With voting on the SOPA legislation in the United States on the horizon in the coming year, it seems that the festive story I wrote a few years ago, You’re a Pirate, Santa Claus, is more relevant than ever. While not quite as topical (and certainly not as timely), I would like to present to you a prequel. Set at the end of the Cold War, I hope that it sheds some light on Santa’s backstory, building up to his ultimate decision to become one with the internet. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!
THE HAND THAT WRITES THE NAUGHTY LIST
by: Jesse Betteridge
A single day after Christmas had passed in the west, Veliky Ustyug had descended into unprecedented silence. The isolated Russian town was rarely seen, but universally known as a source of both military pride and holiday cheer across the vast reaches of the Soviet Union. As the home of Ded Moroz, the gift-giver and hero of the proletariat children, this reputation spread far beyond the borders of the Motherland. While deceivingly quaint at first glance, the town was a normally a bustling military stronghold, with artillery holds and Spetsnaz training facilities standing in harmony between quaint little shops preserved in time from long before the revolution. Prior to this day, the might and pride of the town would’ve been apparent at first glance. Christmas was not a holiday that suited Soviet sensibilities, but this bustling community nevertheless upheld the same unmistakable spirit. As of this day, a mere week before the traditional Russian festivities, that might and pride had fallen silent.
Santa Claus observed the town through his binoculars. Camped out a mere two kilometres away, he peered at his watch apprehensively: 08:23. 26 December 1991.
Unlike the North Pole, there wasn’t a gumdrop mineshaft or candy cane transmission tower to be seen in Veliky Ustyug. Instead, the gigantic ice fortress that Ded Moroz called home permeated the town with whimsical glory. While a towering and imposing structure, the sheer beauty of its icicle spires and cavernous crevices normally attracted awe and amazement from even the most jaded residents of the town year round. However, all Claus had seen since arriving outside of the town’s perimeter was total desolation. With not an active distraction in sight, he was left continually haunted by the horrifying demand that had been made of him immediately after returning from his annual delivery the day before.
“The situation is unexpected and… unique,” a high ranking agent from the CIA had told him mere hours before he was expected to leave for Russia, “for various diplomatic reasons, you are the only one who can carry out this task. If you don’t do it, our very way of life will be at stake.”
He decided to move forward. Although there seemed little risk of interception at this point, Santa decided to err on the side of caution and remain in his sneaking suit. He rose from his stealth crawl and prepared to scuttle down the hillside toward the abandoned town, when suddenly he felt a frozen whip grip around his ankle, digging sharp icicles deep into his skin. He toppled over to see the familiar form of Snegurochka rising from beneath the snowfields, pulling on the other end of the icy vine with little concern for the sharp edges piercing her bare hands. Despite the cold, not a single puff of air emerged from the Russian snow maiden’s frozen blue lips as Claus listened to the frigid tone of her voice.
“I know why you’re here,” she whispered as she dragged him closer, “you’re here to kill my grandfather!” Powdered snow tumbled down her fuzzy blue cap and sprinkled through her long, platinum blonde hair as he saw her ascend from the snow, the bind around his leg continually tightening.
“I’m under strict orders!” yelled Claus, searching for some way to to break free. “Your empire is no more, but Ded Moroz will never let it go. Keeping him alive would jeopardize international relations!”
Enraged, Snegurochka whipped the lengthy vine of ice into the air, Claus along with it. “He is the ESSENCE of the Soviet Union,” he heard her scream from midair before he crashed head first into the rocky edge of a cliff. He opened his eyes, desperately trying to stay focused on Snegurochka. While his vision was not stable, it was clear that the tranquil periphery of the town was now being engulfed by a small snowstorm.
He could vaguely comprehend her figure as she slowly walked towards him. Even in his dazed state, he could see that her eyes had shifted towards an intense shade of bright blue as her fair skin grew even paler. “You are both Santas!,” she said. “Can you not see that distributing wealth is emblematic of what you call ‘Christmas spirit?’ Or are you too caught up with mass-producing brand name products and embracing corporate production sensibilities to see that anymore? That they’re really one in the same?”
“No, things are just as they’ve always been,” Claus stated with troubled confidence, “you two are the ones who’ve lost their way!”
Snegurochka laughed as she moved closer. Claus, slowly regaining his composure, noticed she had drawn an enormous sickle from a small satchel hanging at her waist. “Oh, if only you knew.”
“I’m not sure what you’re hoping to accomplish with that,” said Claus trying desperately to get back on his feet, “you should know that a Santa can only be killed by the hands another Santa.”
“I fall under that category as well!” she retorted. “And you certainly wouldn’t be the first Santa I’ve killed!” She began dashing towards Claus, her sickle drawn and ready to pierce his heart.
“NO HOLIDAY SPIRIT BURNS AS BRIGHTLY AS THAT OF DED MOROZ!” she cried as she swung with remarkable skill. Without a second thought, Claus leaped backwards off the cliff. Knowing that such a petty stunt would not be enough to kill the jolly old man, Snegurochka peered over the rocky edge, hoping to locate him in the gorge below. Next she knew, a long spear had emerged seemingly from nowhere, and pierced directly through her torso. Claus was hanging off of a rock not a metre below the edge, where he had more than ample access to his own bag of tricks.
Blue blood trickled into the snow as she fell on her back and saw Claus quickly flip over the edge of the cliff. “I didn’t want it to come to this,” he said, fixing his hat and lighting his pipe, “but you are just as much a liability as he is. Chances are, you had already been placed on the naughty list.”
“And are you even the one who writes the list anymore?” she yelled, refusing to hold back her scorn. “With my grandfather and I dead… you’ll be the only one left. I hope you can carry that burden well.”
Claus responded with not so much as a jolly laugh. He turned his back and pressed forward into the gradually calming winter storm, smoke blowing from his mouth.
He entered Veliky Ustyug. The town was deserted, but it was impossible to tell whether it had actually been abandoned. It was a short walk, but each step Claus took towards the ice fortress intensified his inescapable dread and reluctance. The snow maiden’s storm had subsided entirely, but the calm air only made Claus more aware of the wounds he had gained on his head and ankles. As silent tension built, he could not help but question his objective: was the risk of Ded Moroz going rogue really that high? As Snegurochka said, becoming the last of his kind would be a high price to pay, but surely a Santa who had lost his way was of no use to anyone. Surely his Soviet counterpart was the one who had lost his way.
Suppressing his doubt, he arrived at the entrance of the ice fortress. The front bridge extended and the massive doors were wide open and unguarded. Ded Moroz was waiting for him.
Claus entered the vast fortress, surrounded by massive walls that plunged from a high ceiling into deep pit surrounding its perimeter. The architecture and design were magnificent, but the walls had been pillaged of any decor. The room was rife with impending transition, and all that remained in place was a narrow ice bridge leading up to a massive throne, occupied by a sickly old man. In his hands was the long handle of a giant hammer, its head firmly planted in the ground near his feet.
“Hah! You’ve arrived quicker than I expected.” Claus could feel the narrow bridge beneath him subtly shift along with the tone of Ded Moroz’s voice as he spoke. “For decades, Christmas has been all but taboo here in the Motherland but it looks like that’s going to change now. The Soviet Union has dissolved, and they even had the audacity to announce it on December twenty-fifth… the day of celebration for western pigs!”
He remained still, his red and white coat sagging off of his withered frame, his mouth completely obscured by his grey, wiry beard. “So you really are going to do this? Even after we worked so hard to universalize and ignite the holiday spirit beyond the bounds of religion? Even after we fought side-by-side in the Santa Gladiatorial Battles years ago, when it was supposed to be every Santa for himself? Hah, who am I kidding… I’m sure you barely remember that.”
Claus paused. He did, indeed, have only hazy memories of what should be a defining and bizarre moment in his life. He wanted to dwell on the issue, but found it impossible to concentrate as the hall’s atmosphere grew more intense. “It pains me to have to do this,” he said in a defiant tone, “but it’s too dangerous to keep you alive!”
“Spare me!” said Ded Moroz, “I know who really put you up to this, but I’m not sure it’s quite as clear to you. I’m going to have to teach you a lesson in puppetry.” A barrage of long icicles shot down from the roof and pierced through Claus’ shoulders and arms. The bridge unravelled beneath his feet, leaving him as little more than a marionette dangling in midair. It was clear beyond any doubt that Ded Moroz held a psychic connection with his fortress and controlled it like an extension of his own body.
“You’re still being held by your strings,” said Ded Moroz, “but the facade is unfolding before my eyes. Unlike you, my body is now beginning to reject the drugs. I’ve begun to see what’s really going on: the repetitive, brainwashing routine they subject us to every year. I’m beginning to see through the tinsel-trimmed blindfold, and there’s no going back. That’s the real reason that you were sent here today.”
Claus felt the sharp icicles dig further into his arms as they swung his limbs from side-to-side against his will. Normally he was ambivalent to this type of pain, knowing that death was impossible… but since Ded Moroz was one of his kind, a rare sense of dread ignited within him.
“Only two people were able to extinguish me,” said Ded Moroz, “my granddaughter, who was too fiercely loyal to compromise… and you.” His face lit up with a knowing grin. “But then again, with the knowledge I now possess, perhaps suicide is the best option.”
“Suicide?” Claus’ struggle to understand the crazed ramblings was cut short as the dangling icicles dragged his punctured body towards the throne of Ded Moroz. His right arm, now completely out of his control, was aided down into his magical sack. The spear he had used to kill Snegurochka was dispatched and pointed directly at Ded Moroz’s neck.
“We are one and the same, Claus,” he said, “you’ve just forgotten! We were splintered into two entities after the second World War! We are two halves of a whole!”
From this angle, Claus could only stare into the blank, hollow eyes that now dominated Ded Moroz’s face, and smell the thick stench of vodka emanating from his breath. “But… how could that be?”
“Let’s just say that the Nazi scientists bit off more than they could chew when they captured our progenitor and created us. When the war ended, you and I became spoils for the new superpowers…. our very individual natures and ideologies, the very things that define our identities… all a mere experiment set loose on the world! Think about it Claus, do you remember anything about your past? About your colonization of the North Pole? The establishment of your gingerbread economy? The enslavement of your elves?”
Claus strained to find the memories of what should have been defining moments in his career, but he could not. “Where those things came from… has never been important! The spirit of Christmas is pure! Eternal! Without explanation!”
“NONSENSE!” yelled Ded Moroz. The fortress around him warping into a spiral pit, spinning clockwise into the ground. The threads of ice dug deeper into Claus’ arms as his spear hovered closer to his rival’s brittle throat, “You’ve been dragged into a submissive routine! The same thing happened to me, my friend. Snegurochka, whom you’ve already killed…. she may have been a Santa, she may have been loyal… but she certainly wasn’t my granddaughter. It was all a ploy!”
“NO!” screamed his other half, closing his eyes with intensity, “I am Santa Claus! The burning holiday spirit I spread each year is my own! I’m a pawn to no one!”
“THEN PROVE IT!” roared Ded Moroz. “Kill me with your hands, not theirs! The time has come!” Claus struggled summon memories of his past, trying to bring merit to his objective, but he could not. It seemed unquestionable that he had been reduced to a drug-addled cipher, a lowly hit man. There was no way out of it at this point. At the very least he had to determine whether or not there was truth to Ded Moroz’s words. Thinking of only one solution, he closed his eyes, and searched for the essence of his surroundings in his own mind.
Suddenly, the spiral pit surrounding the two Santas stopped, then began to shift direction. After a slow start, it took on a brisk counterclockwise momentum, guided by the icy threads that suspended Santa Claus. He realized now that could control the fortress just as Ded Moroz did. He warped their surroundings until the entire structure spiralled under their feet, their figures suspended solely by the airflow being propelled from beneath. Claus morphed Ded Moroz’s throne into an icy tomb encasing all but his face, as his faithful hammer was propelled into the air. “Yes, Claus, now you understand!” yelled Ded Moroz joyously, “never forget that you are an all-powerful being…”
The two fell to the ground near the edge of what was now a vast empty pit as the wreckage of the ice fortress collapsed around them. “… and never forget,” he muttered in a final piercing sneer, “that the second you go against the agenda, you’ll be betrayed just as I was.”
Claus, bloodied and bruised beyond mortal measure, forced himself up and retrieved his spear from the snow. With as forceful a blow as he could muster, he plunged it straight through the icy encasement around Ded Moroz’s chest.
“S Rozhdestvom… Santa Claus!” With a smile on his face, Ded Moroz’s body transitioned into ice, becoming indistinguishable from the crypt that encased him. Santa walked through the village amidst the wreckage. The townspeople, who had mostly been wallowing away in their homes cautiously emerged, staring out in complete awe. Santa said nothing as he walked past them, and made no effort to hide the stern tears flowing down his rosy cheeks as his white beard flowing majestically in the cold northern wind . Behind him, the edge of the town had been reduced to a pit surrounded by a lifeless snowfield. In the far distance, the hammer of Ded Moroz stood half-buried in the white terrain.