“I told you, Billy, I’m out of the game. Have been for a long time.” Gustmas Tinseltrolley took a long, slow sip of his hot cocoa as Billy “The Jingle” Bellringer stood in the living room of his cozy log cabin, deep in the Canadian Rockies. He knew the second the broad-shouldered elf had knocked on his door that, at the least, trouble was afoot. At the most? All of Christmas could be on the line.
“The Big Guy needs you, Gus. The kids need you. You were the best gift wrapper the North had since tissue paper was invented. Besides, Claus said that he’s heard the message and negotiations can be continued after the holiday season. The strikers are being unreasonable.” Billy had a habit of speaking with his hands. He was the king of holding a conversation while having a second, smaller conversation going on with his emphatic arm waving or expressive finger wagging. At the moment, his hands were shoved in his pockets, noticeably mute. Gus wondered if it had been a mistake on Santa’s part to send him. Or perhaps– if he was the best Santa had left.
“I ain’t no scab, Billy. If the strike isn’t over, then the Big Man isn’t done listening.” He held his mug gingerly in his gnarled hands, letting the warmth seep into him, strengthen him.
“So what, millions of kids are going to see their naked presents under the tree as soon as they walk up on Christmas morning? No surprises, no sense of tradition, no order? It’ll be chaos, Gus! Chaos!” There was a quaver in his voice that could have been mistaken for passion, but Gus more accurately registered it as fear. When his face remained blank, Billy pressed on. “Have you ever seen a Christmas morning for a family of 7 before? Hm? Well, I have. Without the individual wrapping paper for each kid or a cheery little nametag with holly on it? Things get tossed around, Gus. Even thrown.” His voice turned dark. “You ever see a toy get broken before a little kid gets to play with it even once?” He shook his head, looking nauseous at the thought of it.
Gus grit his teeth. Not even the exiles on the Peninsula of Poorly Thought Through Toys interacted with those lost souls, the broken toys whose hopes had been forever dashed by an overworked delivery man or an overeager family dog.
“I’m just a retired wrapper. I’m past my prime. These old fingers won’t be much use to Nickie.” He sat his mug down and splayed his fingers for Billy to see.
“You?!” He scoffed. “You won the Tannenbaum Tinker award five years in a row! You’ve won 21 Holly Jolly Giftsmas Medals of Honor.”
“22, actually,” Gus murmured. His gaze scanned the garland that lined his living room and his eyes lingered on the silver medals that he’d so carefully placed upon it. They seemed to glint and twinkle in the roaring fire’s light. He sighed heavily, feeling the weight of all those awards and all those years bearing down on him.
“You know, we used to call you The Nutcracker.” Billy took a few steps toward the fire, turning his back on Gus.
“That was a different time.”
“No kidding.” It was Billy’s turn to sigh. “Well, for what it’s worth, I hope you’ll rethink your answer, Tinseltrolley. Or else the next time I show up at your door, it might be under less… festive circumstances.” He rested his elbow on the mantle, staring into the fire.
“For what it’s worth, I hope the next time we meet is under different circumstances too.” There was no malice in his voice.
A lengthy beat of silence passed between them. Then, without another word, Billy walked out.
The door slammed shut, shooting a frigid winter breeze through the living room. The cold air swept past the garlands and seeped into the cracks of the hardwood floor. It seemed to leech Christmas spirit from the air. The twinkling lights shuddered, the roaring fire mewed. Gus sighed and didn’t stir for a long while.
Eventually, he removed the emerald and crimson knit blanket that was laying across his lap and set it aside on the couch. He folded it gently, as it was the one he’d received from Berry May Mistle when he’d retired. He was sure he still had the ribbon that was tied around it when she’d laid it in his arms. Double-faced satin. 2.25-inch width. Finished with a bow on top, Flower Style. He inhaled slowly and rose from the couch, bones creaking as he did so.
Gus walked closer to his Christmas tree, his arms held behind him as he surveyed the crystalline ornaments and strands of tinsel that embraced the fir. The bow at the top of the tree was his signature, The 12-strand Turtledove. He thought about the last present he’d ever used that bow on.
It was 1994. The previous winter had been harsh, and the Christmas spirit had been more vital than ever. The licensing contract for the Power Rangers™ action figures had gone through at the last minute, and elves were working overtime to try and meet demand.
And he was right there the whole time. He was in the trenches, working beside the toymakers and the gift wrappers. Elves went home with the smell of plastic on them like cologne, he went home to Mrs. Claus with multicolored paint under his nails. It was a different era.
Just before he left for the big trip, he gathered everyone up. With his sleigh behind him and sack stuffed to the brim with dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, and gaming systems, he took a moment to look out over the crowd. He shared his feelings of admiration and promised that the effort shown wouldn’t go unrewarded. He informed the elves that bonus checks would be under their trees tonight and they’d all receive two weeks of vacation with pay. Gus remembered how easily Kringle could make people feel respected, like the work they did made a difference.
Gus would deny it to anyone who asked, but that night, in the crowd, his eyes had been silver with tears as soaring pride overwhelmed him. With one final bellowing laugh, Santa Claus sprang to his sleigh, reins in hand, and promised he’d be back soon for the after-party.
He never returned to the North Pole. We waited at the company party until the early morning light, until even the talking snowmen had gone home to sleep. There was only one gift left under that tree: a gift to Mr. Kringle from his loyal elves. The present that Gus had wrapped so carefully, with a 12-strand Turtledove perched on top, sat under the tree, cold and solemn as a grave. It would never be opened.
After that, there was a new Santa in town and everything started to change. The Old Mrs. Claus disappeared, her closet still full of red velvet dresses with white faux fur trim. Dasher and Dancer refused to fly for 6 months. The milk and cookie demand dropped for the first time in over a hundred years.
The new Big Man said he didn’t care so much for the “corporate mentality”, despite his background in sales. He said he wanted the team to feel more like a family and told everyone to just call him Nick. He canceled ‘unnecessary’ meetings left and right, and that valuable face-to-face time that so many elves had treasured for years was suddenly gone.
He had blinked in astonishment when he learned that the majority of elfkind didn’t have their own emails. He said the North Pole was falling behind the times. (Firstly, it was only 1996. And secondly, imagine trying to teach a master craftsman of 400 years how to turn on a computer. Frightful.)
Now, Gus hadn’t minded fewer meetings here and there, especially the ones explaining retirement benefits and 401Ks. But that winter, there had been a rise in cases of Sparklelung as the once mandatory glitter safety meetings had been streamlined into pamphlets no one had read and posters that were no bigger than a Christmas Card.
The Big Man had taken several vacations during his first year on the job. He was hardly seen by anyone until Thanksgiving. We were lost for those long summer months, without the direction or authority to begin work on next Christmas’ toys. The new boss had no talent for project management, no passion for the art of scheduling. Weekly scrums were nothing more than a bandage on a gaping wound. All of December had been a crunch, with elves working round the clock to meet the deadline. It was worse than walking on broken ornaments and he’d rather give up candy canes than go through that again. Gus didn’t think a family should make you feel that way.
Gus retired in 1996.
He took a deep breath and let the scents of peppermint and pine fill his lungs. He took a long pour of eggnog and threw it back, not even bothering to savor it. Then he washed his glass and put it away. He packed his suitcase full of colorful sweaters and his favorite suspenders. He unplugged the strands of lights around his house diligently, one after another. After dousing the fire and locking the front door, he took one final look inside at the noble tree standing guard in the dark before he turned on his heel and headed North. He had a feeling he wasn’t going to be home for Christmas.
“They even took away our dental insurance!” Cries of outrage flooded the already too-hot room as the 12 leaders of the Anti-Scrooge Movement had gathered at the request of Gustmas Tinseltrolley. “No dental? For Christmas elves?! We can only take so much disrespect!” Vehement shouts of agreement rang out, and the room devolved into chaotic noise again.
Gus agreed, things were bad. With the current inflation rate, elves were working longer hours for less pay, and most couldn’t keep their stockings filled. The strike had slowed things down, to be sure, but the Big Man had found those few elves who couldn’t afford not to work and production was continuing along, albeit severely delayed. No one truly believed him when he told the strikers that Christmas would still be happening with or without them, but he had refused to hear their demands any longer. Negotiations were off the table and Christmas was coming, fast.
“How much longer can we really keep this up though?” Burl McMistletoe spoke up. His quiet dissent brought the room to an uneasy lull. “Some of us got mouths to feed.” He tightened his grip on the pointy felt hat in his hands.
Gus knew the boy’s father, Bing McMistletoe, and had even worked with him during the Great Clear Tape shortage of 1973. The elf had been a wonder with polystyrene cement and all adhesive-related handiwork. He rose from his chair and walked over to Burl, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“You have kids?”
“Just one. Bublé.”
“He’s a good kid. And he’s a wonder with a glue gun already.”
“You got a picture?” Burl nodded and pulled a photo from his wallet. Bublé was missing several baby teeth and was wearing a hat much too large for him as he grinned at the camera, holding a perfect macaroni nutcracker in one hand and a glue gun in the other. Gus took the picture from Burl and crossed to the front of the room, all eyes on him. He pinned the picture to the corkboard they’d been strategizing on. He took down the other papers, the lists of elves who had joined their cause, copies of the letters of petitions they had sent, and the calendar with December 24th circled in red. He turned around to face the others.
“Anyone else have kids?” A few raised their hands and produced photos that Gus pinned next to Bublé. “Bud, what about that vacation you’ve been saving up for?”
“I’m surprised you remembered, Gus.” A small smile crept across Bud’s face. He produced a postcard of a beach in the Caribbean that he had always dreamed of visiting, and the crinkled cardstock joined the children on the corkboard. Slowly but surely, the others brought pictures of their own or small reminders that they carried of dreams long held. Lou pinned up the lucky guitar pick he kept on a string. Carol printed and posted the listing of her dream home. Max Snowfield even drew a wonky-looking pet reindeer on a spare piece of paper and sheepishly attached it to the board. When everyone added their contribution, they stepped back to admire their work.
“This is what we’re fighting for,” Gus said, his throat tight. “Not just the pay, not just the respect, but the time to spend with our children, on our hobbies, our dreams. Just because we live for hundreds of years doesn’t mean life isn’t still horribly short. We have to see this through, for the dreams they can't take away.” Refocused, Gus rolled up his sleeves and was about to prepare for a long night and refill his hot chocolate when his eyes alighted on the guitar pick on the board. His brow creased in thought.
“Hey Lou, do you have access to a recording studio, by any chance?”
“My brother’s got a little booth at his place, why?”
“I have a very strange idea.” He pulled his budget flip phone from his pocket and scrolled to find a number. “Lou and Carol, you’re with me. Bud, Max, I need you to keep pressing the stable elves. Annabelle, call your buddy on the Sack Pack Squad. We’ll need all the backup we can get.” The other elves exchanged a look as Gus dialed the number and tapped his foot absentmindedly. “Hey Dolly, you remember that favor you owe me? I was wondering if I might cash it in.”
The golden, dulcet tones of Dolly Parton’s voice rang out from an MP3 file on the device that Gus placed on Santa’s desk. A country remix of the 12 Days of Christmas began to play, as Dolly vamped to the instrumentals. “Hey y’all, It’s Dolly Parton and I wanted to give a big shout-out to my friend Gus up there at the North Pole! Happy Holidays from your home to mine and may your Christmas be a hoot and a holler!” Santa looked up at Gus from under his bushy white eyebrows.
“What is this?” he questioned as he gestured to the gathering of elves before him. “Don’t you people know I’m busy this time of year?”
“I think you’ll want to listen to this.” Gus crossed his arms as the song entered into the first verse. ‘On the first day of Christmas, Santa kept from me-’
A list of demands delivered in musical form with ultimatums sung by the ethereal ‘9 to 5’ singer herself played for the entire 3 minutes and 52 seconds with no more interruptions from the man in the red suit. Santa sunk further in his chair, his fingers steepling. He steamed like a homemade gingerbread latte, each furious breath wiggling the hairs of his mustache.
“How could you release this so close to Christmas? Do you have ANY idea what this will do to the holiday spirit?!” He pounded his fist on the desk.
“Oh, we haven’t released it yet. And we might never release it, if you sign this agreement right here, right now.” Gus gestured to the stack of paper that Lou slid to Santa. “Dolly sends her love, by the way.”
“Of course she does, she’s a treasure,” Santa muttered as he flicked through the papers, his face turning redder than a cherry.
“You’ll find that if you don’t sign this, this song will trend on Tiktok faster than the ‘It’s Corn’ kid.” Gus went on. “And you might have a hard time saddling the reindeer this year, I’m afraid the stable crew decided to join our little strike. Be sure to keep those pens clean, I hear Blitzen had a couple of extra treats before the crew walked out.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Do I need to play the song again?” Gus stared down the blue-eyed man and resisted the urge to grin.
Burl McMistletoe held his glass of eggnog high as he addressed the crowd of elves, their faces glowing with mirth. "All my life, I’ll never forget the year that Christmas was saved not by reindeer with red noses, not by voices singing loud for all to hear, but by the power of collective bargaining and Dolly Parton!” A raucous cheer went up, the clamor shaking the ornaments on the tree.
Gus’ face was beginning to grow sore after all the smiling he had done that evening. He walked away from the bustle of celebrating elves, in need of a moment of cool air. He stood on the doorstep, shutting it behind him quietly. Fluffy snow was falling softly, and Gus felt the whisper of flakes on his cheek like the embrace of an old friend. Gus stood outside long enough for snow to collect on his shoulders.
Minutes later, he saw the familiar broad silhouette of Billy Bellringer standing across the street. He raised his glass of eggnog to him. Billy raised his hand in greeting. Eventually, he even smiled. Then he shook his head and walked away, leaving footsteps in the fresh snow.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Billy.”