December 22, 1953
The North Pole
Santa’s Caucus Room
The ancient cuckoo clock struck ten o’clock. Whistler, Santa Claus’s Head Elf and Chief of Staff, looked up from his task list and gritted his teeth. He hated that clock as much as Santa loved it. To his round-bellied, white-bearded boss, the clock represented whimsy and allegorical innocence. To Whistler, it was a constant reminder of deadlines, bleating out warnings in its maniacal cackle.
The windows of Santa’s North Pole Caucus Room framed a view of winter darkness and driving snow. The fire crackled and snapped, warming Santa as he sat hunched forward at the conference table, plowing his way through a mountainous stack of folders. Each folder contained more than pieces of paper. As Whistler well knew, each held a child’s special wish.
The intensity of this year’s nightly status meetings would go down in the record books. In his more than 150 years on the job, Whistler couldn’t recall a December filled with as many last minute snags and special requests.
Opening the door, Whistler summoned his elf helpers from the antechamber. With silent hand signals, he cued them to refill the oil lamps and fetch another plate of cookies for Santa. As always, they did his bidding with silent efficiency. Nodding his thanks, Whistler brusquely shooed them back down the corridor to their workbenches.
Santa reached for his pipe. He struck a match and puffed away, closing the last of the folders.
Whistler poured the tea and added a splash of reindeer milk along with sugar. Christmas couldn’t come and go fast enough. The big jolly guy was stressed out but good. At least the end was in sight—two days until show time.
“Have we finished with tonight’s problem reports?” Santa asked. He balanced his spectacles on his head, rubbed his tired eyes, and then dipped his hand into the cookie plate.
“No,” Whistler said. He placed his red ‘Action Required’ binder on the table. “Two new letters arrived with the evening post. Both have unusual circumstances. I’ve escalated them for your decision, sir.”
Santa tut-tutted, conveying annoyance at the honorific. He liked to think of himself as a member of the proletariat. Whistler knew better. Only one man reigned supreme here, and he wore a red suit.
Holding out a pale and plump hand, Santa waited.
Whistler passed him the first letter, along with a picture of the boy who wrote it.
Finishing up a snicker doodle, Santa read and sat back, tapping his finger against his red lips. “David Starsky. Brooklyn, New York. Age ten,” he said. He examined the black and white photograph, skimming his fingers over its surface, gleaning insights. The boy’s hair was a dark mop of wild curls, and his smile was bold and charming. His eyes shone with keen intelligence and mischief. It was clear that he was a natural leader and an occasional brawler—fearless in confrontation, willing to stand up to unfairness.
“Where’s the rest of this lad’s file?”
“He doesn’t have a file. Gobi and his archive team conducted a full record search. David Starsky is a first timer. He is also Jewish.”
“He is a persuasive little rascal.” Santa smiled, but sadness crinkled at the corners of his eyes.
“He’s a hellion with a tender and flamboyant heart,” Whistler added. Centuries of experience served him well. He could read the characters of children in his sleep.
“Young Master Starsky has spunk and optimism,” Santa said. “But he is often caught in the middle. His mother has a nervous constitution, and at present, his father is injured. Both parents are prone to inconsistency in communication. When their lives move in a smooth direction, they humor their oldest son, along with his high spirits and pranks. When they experience chaos, they reprimand him for the very things they previously praised. They tell him to grow up and be responsible, yet in the next breath, they send signals that he is a mere child who knows nothing.
“They want to control him, as though he is the stage built for their own traumas and fears and hopes. As his letter shows, while David does not judge his parents, he is sad and resentful.” He picked up the letter, written on lined paper with a dull-pointed number two pencil. Clearing his throat, he read aloud.
My name is David Starsky and I’m ten years old. Ma would blister my butt if she knew I was writing you, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway. My Pa’s a cop. He busted up a robbery last week and got stabbed. Now he’s home all day until he can go back to work. He’s worried about money. My Ma is always in my face. She’s worrying about Pa and my fresh mouth and my friends and my report card and my little brother, Nicky. The problem is, when Ma and Pa worry, it comes back on me. Today, Pa grounded me for fighting. I wasn’t fighting. I was protecting my baby brother from a bully. Now, Ma won’t let me out of the apartment to play with my friends. She’s afraid I’ll get mixed up with hoodlums.
Anyway, I hear you’ve got pretty good magic and you grant wishes. My wish is to have some time for myself and a life of my own. You know, so my parents stop smothering me and explaining me to me. I can’t hardly breathe. I don’t got any freedom. I don’t want any toys. I want to be free. Oh— I’m Jewish. I don’t know if that matters to you. And I haven’t been all that good this year, but I’ve been better than most of my friends. I hope that counts.
Santa reached for another cookie. He chewed, rereading the letter and musing.
“The boy’s wish is impossible,” Whistler said.
“Perhaps. But perhaps not.” Santa rubbed his beard. “This boy is brimming with uncontained energy. He thinks of freedom as a destination, as a place outside of himself. He is still too young to understand that freedom can be a state of being, grounded in the understanding of self. Right now, he seeks permission to indulge his every impulse.”
“As I said,” Whistler repeated, “what he requests is beyond the scope of our workshop.”
“No,” Santa chided. “We need to think creatively. David Starsky has a sharp and curious mind. Yes, he’s a rebel in the making, but his soul contains not one shred of malice. However, too much of his energy is devoted to resenting factors he cannot change. We need something to contain him, to redirect his frustration and tap his enthusiasm—something to focus him in the here and now, to build his confidence and reward his patience.”
Whistler listened silently, adding encouraging nods at Santa’s words.
“Let’s challenge his mind,” Santa said. “He enjoys solving problems. Let’s find a gift for both his brain and his hands.”
“What about an Erector Set?” Whistler asked. “The workshop elves have fascinating new kits this year—skyscrapers and bridges and rocket ships.”
“Excellent choice! Assembling the models will tap into his creativity, consume his imagination, and teach him about rewards of concentration and careful work.” Santa cracked a relieved smile. “Make it two Erector Sets, the most extravagant models we have. And throw in a fleet of toy trucks for his baby brother. Well done.”
He clipped a work order to the new David Starsky folder and set it aside. “Now. Did you mention a second letter?”
Yes,” Whistler said. He slid a thick file across the table. “It is repeat business. Kenneth Hutchinson, also age ten, of Duluth, Minnesota.”
“Ahhhh.” Santa opened the folder and scanned. “I see we have a pair of racing skis in production, exactly as he asked. What is the problem?”
Whistler tapped on the letter. “He’s had a change of heart.”
“Read the letter to me.” Santa slumped back in his big wooden chair, hands folded in his lap.
Adjusting his eyeglasses, Whistler squinted at the small and neatly formed letters on the page.
Sorry to bother you again. I know my first letter asked you for new downhill racing skis. I got to thinking, and wanted to tell you I don’t want those skis. My father’s the one who wants me to have them. If you bring me those skis, he’ll make me compete on the ski team again this year and I don’t want to. I wish I could make him proud, but I don’t when I ski. I only disappoint him.
What I really want is a life of my own. I want to see what’s outside of Duluth—I want to see and know everything. I want to understand what I think and what I care about. But I can’t, because my father is always busy telling me who I am and what he sees in me.
If I can’t have freedom, is it okay to ask for nothing this year?
Santa frowned and jotted new notes on margin of the letter. He looked at the photograph clipped to the folder. A winsome blond-haired boy smiled shyly from the picture. Kenneth Hutchinson was an affectionate child—a peacemaker whose obedient demeanor hid a deep wellspring of anger and sorrow. He was a misfit in a family defined by emotional distance and relentless control. “I remember this boy,” he said. “And I remember his father—an overachiever who won’t ease up on his son.”
His fingers fretted over the rim of his teacup. The problem cases—when children’s entreaties moved beyond simple pleas for toys and into the ways adults shaped their worlds—always hit him like a blow below the belt.
Understanding all too well, Whistler gave a small nod of sympathy. He removed Santa’s teacup and reached for the bottle of brandy and two snifters on the credenza. Pouring a generous glug in each glass, he sat back to await further orders.
Santa emptied his brandy glass in one long swallow. “Cancel the skis.”
Whistler stamped ‘Remove from Production’ on the Hutchinson work order. “How about a puppy instead?”
“That’s a very bad idea, Whistler.” Santa puffed on his pipe and exhaled a cloud of cherry scented smoke. “A puppy is too risky for a boy like this, in a family like this. His parents view him as a commodity more than a person. He is merely a reflection of them, and his feelings are of little matter. If he disappoints his father, the punishment could mean taking his puppy away. No. We cannot risk giving joy that could backfire and break his heart.”
“Wisely put.” Whistler nursed his brandy.
“Let’s bring the world to him,” Santa said. “The boy dreams of freedom and faraway places. Give him a set of encyclopedias and a gazetteer. As he reads, he will gain knowledge about destinations and ways of life he cannot even yet imagine.”
“Well chosen, sir.” Whistler dipped his pen into the inkwell and updated his list. “Now, I am pleased to report that tonight’s work is done.”
Santa pulled the photographs of the boys from the folders and placed them side by side on the table. There was an existential quality about their letters arriving simultaneously. On the surface, David Starsky and Kenneth Hutchinson were opposites—of dark and light, of extrovert and introvert, of confidence and shyness. What they shared was an eagerness to leave the chains of childhood behind. And an aching loneliness. Their Christmas wishes spoke in one voice. Dear Santa—please give me a life of my own.
“I have a feeling about these two lads,” Santa said. The lantern glow captured his pensive look and his ruddy cheeks.
“Santa’s intuition?” Whistler knew Santa’s moments of prognostication, more often than not, hit the mark.
“These two dissimilar boys will meet someday,” Santa promised. “Their life journeys will intersect.”
“You sound confident,” Whistler said.
“I am.” Santa refilled his glass. It was more than the nightcap fueling his vision of these boys and fate’s preordination that their paths would cross. Here, in his frozen outpost, he was privy to a glimpse of the future.
Santa smiled. Yes. He knew. When David and Kenneth finally met, each would be the other’s most precious gift—the mutual realization of their deepest and unspoken yearnings.
He knew the undeniable fact of these boys and their someday future. Just as he knew the North Star would peer over his shoulder on his long Christmas Eve sleigh ride… just as he knew that Venus, cold in the brittle dawn sky, would steer him safely home.