Dec. 23 2010 12:00 AM

A Christmas story

“Climate change — to
deny it exists, to just put your head in the sand and say, ‘Oh, no, it
doesn’t exist, what are you talking about,’ is about like standing on
the floor of Macy’s during the month of December and claiming Santa
Claus doesn’t exist. Come on, get real.”
— U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., in an interview with the Des Moines Register, Oct. 24, 2010

Albert hated the smell of wet beard. And when Santa took his boots off — talk about climate change.

But Santa’s chief of staff was a team player. Albert stood quietly, breathing through his mouth, waiting for Big Red to break the silence.

Backsides to the fire, they looked at the ice outside the window.

“It’s coming back — no question,” Santa said. “The last two years, especially.”

Albert cleared his throat. “Not long term. Experts say, no more summer ice in the Arctic by 2020, maybe sooner.”


“And the new ice is a lot thinner, younger.”

“Yes, by definition!” Santa snapped. “In time, new things become old. I should know.”

Santa took a bottle of Jack Daniels from the cabinet, poured himself a stiff one, and moved closer to the fire.

Damp, limp, and unrefreshed, the two old associates had just returned from a tour of the North Pole works.

For years, Albert begged Santa to survey his melting domain, but Big Red was busy. Earth’s population has quadrupled in the last 100 years.

“More work,” Santa kept saying.

“More carbon emissions,” Albert would answer.

Albert was tall, thin, bald and wired tight, like Robert Duvall in “The Godfather.” He pronounced his name “Al-bear,” as in “polar bear.”

He and Santa went back a long way, through more image changes than Miles Davis, before the red and white suit and Coca-Cola, before the pipe and the 19th-century Thomas Nast makeover, before Father Christmas in his green robes, back, back to gaunt and lean times, to moonlit 18-hour nights, delivering wooden toys on foot in Finland.

As the operation scaled up, Albert became Santa’s indispensable man, a logistical genius who could track demand for iPads, negotiate with Islamic republics for airspace clearance, squeeze double overtime out of elderly elves.

Santa owed Albert. After years of putting off the climate change talk, he gave in, toured the ice cap and let Albert make his case.

Albert should have felt vindicated, but now he regretted pushing it so far. He’d never seen Big Red this pensive. And…was he losing weight?

“They’ll figure it out,” Santa said, downing another slug of Jack, still looking out the window. “They’ll fix it.”

“You said that 10 years ago,” Albert found himself saying. “They’re not fixing it.”

“Ach, my Krampus.”

Krampus was Santa’s nickname for Albert when their conversations got too heavy. In Alpine lands, where frightening little children is considered entertainment, the Krampus is Santa’s bad-cop sidekick, his enforcer, the demon who leaves coal in the stockings.

Coal. Gasoline. Oil. What’s the problem, Santa thought? I run on magic reindeer. I’m as green as they come.

He turned to Albert and asked the question he dreaded asking.

“What, exactly, do you expect me to do?”

“You have prestige you haven’t begun to tap,” Albert pleaded. “Convene the U.N. Security Council. Force a binding multilateral agreement. Cancel Christmas if they don’t agree to act this year.”

“Are you serious?” Santa said. “I didn’t even intervene in World War II.”

“Well, at least stop giving these out.”

Albert tossed a copy of Glenn Beck’s “An Inconvenient Book” onto the coffee table. Big Red smiled. Beck made him laugh. He liked the picture of the farting cow. It made him think of Blitzen.

“They’re harmful,” Albert said. “All the books by the climate change deniers.”

Santa sighed.

“You know my policy. I don’t judge. You want a gift, you get it.”

“Maybe it’s time to start exercising a little judgment.” Albert knew he was pushing it, but this was his chance.

“Where are you going to go in 20 years, when the ice melts? Do you want to move to Siberia, build everything on pikes and hope they don’t sink into the permafrost? Do you want to pay rent to Vladimir Putin?”

Santa frowned. He thought of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Now there was a gift he’d love to boycott.

Big Red wasn’t surprised at Albert’s outburst. Over the past few months, he got the feeling Albert was beginning to have doubts about the whole operation.

The first sign of Albert’s discontent came during the off season, when Big Red went on his spring junket to Atlanta to renew his key merchandising deal, with Coca- Cola. The trip is always a highlight of Santa’s year. He can go to Braves games, wear his favorite red suspenders, nobody notices. Nobody is thinking about Santa Claus in July.

Last summer, for the first time, Albert didn’t come along. Said he was tired.

Big Red felt abandoned. Who wants to drink with Ted Turner?

After Atlanta came Santa’s yearly Vatican trip. Still no Albert.

The Vatican was a high point for Santa this year. He found Pope Benedict easier to deal with than John Paul II. No lectures on Christmas materialism — at least to Santa’s face — and free use of the “St. Nicholas” trademark for another year. Win-win. The Vatican knows that Santa keeps lapsed Catholics and heathens within striking distance of Jesus. Remember when The Gap started using the word “Christmas” again instead of “Holiday?” Big success of theirs.

things went well for Big Red over the summer, but Santa’s mood was
still uneasy. Something was up with Albert. Arriving at the Pole a day
early after his summer trip, he found Albert poring over the Bhagavad

The elimination of desire, and the consequent elimination of suffering,
is hard to square with Christmas morning. No question about it —
Albert’s loyalty was melting along with the ice cap.

Santa squeezed the ice melt and whiskey from his beard, picked up Glenn Beck’s book and waved it at Albert.

“My job is to get people what they really want,” he said. “Family and friends only get you what they would want for themselves — or what they think you should want. Or closeouts.”

hated playing defense, but he was warming to the topic. He dropped the
book and made a broad sweep with his arm, as if to erase the blackboard
and go back to basics.

“It’s not the presents. It’s knowing that somebody cares enough about you to find out what you really want.”

Albert narrowed his eyes.

“You haven’t given Bill Clinton what he wants for 50 years.”

“Bill Clinton can take care of himself,” Santa fired back.

“Everybody knows you censor for sexual content,” Albert said. “Nobody ever gets porn from Santa. You’re
a prude. So why distribute stuff that does real harm?”

“I never
boycotted Britney Spears,” Santa murmured in defense, regretting his
words instantly. His left cheek twitched.


How long since he and Albert started out, dragging elk-hide
drums and dolls in birchbark dresses through chest-high snow in Lapland?
Now he had a cell phone in his belt buckle with the CEO of Mattel on
speed dial. And this trouble with Albert — was it all worth it?

He dropped Beck’s book on his desk.

Albert picked it up and waved it back at Santa.

“He’s not the only one that’s in denial.”

this is not the time,” Santa said. “Nobody is in the mood to hear about
climate change. They’re digging out of storms, waiting for planes.
People are freezing. You heard Jon Stewart: Who do I believe, Al Gore or
my rock-hard nipples?” “That was satire,” Albert said. “People will
lynch me,” Santa said. “I am only strong in my own sphere. If I step
outside of it, I’m Tom Cruise testifying before Congress, Marlon Brando
sending an Indian girl up for his Oscar.”

Santa took another drink and stared out the window.

The liquor was beginning to flood the coastline of his native optimism.

Maybe the experts were right, he thought. But if people want to cook the planet, what can I do about it? That’s the least of my worries.

North Pole logistics were getting more nightmarish every year.

anyone have any idea what it took to stuff all those iPads, laptops,
sleds, Hannah Montana Real Guitars and three-wheel ATVs into that black
hole of a sack?

Thank goodness for particle physics. Magic can only get you so far.

“Ach, the networking I have to do,” Santa thought to himself.

the Atlanta trip last summer, sharp eyes at Michigan State University
could have spotted Big Red in a green and white argyle sweater, in the
company of Konrad Gelbke, the director of the superconducting cyclotron
laboratory there.

connection went back to the 1980s, when Big Red was checking in at the
Santa Claus House in Heidelberg (quality control) and Gelbke was
studying at the Max Planck Institute.

large man who needs to visit a couple of billion people in one night — a
man whose workload is increasing with the world’s population — needs
serious mojo. High-energy particle beams circle the world a few times in
a second.

Santa had manufacturing, distribution and transportation operations beyond anything Arthur C. Clarke could imagine.

They were still around, but more out of it ever year, slipping into a
Biblical old age. Santa’s helpers still cobbled wooden horses, train
sets, dolls and other antiquarian toys together in the original
workshop, but not to the scale needed. Santa
sent elf stuff straight to expensive gift shops in places like Santa Fe
and Portland. Not for kids — for nostalgic adults. Most of his time he
was dealing in bulk, with companies like Warner Home Video, Apple, Sony.
At this moment, there were 500 things that cried for his attention.

He turned to Albert.

just can’t commit to this right now. I can’t stop climate change by
myself. We’ve got time to figure this out. Besides, you still can’t rule
out the possibility that it’s a myth.”

one to know one,” Albert snapped.

There was a very uncomfortable pause.
“My bags have been packed for a long time,” Albert said.

can’t be a part of this enterprise any more. It’s — unsustainable!”

Santa was dumbstruck. He stood watching as his old friend turned and

Lately, in
times of stress, Santa had fallen into the habit of pulling a piece of
paper from his pocket and reading it over and over. It was a white sheet
torn from a pre-printed pad. “From the Kenneth J. Anderson Family” was
printed on top, next to a billowing American flag and greasy stains from
a homemade peanut butter cookie.

Santa fondled the note like a rosary — so often it was worn down to tissue.

Santa, I’m sorry we’re making the North Pole melt. If you need a place
to stay, we have an extra room. Love, Alyssa, Akron, Ohio.”

Right now, Akron sounded great to Big Red. His own room, meat loaf on Tuesdays, popcorn every night, sleigh parked in the garage next to the GMC, weekly book discussion groups at Barnes & Noble. An ordinary life.

tugged at his belt. He took the buckle out of the well-worn hole he had
been using for the last 150 years, cinched the belt, and pushed it to a
shiny new hole, taking care not to accidentally call Mattel’s world

He really was losing weight.

his desktop computer flashed. Time for a stock check on one of 2010’s
hottest gifts: “Baby Alive Baby All Gone,” the doll that eats bananas and says, “Where did it go?” Big Red punched up the inventory spreadsheet.

“BABY ALIVE BABY ALL GONE model inventory 12-23-10 A.D. Caucasian backordered African-American backordered Hispanic supply critical.”

There was more bad news. He clicked on a flashing blue link. There were no more AAA batteries in the south warehouse.


Albert usually took care of this kind of problem. By now, Santa thought, he was probably on his way to an ashram.

Big Red was alone.

stared at the screen for a long time — so long that for the next six
minutes, whenever he blinked, the words “baby all alive baby all gone”
flashed in front of his eyes, white on black.