The Carrot of Doom Presents...
The Trials of Christmas
Sleighing the mind of Adam J Purcell
It was a dark and chilly night; the snow fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the bright Christmas decorations that struggled against the darkness.
Inside one house a little boy, Johnny, couldn't sleep. For it was Christmas Eve and soon, very soon, Father Christmas would be paying him a visit.
It felt like forever but finally Johnny heard the little midnight chime of the faux antique clock downstairs. It was Christmas! At last! He could barely stop himself jumping out of bed in excitement but instead pulled the duvet even tighter under his eyes.
What was that? He was sure he'd heard a noise out on the landing. It was him! It was Father Christmas! It had to be! What his parents had told him about Father Christmas not needing a chimney these days must be true after all. Father Christmas had never failed to turn up before but Johnny hadn't ever been able to stay awake long enough to actually see him. He stayed as still as a rock, the anticipation oddly mixed with a little fear. He mustn't let Father Christmas know he was awake or he might not get any presents.
The door creaked slowly open. Johnny's eyes, scrunched up but not quite closed, could just about make out a large figure quietly sneaking through the door with what looked like a large sack on his back.
"Hello, little Johnny" the kindly white-bearded man whispered. "You should be asleep..."
In another time and place a Court room began to fill. The occupants weren't people, though. They were elves. Father Christmas' unique little helpers were once again gathering for the latest trial. The general hubbub continued as an elf was led into the dock in chains. "Another one already?", "How long has this one lasted?" and "Thank goodness that isn't me up there" were common phrases among the other elves who had come to watch the trial. The door behind the Judge's bench opened and hush fell upon the room. A fearful, pleading, look on the defendant elf's face greeted the Judge as she sat.
"You know what you are accused of, Elf 16789. How do you plead?" Mrs. Christmas, the judge, demanded to her worker.
"I'm innocent!" squeaked the terrified little elf.
"Very well, let's look at your crimes..." Mrs. Christmas said slightly wearily. They never accepted their fate without a fight... "Prosecution Elf..."
"Yes, Ma'am!" a smart elf shot up from his little stool at the front of the court. He looked expectantly at the Judge. She raised her eyes to the ceiling. It had been a long year. Each year was getting more difficult than the previous. The demands continually increasing on them all. She just prayed that they'd get more new elves this year than last.
"Just get on with it." Mrs. Christmas said no less wearily.
"Oh, of course!" the elf squeaked as he leant down to pick up a thick set of fan-folded printout pages that concertinaed open to the floor. "This proves conclusively that Elf 16789 is the least efficient elf on staff."
"Elf 16789?" Mrs. Christmas turned to look at the defendant.
"I... I... It's not fair! I used to make the most beautiful wooden toys! Now you've got me making cheap clothes and packing CDs. Where's the craftsmanship in that..."
"Times change. You know very well that kids today want the latest computer games and techno-toys. We all wish for the old days but these kids want things we simply cannot create here. I sure I don't need remind you of that international court case a few years back - we can't even clone these things any more. Not that we could keep up with these technological changes if we wanted to. There just isn't enough magic in all of the North Pole for that." Mrs. Christmas replied sternly.
"Yes but we weren't a sweat shop when I first joined..." Elf 16789 said sadly.
"We need to make money. We all know that." Mrs. Christmas said looking around at the elven audience. "Most of the toys these days come directly from the human corporations. Even at our massive bulk discounts we still need money. Low skilled, high volume, manufacturing is all we've got left. Let's hear no more of this."
"I'm asleep!" Johnny insisted, his voice muffled by the duvet pulled up over his mouth.
"I don't think you are, Johnny..." Father Christmas said, the exhaustion clear in his voice.
"Aww, does this mean I don't get any presents?"
"I'm afraid so."
"That's not fair!"
"Most children can't stay awake when I'm about to arrive. It's magic, you see. Just as I'm about to appear in the house any children who are still awake will drift off to sleep. Only the really bad ones are able to resist it. Have you been bad, Johnny?"
Father Christmas laughed softly. "I can see you aren't. You're just one of those even rarer unlucky ones." He looked at his big watch. "I'm going to have to hurry, I'm running out of time."
"How do you visit every child in one night?", Johnny asked, hoping to keep Father Christmas around a bit longer so he might change his mind. "My friend's older brother says it's impossible. It's magic, isn't it?"
"Yes, Johnny, it's magic." he sighed. "You see, for you this is just one day a year but for me it is 364 days, time works differently for me. I get one day, sometimes two, off a year. It's hard work, Johnny, even with magic. Back home my elves are working around the clock, everyday, getting ready for Christmas. I go back home, rest while they fill my magic sleigh, and then off I go again. And every year I seem to have to visit more and more houses in that time..." Father Christmas looked more tired than anyone Johnny had ever seen.
"Can't you get some other people to help - like those fake Father Christmases you send to the shopping centres?"
Father Christmas laughed gently. "I wish it worked like that. No, there can be only one real Father Christmas."
"But, but... I can work harder!" Elf 16789 wept.
Mrs. Christmas looked over at the Prosecution Elf, who shook his head, and then over to the silent, and very token, Defence Elf, who simply averted his eyes.
"No, I don't believe you can. I know you will have been working your hardest. All elves know what could happen if they perform the worst." Mrs. Christmas said, like so many times before. "Many elves have died of exhaustion this year. I believe you will go the same way if you try to work any harder - some elves just don't have what it takes to be productive in this new world, no matter how hard they try. No, there is still one way you can really shine..."
"NO!!!" the little elf pleaded.
"This court finds you... Guilty!"
"I really must be on my way. You can't be late if you're Father Christmas. I'm sorry, Johnny..."
"Aww, just one present? Please?"
"No, I'm not sorry for that." Father Christmas said as he knelt down to ruffle Johnny's hair. "I'm sorry that we need children like you - I don't make the rules..."
Johnny convulsed as Father Christmas stood up and stepped back. He watched on, as he had done too many times now, as Johnny's soul was ripped from his body and fell to the floor through the bed. Johnny stood up uncertainly, looking down at the lifeless body he was standing in.
"I feel most sorry for your family. It won't be a Merry Christmas for them..." said Father Christmas as he watched the excruciating pain of the face of the spectral Johnny as he changed into an elf. "But elves don't grow on trees, you know..."
A shuffling noise emanated from the corridor outside the court room. Everyone turned to watch the door open. Two of the bigger elves were helping Father Christmas into the court and up toward the bench. Mrs. Christmas gasped and stood up, looking down at proceedings.
"I don't think I can handle my sherry any more..." Father Christmas quipped weakly, barely able to lift his head enough to see Mrs. Christmas.
"You did a magnificent job. You always have." Mrs. Christmas said to him softly. "You made it back, that's what matters most."
Father Christmas nodded almost imperceptibly. He fumbled to pull his iconic red hat off, the elf on his right helping him. "Time for a big rest, I think..." Father Christmas said, a tangible sense of relief in his weak voice.
The two elves holding Father Christmas let him slump gently to the floor and moved away. One carried his red hat to Mrs. Christmas, who leaned over to take it. She then stepped down from the bench and walked the short distance to the dock. The convicted elf tried to flee in terror but two more guard elves held him in place as Mrs. Christmas forced the hat onto his head. There was a blood curdling scream as the convicted elf clawed fruitlessly at his head. The poor elf, wracked with agony, began to swell and grow. His green clothes expanded with him and became red. His face became human, white hair spouting from the bottom half of his face.
Mrs. Christmas turned to the broken figure of the hatless Father Christmas on the floor. "Yes, you deserve a big rest. I'm sorry. It's the fairy tales of the humans that make the rules, the magic. Not us. We just have to live by them."
The old Father Christmas smiled. It wasn't the jolly smile he couldn't help when out on his seemingly endless deliveries, it was a genuine smile of relief. Without pain, for once, he began to change, revert. Before their eyes the big figure of the old Father Christmas became a little boy, as he had been so long ago. The life faded from his eyes and the soul, so long separated from his body, itself fell into eternal slumber. Peace, at last, for one unfortunate and torment beginning for the next Father Christmas.