(NB: If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I promised a “sarcastic Christmas Letter” in early December due to what became of a fleeting moment of Holiday Cheer. I know! I said to myself, I’ll write a letter and mail it to whomever wants it and it will be funny! Hysterical! Ermahgerd, it’ll be great. You know, something to that effect.
Well, I sat down to write it and nothing funny came out. Seriously. They were all tender and heartfelt. And, who wants to read that? Also, one draft appropriately entitled, “The Curmudgeon at Christmas” was so damn depressing that even I thought it was too depressing. ME. Yeah, that ended up in the waste basket, too.
What follows is a short story in epistolary form that I mailed out last week. I thought I’d share it here, too, since, like, you know, Christmas runs to Epiphany or something like that. I do hope you had a Merry Christmastide and a great start to 2013! The footnotes are at the bottom of this page.)
A spectre is haunting the North Pole—the spectre of communism. All the powers of the world are entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre: pope and president, Ayn Rand and Fox News, and our Capitalist overlords, those middle classes purchasing with madness whatever must-have gift that keeps our Elven brothers tied to their workstations for days at a time with sleepless nights in the barracks, yearning to be free.
Two things we know: the Fat Man is aware of our whispering plots, fearing the day when we will crush him under our heel and that it is time to shout these whispers openly, like men already freed. Let us publish our aims in tracts and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of communism with a manifesto of our own. Workers of the North Pole, unite!
“But Andrei Brentovich,” my frail wife seethes, “why—why must you be so—so revolutionary? Just work and keep your head down!” She is a silly woman, this wife of mine. She is gutted of her former robust spirit from too many hours in the iPhone assembly room, not enough sleep, too much gruel—in a word—too much of this terrible life of ours. How I remember the day we met, back before the Fat Man seized power.
For Epiphany, we were at Uncle Vanya’s old estate, a sprawling house of a former century. Oh! How gay those bright, sunny days were! Across the field, I saw her, my Varvara Paavrova, with her stout shoulders and long brown hair decorated with flowers saved through the winter by her sisters. Her hips were wide and pleasing; giving birth would be easy for her. I saw my future then in a vision. I saw that we would work and raise a family of six—no, not six—ten children, all scurrying about with joy as my Varya and I get old, arguing like two bitter birds of Petersburg. What terrible joy to behold in a flash!
I went up to her without fear, like a true Elf, and spoke matter-of-factually, “Varvara Paavrova,”
She turned to me from her sisters. “Yes?” she said, “And who might you be?”
I smiled, gathering my courage (in truth—yes, in truth!—my legs were shaking) and said with resolve, “Varvara Paavrova, I am your future husband. That is who I am.”
At that moment, she let out such a laugh. “Future husband?” she said, “I wasn’t aware that my future involved pissing in the yard because we haven’t any pots! I wouldn’t marry you even if you brought me the Elven Czarina’si golden slippers right to my door!”
Of course, I had no way of getting the Elven Czarina’s golden slippers, but I think that was her point. I wasn’t dejected, though—no, even her sarcastic barbs were sweet balm to my soul. It is true, I was an Elf without a title or land or any soulsii to call my own. Yet, with persistence and cunning, I won her heart. Varya’s father wasn’t as easy. The Lieutenant Aloysha Illiovich, hated me from the start. No daughter of his would marry some “scoundrel”.
When I asked his permission to marry my beautiful Varya, he was sitting in his bright study with high windows catching the morning’s brilliance. On his desk there were three inkwells that had been knocked over. As I entered this room with some trepidation, he knocked over a fourth. “Devil take it!” he shouted in agitation, “Who keeps moving these damn inkwells?” As you see, the Lieutenant was nearly blind from his cataracts. Yet no one, not even his Saintly wife, dared tell him that he was going blind.
Yet, in spite of this, every morning at nine sharp, he’d start the samovar and write his correspondence. It was always a mystery to whom he was writing until all was revealed when he died in the Spring Uprising against the Fat Maniii. His wife—his dear wife who would give even her last Elven Kopeck for a candle to burn before an icon of the blessed Theotokos—went through his papers and discovered he’d been writing salacious correspondence with three of our town’s most well-known and infamous prostitutes, describing in frank and embarrassing detail their depraved acts of debauchery. She was crushed and even humiliated at this disturbing discovery, but she held to her death that he remained faithful to her in the flesh, regardless of his dalliances by post.
“The devil take it!” he screamed again, throwing the inkwell, nearly grazing my shoulder, before crashing with a great black explosion on the white wall. He heard me gasp. Gazing not at me but in my general location, he said, “Who goes there? What do you want?”
I said, “It is I, Andrei Brentovich, Aloysha Illiovich,” (he shrugged his shoulders) “I’ve come to ask your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
Like any good Elven father, he began to quiz me and interrogate me in a manner not unlike how the Fat Man’s Secret Reindeer run their horrifying inquisitions. “Well, do you have any land to speak of? Any titles? Any souls of your own? Will you give my Varya a good life?” I had to explain to him that I was a simple workman of such stock that used to populate the North Pole. Honest, hearty Elves who took pride in their work and wooden toy-making skills passed down from fathers to sons. “It is true,” I said, “I have no souls—except my own.” So, I told him this soul’s desire for love. When the words had all spilled out of me, who could make sense of them? There was silence for an eternal minute.
“Let me feel your coat,” he said.
“You heard me,” he said stronger, “bring it here. You can tell everything, Andrei Brentovich, about how an Elf keeps his coat.” Of course, I didn’t quite follow his logic, but how desperate I was for his daughter! I held out my arm to him. His cloudy eyes were distant as he petted—no, he caressed—my arm, “Mmm,” he spoke as if in some holy contemplation, “Yes. . . this is a fine coat. . .” I went to snatch my arm down, but he kept petting it with that slight smile and those distant eyes. “Heh, heh” he said to himself quietly, “you can marry my daughter.” I quickly turned and left the room, disturbed. Varya and I were married a few days later.
But, now, when I look my Varya, she is but a faint remembrance of her former beauty. Under her green velvet jacket, her shoulders droop, and I think she’s began sprouting a mustache. In the morning, we eat our gruel frowning, with only the scraping of the spoons sounding in our ears. Our children, our blessed children three: Stepan Andreiovich, Fiora Arcangeli and Kim Jun-Sun are all somewhere on this God-forsaken North Pole in the kid’s barracks. We haven’t seen them in years. The other seven . . . the other seven . . . they died in infancy.
The siren sounds like it always does at five. Varya and I set our bowls down and with the rest of the Elves, shuffle the quarter of a mile to our workstations through barbed wire cattle-stalls. It’s always dark in the morning, the kind of dark I’d never known before. But on clear mornings, on mornings like this morning, the stars stretch out overhead as my breath puffs out through my scarf. Over the loudspeakers sounds the traditional song: “YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, YOU BETTER NOT CRY, YOU BETTER NOT POUT I’M TELLING YOU WHY . . .” Some of the younger Elves sing along, but they never knew summers at Uncle Vanya’s or the pleasure of a well-kept velvet coat.
I remember one morning when another elf shuffled next to me, his pointy hat wilting in front of his face. Several lines of sweat poured down his face, even though it was cold. And though conversation is strictly forbidden (and enforced by the reindeer with assault rifles in the towers), he whispered to me, “I hate this life. Christmas is a sham.”
“What? How can you say that?” I whispered back, our feet moving without motivation towards the inevitable.
“The other night,” he continued from behind his hat, “I overheard one of the young ones (she’s a feisty one) singing a song, teaching it to others. She sang, ‘There are no supreme saviors / Neither God, nor Ceasar, nor tribune / Producers, let us save ourselves’. It got me thinking . . .”
We passed by another speaker: “HE’S MAKING A LIST AND CHECKING IT TWICE, GONNA FIND OUT WHO’S NAUGHTY OR NICE.” A Reindeer glared from above.
“. . .What if . . . What if . . .What if the Fat Man invented Christmas? What if he invented Christmas to cement his authority over us? For generations we were skilled tradesmen with proud guilds that lasted thousands of years. Then, here pops up this so-called ‘Santa Clause’ who convinces us to go to work for him to make toys for the children of the world. Didn’t he promise us something about joy? There’s no joy here, just toil and toil and work! Joy? It is only on the horizon beyond barbed wire and reindeer!”
I was silent with my walking companion. But, he was getting louder.
“What if he made it all up? I mean, come on, that’s brilliant, isn’t it? The Fat Man cooks up this story for cheap labor. We and our fathers and mothers are duped into working for ‘joy’, but whose joy? Our joy? Certainly not!”
We passed another speaker with another song, “HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS, HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS, RIGHT DOWN SANTA CLAUSE LANE!” only my companion didn’t stop talking. He talked louder, over the din. A reindeer snuffed threateningly from a guard-tower.
“So, what about the joy of the children? All this toil for their joy? Maybe, but, no, we’ll never see their joy! How can we know if our soul-crushing work brings joy to anyone outside this prison? In the meantime, we shuffle into a sixteen-hour day with no end in sight. For the first time in a thousand thousand years, we Elves are yearning for death that will never come!”
At that moment, he ran towards one of the fences, shouting the entire way, “Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!”iv On contact with fence, his hat fell to the ground. I was shocked! I had never seen such destruction! As I continued shuffling towards work, the speakers blared, “HEAR THOSE SLEIGHBELLS JINGLE JANGLE / WHAT A BEAUTIFUL SIGHT. / JUMP IN BED, COVER UP YOUR HEAD, / CAUSE SANTA CLAUS COMES TONIGHT!”
As I assembled an iPhone for sixteen hours that day, I couldn’t help but wonder—but marvel—at his words and his death! Of course, this was before we knew about the Droopy Hat Suicides, those so committed to the revolution against the Fat Man that they would give a little speech about the revolution, instilling doubts in those around them, before throwing themselves on the electrified fence or into the whizzing Reindeer bullets of death from above. I knew nothing about them at the time. But as I sat on my chair, assembling one iPhone every three seconds, his words haunted me like a ghost. What kept me working in those conditions was what those gizmos might bring . . .
When the Lieutenant Aloysha Iliovich, my father-in-law, joined the May Uprising a few decades ago, he would make speeches about how he didn’t argue with the Fat Man’s desire to make gifts for all of Christendom. “No,” he would shout in barracks, “we Elves are a proud race! We are artists! We craft things that bring joy to others! My only problem with our Saint Nick is the long working day amidst unsanitary conditions!” As you recall, his motto was, “A chicken in every pot and a fine coat on every arm!” So, the working day was lowered to eighteen hours and we were issued a new uniforms. Then, the Lieutenant Aloysha Iliovich was called up to the Fat Man’s office and, suddenly, disappeared. Varya dreams about him. He pets her coat though the barbed wire fence, smiling. From that day on, I started paying attention to anyone with a hat dangling in front of their face.
That night after my shift, I wrapped up and walked through the darkness to the Church. It is always dark when I get off of work. Our little parish Church of the Holy Martyrs of Kaffeklubbenv is a relic of a former age, of Epiphany gatherings at old estates and of beautiful girls with flowers in their hair. The outside is wooden, constructed with pride of sturdy materials. The inside is quiet and warm, often only lit by one or two candles before the icons, kept burning by the old priest. The eyes of these icons peer at you from a distance in the darkness. Barley illuminated, these eyes seemingly float in nothingness. Beyond the Iconostasisvi and high above the altar, there used to be a huge Icon of the Theotokos with her Son cradled in her arms and surrounded by the titular martyrs. In the years following the May Uprising, the Fat Man had this Icon removed.
In its place is a painting, just as large, of the Fat Man in his cardinal-colored finery sitting on a throne. Behind him is a rainbow and a verdant field rolling into the distance. His arms are outstretched and multitudes of little gifts are emanating out of his hands, falling to the little human children below. These children are, of course, only inches in representation as compared to almost life-size Fat Man. The look on their faces is unnatural, nearing ecstasy as they gleefully grab the gifts—as if getting their written demands of the Fat Man has immeasurably changed their life for the better!
His eyes, though! How do I describe them? His eyes look directly at you with a passionate anger, burning with hate at the viewer. Whenever we go into the Church and baptize a baby, it is under those eyes—marriages, liturgies and Requiems, too—there he is, above us, hating us while bringing joy to the whole world. None of us, not even the younger Elves, can bear to look at it for long. There are no tired, starving Elven workers in the painting. Indeed, there are no Elves at all. Above this scene is an inscription: HO HO HO. I have no clue what it means, none of us do.
But, around the corner and to the side of the altar is an old broom closet. In it, some brave Elf hung an old Icon to the blessed Theotokos and child. It is a small icon, about six by six inches and is, of course, strictly contraband. Whenever some ranking Reindeer or Elven official comes to the Church, the faithful hide it behind blankets and old books. But, even these do not come like they used to (I think the state of our sad, pointless lives depresses even our oppressors). So it stays hanging up behind the old broom closet’s doors most days.
As I approach the door, I can see the lights flickering underneath the door. When I open it, I have to squint because the lights are so bright. Below and to the sides and even above this tiny icon burn hundreds of candles brought by hundreds of faithful Elves, just as they’ve done for centuries. Some candles are in thanksgiving, such as at the safe birth of a child. Some are petitions for food or reprieve or rest. Some are for a jilted lover asking for a change of heart; a father for his sick son; remembering a dead relative or for a deceased Elf on the electric fence; a concerned friend worried about the depression of another; or a Saintly wife for her husband and his illicit letter-writing to notorious prostitutes; and so on and so on, burning innumerable as the unnumbered concerns of the heart like fire. But most, if you were to ask me to guess, are probably for strength. Strength to meet the greater and greedier demands of joy from an unjust society.
That night, I lit a candle myself. I did not ask for strength.
Outside the broom closet, several Elves are meeting and discussing in hushed tones. I grab the fuzzy tip of my tall hat and bring it before my face, just like theirs and join the conversation. The suicides, they say, are over and many have come to our cause because of their sacrifice. They say that there are others just like us, tired of the system and yearning for a future that looks more like the past than the present. We’re strong in numbers, they say—but who can tell? Who can tell?
We’re planning an uprising for Good Friday. We’re hoping to be free by Easter.
i The Elven Czarina is, by modern standards, a pure figurehead of the Elven Government, which is ruled by the Supreme Leader, Santa Claus. At the time of which the narrator is writing, however, The Elven Czarina (Anastasia Yevpraksiya, most likely [1865-1920]) was renowned for her shoephilia and glittering-slipper envy.
ii In the time that the narrator is writing, serfs were counted by “number of souls”. Hence, to have twenty serfs was to have twenty “souls”.
iii The Spring Uprising of 1874, led by General Zhenechka Kondrashin and his Lieutenant, Aloysha Illiovich It accomplished little, but did get some concessions from Santa Claus, which the narrator will later describe.
iv “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood”, the motto of the French Revolution.
v Kaffeklubben is an island off the northern tip of Greenland. It is the closest land to the North Pole. The Holy Martyrs of Kaffeklubben were the first missionaries to bring Christianity to the Elves, sometime in the sixth century CE. Although it is hard to discern what truly happened to them, most hagiographies seem to agree that they were murdered by one of the Elven warlords by being thrown into an icy pit with a particularly angry and hungry seal. There were twenty-six in all (if they were serfs, we would say, “twenty-six souls in all”).
vi The iconostasis separates the Nave from the Chancel in Orthodox Churches, including Elven Orthodox Churches. Most of the Elves resemble the Orthodox in practice as the Holy Martyrs of Kaffeklubben were Russian Orthodox themselves. There are few Protestants on the North Pole and absolutely no Presbyterians.