage, the hit of the season this year. People will be desperate to get them. And the stores will get some in and then they will sell out within an hour. There will be long lines. People making outlandish offers for them. And I want you and your kids to have them. ”
“What are they? ”
There was a twinkle in his eye. “Don’t open them until Christmas, ” he said. And then he threw a big mittened arm around me and he led me out the door.
“Ho, ho, ho” were the last words I heard him say. He was on the phone.