Long ago in a village far to the north there lived an aging widower named Nicholas. Nicholas and his wife had wanted children very badly and tried for many years until one day she found herself with child. Nicholas and his wife were ecstatic at this discovery and there was much celebrating, but it was not to last. Sixth months into the pregnancy Nicholas’s wife grew feverish and though the doctors and village elders saw to her care she and the child soon perished. Nicholas was left alone.
Missing his wife and the child that could have been Nicholas sought comfort in kindness and once a year when the day was short, the night the darkest, and the weather brought a biting chill to the air Nicholas gathered the village children for a great feast of gingerbread and cream. At this feast he would give them gifts of his own creation as they gathered round the yuletide fire and recited tales of the gods and heroes of old.
It had been many years since Nicholas had lost his wife and child and he was thinking about this year’s feast when he began to think about something else. Nicholas let his mind wander and found himself thinking about the life he could have had. Nicholas thought about what life would have been like had his wife and child lived. As he was thinking Nicholas lost track of time and location. He wandered deeper and deeper into the woods, and soon he was deeper into the woods than any human had been before. This was when he heard the laughter.
Up ahead of Nicholas was a short, round elf in a red and white suit laughing to himself and talking to some reindeer. Nicholas was shocked out of his thoughts and instantly weary as he knew the dangers of dealing with the spirits of the forest.
The elf turned and looked at Nicholas and said, “Who does there? Do not tell me. I know all the humans of the nearby villages. Nicholas, is it?”
“Yes,” Nicholas said.
“Thought so. I knew you’d come to me eventually. I am called Santa Claus though I am called other names as well, and I’d like to offer you a deal.”
“I do not believe I should take a deal from you, forest creature.”
“You haven’t even heard my offer. You don’t have to take the deal but know it is a long walk back to your village through a woods filled with dangers. You could trip over a root, bust your head, and wake to the wolves in full bloodlust gnawing on your liver. It is all up to you.”
“Safe passage. Is that all you offer? I have lived long enough.”
“I offer safe passage and much much more. Here is my deal. All I ask from you is for one day a year. On a day when the nights are long and the days are cold I will take your place in your realm and while I walk in your place in your realm you will be allowed to live one day with your wife and child in the future that could have been.”
“Is there nothing else?”
“One other small thing. When I come to meet you in a year’s time I would like a list of all the children in the village. I wish to know which ones are naughty and which are nice.”
“If that is all then we have a deal.”
“Good. You have a year to prepare my list.”
With that Nicholas awake in his bed the next morning unclear on if everything had been a dream or not. He felt like it had and it hadn’t. Just in case he would compose the list as Santa Claus wanted.
In one year’s time Nicholas went out to walk in the woods again. He had nearly forgotten about the deal he had made the year prior but he kept his list with him at all times. To hedge his bets he had made a list of only the nice children in the village.
Before long Nicholas found himself in the valley of Santa Claus once again and the jolly elf looked at him and said, “I am ready for my evening out. Do you have my lists?”
“List. I wrote down the names of all the nice children in the village.”
“So I am safe to presume that all the other children are naughty then?”
“No, no, they are just children. They are all innocent.”
“Innocence has nothing to do with it. Are they naughty or not?”
“No. I made my list based on the children that did an extra act of kindness.”
“So, the other children are naughty by neglect? They could have done more but choose not to.”
“They are normal children. All the village children are. They are all nice.”
“Why are they not all on the list?”
“I observed for those that went above and beyond.”
“I understand. We will speak of this no more. Enjoy your time with your family and I will figure out who is naughty or nice.”
Nicholas did indeed enjoy his time with his family. He sat down with his wife and child at dinner and discussed with them their day and then, after his child was asleep, he held his wife until the sun rose in the eastern sky.
Waking alone in his bed Nicholas again wondered if it were all a dream. Then he heard a scream from the village. By the time Nicholas got outside half the village was out there as well. “My child is missing,” one women called.
“Mine as well,” another answered.
“Mine too,” called out a distraught man.
By the time everyone was accounted for there were 14 missing children. None of them had been on Nicholas’s nice list. For the next year he blamed himself and this time he made certain to put all the children’s names on his nice list.
“This is not what I asked for, Nicholas,” said Santa Claus.
“It is a list of all the nice kids in the village.”
“It is a list of all the kids in the village. Did you learn nothing from last year?”
“I learned to put all the children on the nice list so that no harm would come to any of them.”
“No harm came to them. They were simply boiled alive and consumed by myself and the other elves of the forest. It was a painless death.”
“That was not in our deal.”
“It was not. I asked for a list and to be able to take your place in your realm and in exchange you get to live, for one night, in a world where your wife and child survived. I never told you how I intended to use the freedom or the list.”
“Devil. I end the deal.”
“You cannot. At least this year as you have already brought me the list.”
“But it includes no names of naughty children. By omission or otherwise.”
“Oh but it does. If all the children in your village are nice then those of the neighboring village must be naughty, and I am certain they will make a find stew.”
With that Santa Claus vanished and Nicholas found himself sitting down to dinner with his wife and child. When she placed the stew in front of him he passed out and before he knew it he was awake, alone, in his own bed.
This was more than Nicholas could bear. The reports of missing children from neighboring villages were rampant. People know that the dark nights, the cold days, and the depths of the forest were cursed. That if children went out wandering they may never return, but now they had to fear their disappearance from their beds at night.
Nicholas had no ideas and was despondent, but then as the day approached Nicholas thought about the yearly feast of gingerbread and cream. Nicholas worked through the night at his oven, rolling out dough, shaping it to resemble children, and baking the little gingerbread children in his oven. Nicholas had his lists.
“You have once again listed all the children of your village on the nice list, Nicholas. Have you learned nothing or do you not mind sacrificing the children of the other villages?” Santa Claus said.
“I have learned. I have the naughty list.”
“It is the same list.”
“Yes. Each child in the village has been given a naughty version of themselves baked out of gingerbread. They will write their name open it and leave this out for you along with a bowl of cream.”
“I admire the creativity and will consider this. If on my night out the gingerbread men and cream satisfy the hunger of myself and my fellow forrest elves then no more will be asked of you. If not then I will not only devour all the children of the neighboring village. I will take those from yours as well.”
Nicholas found himself seated with his wife and child. He knew this was the last time he would see them. One way or another. So, he made the most of it. He enjoyed the dinner and conversation and once they had their child to bed Nicholas and his wife went off to their bed and he held her long into the night.
When Nicholas awoke in his bed he rushed outside to check on the children, but the village was silent. Nicholas was afraid. He rushed door to door demanding to know if the children were alive. When no answer came Nicholas feared the worst but then he heard a great commotion from the town center. Nicholas rushed towards it and couldn’t believe his eyes. There, lying dead, in the middle of the town square was a short, round elf in a red and white suit. It turns out the combination of gingerbread and cream was poisonous to the dastardly elf that called himself Santa Claus.