‘Ho ho ho,’ says Santa, although his heart isn’t really in it. The sparkle in his eye is dull, and ruddiness has all but left his cheeks. ‘Ho ho ho,’ he says, trying again, but his big body shakes more with hysteria than with mirth, in the same way that a man shakes when he’s about to cry.
But why? What’s happened? What has reduced this walking epitome of merriment to such doldrums? Why does he gulp his brandy with the gentle desperation of a widower, and not with the kick of festive cheer?
I’ll tell you why: IT technicians. A whole workshop full of them.
Christmas has been through a lot of changes over the years. Gone are the times of toys crafted from wood, fabric and fluff. Rocking horses, fire engines, chequer sets, building blocks, patchwork dolls, ducks on pulleys – these are relics of a bygone age, good now for nothing but the stove. Such antiques have been made redundant by the gimmickry and gadgetry of an insatiable generation; a generation in which even infants have their own smartphones. Now it’s all iPhones and iPads, laptops and tablets, Xboxes and Wiis, Blue-rays and 3D TVs.
And what does this mean?
It means that some years ago tough decisions had to be made and a bunch of elves lost their jobs. If there’s no demand you have to change supply, after all. That’s simple business sense.
And the elves understood that. ‘It’s okay, Santa,’ they’d said, patting him on the knee. ‘We understand, and we’ll be fine. Don’t you worry about us. It’s no-one’s fault.’
Such good boys, thinks Santa, sighing to himself. Such good, sweet, lively boys. He downs his third brandy and heads across the snowy courtyard to the workshop.
Entering the workshop is always depressing these days. He used to love it. He’d loved the smell of fresh sawdust and warm gingerbread, the way the elves would stop their sawing and sanding to greet him with a song.
Those days are long gone. Now he walks into a workshop that resembles the back of PC World. Bespectacled, chubby nerds sit at workstations cluttered with the paraphernalia of electronic assembly. Not a speck of worktop can be seen for motherboards, microchips and transistors. Technicians natter nasally about CPUs, MMORPGs and pixelated pin-ups. The scent of sawdust and ginger has been ousted by the stench of Subway footlongs and ozone. Gone are the jaunty cheers and songs of curly-toed elves, replaced by the awkward, whiny guff of the socially inept.
Now don’t get Santa wrong. He knows they’re not a bad bunch. They’re nice people, after all. Harmless, and very sweet in their own way. But it’s just not the same. It’s not what it was.
Santa shakes himself and leans over the rail above the workshop, scanning the pit for his designated Liaison Officer. ‘Dexter!’ he shouts. ‘Dexter!’
‘Santa!’ shouts Dexter from within the mess, lisping lightly. He waves so that the old man can spot him. ‘I’m over here.’
‘Oh yes,’ says Santa. ‘So you are. Dexter, I was just wondering if you’ve had any news on those sleigh bells.’
‘Yes, sleigh bells. If you remember, the bells that were sent were silver, even though we ordered gold ones. The sleigh needs gold bells, Dexter. It’s always had gold bells.’
‘So have we sent them back and requested replacements?’
‘Let me check,’ says Dexter, punching some keys at his computer. ‘Hmm. I’m afraid they haven’t been sent back yet. Although I can see that the call was logged.’
Santa puffs some air through his cheeks. ‘That request was made two weeks ago, Dexter,’ he sighs. ‘And it’s been made twice since.’
‘Aha,’ says Dexter.
‘Aha,’ repeats Santa. There’s a moment of silence. Dexter adjusts his spectacles.
‘Listen,’ continues Santa. ‘Can you deal with this for me? I just need some gold bells. It’s simple, really.’
‘Mmmm…’ frowns Dexter, stroking the fluff around his lips. ‘No can do, Mister Claus. It has to go directly through Purchasing. Send them an email. Needs to be a paper trail, you see. If I do it myself it’ll be outside of the system and there’ll be no paper trail.’
Santa grimaces. Electronic mails and paper trails. Nothing makes sense anymore.
‘Dexter,’ he says. ‘I just want some gold bells for the sleigh. I don’t want to send another email to Purchasing.’
‘Pardon?’ says Dexter, cupping his ear. The technicians are becoming noisy. They’re gathering around a monitor to watch a viral YouTube clip.
‘I don’t want to send another email,’ repeats Santa.
‘It’s the only way,’ shrugs Dexter. ‘Needs to be a paper trail. Ask them to escalate it this time. That should help.’
Santa removes his gold wire spectacles and pinches his eyelids. ‘Listen, Dexter. I can’t send an email. My computer keeps freezing when I open Outlook. Can’t you do this for me?’
Dexter shakes his head. ‘Sorry, Mister Claus. Best thing is to give IT Helpdesk a call. They’ll come sort out your email for you.’
‘I’ve tried that, Dexter,’ grumbles Santa. ‘But it’s always the answer phone. I’ve left three messages already and still no-one’s called back. Dexter, you’re good with computers. Why don’t you come and have a quick look at it?’
‘No can do, Mister Claus. Has to go through Helpdesk. That way it’s logged. It’s protocol.’
‘Pardon?’ shouts Santa. The din is rising.
‘Protocol!’ shouts Dexter.
‘Alcohol?’ shouts Santa.
‘Pardon?’ shouts Dexter.
‘Forget it,’ says Santa, more to himself than to Dexter. He turns away and steps back out into the courtyard. He takes a deep breath and watches the snow fall for a while. Holding out his hand, he catches a snowflake in his palm and watches it melt.
When he enters the kitchen he stamps the snow from his boots. Mrs Claus is hunched over the dining table.
‘I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this,’ laments Santa.
‘Mm,’ grunts Mrs Claus. She doesn’t look up.
‘Do you ever miss the old days, dear?’ asks Santa. ‘Were they simpler, or is it just me?’
‘Mm,’ repeats Mrs Claus, deeply absorbed. She’s updating her Facebook status on her Blackberry.
‘Can you even hear me?’ asks Santa, his voice cracking softly.
‘Mm,’ repeats Mrs Claus.
Santa gets his brandy bottle from the cupboard and takes it to the bedroom.
So spare a thought this Christmas. Spare a thought for Santa. An old man being steadily left behind.