THEO PANAYIDES finds the real driving force of Christmas deliveries is not Santa, but his sprightly wife in reluctant charge of his elves
Santa was our first choice, admittedly. A forex millionaire from Limassol claimed he could make the introductions – having met St Nick, aka Father Christmas, at a party organised by the Russian Orthodox Church in Novosibirsk – and the stage was set for what sounded like a fascinating profile. To be sure, there were practical issues. My attempts at persuading the Cyprus Mail to spring for a ticket to Lapland were greeted with hilarity, and Skype seemed inadequate for such a significant meeting. Only at the last moment was I told of a possible way in: a four-hour stopover in Cyprus as part of his international tour, supervising the delivery of presents to local warehouses (no more details; I’ve said too much already) in the run-up to Christmas.
At first, all went swimmingly. An unmarked car took me to a private jet being refuelled at Larnaca Airport, decked out in red and white with ‘Air Santa’ prominently on the fuselage (it doesn’t blow his cover, he explains later; people just assume it’s another new airline, like Cobalt). The man himself looks heavier in person, and significantly less hearty – or maybe I just caught him at a bad time, obviously jet-lagged and complaining of a splitting headache. His red suit looks a little tattered, and a hint of something mulled and Christmassy wafts from his breath. The interview is off, he’s too knackered. “Talk to the wife, she knows what to say,” he suggests, a little abruptly, then promptly vanishes into the bowels of the plane without so much as a ‘Ho, ho, ho’.
So then, Mrs. Claus – or Ingrid, to disclose her first name. That name, like so much about her, is something of a mystery. “Depending on the source, her first name is Mary, Jessica Mary, Maya, Matha, Anywyn, Layla or Goody,” claims a website called reference.com, prompting a weary chuckle from the woman herself (“‘Maya’? What am I, a yoga instructor?”). She’s elegant and rather petite, in striking contrast to her bulbous husband, sipping a cup of herbal tea with unfussy delicacy. The picture you see at the top is from a private collection; there are no public photos of the real Mrs C, and that’s how she likes it. “I never asked for celebrity,” she tells me, sitting in the plane surrounded by piles of wrapped Christmas presents. “Nicholas loves it, and that’s fine. I’m happier staying home on my sofa, reading a book or watching the new Bridget Jones.”
I feel a need to apologise. It seems a little awkward meeting like this, as a kind of last-minute substitute for the main event. Mrs Claus smiles graciously, assuring me that it’s no problem at all – and it suddenly occurs to me that she must have grown quite accustomed to living in her husband’s shadow. For centuries, she didn’t appear in the legend at all; Santa’s marital status was simply ignored. Even when she did start to feature, it was mostly as a copy of Santa – a cheerful consort in the same colourful suit – or a chubby housewife with rosy cheeks. Only now, in the general climate of female empowerment, are things starting to change – hence for instance the new Marks & Spencer Christmas advert casting Mrs C as a kind of secret Santa, running Yuletide missions of her own while pretending to hold down the fort. Has she seen the ad? Of course, she replies, “it’s very sweet”.
Is it accurate?
She smiles again. “In a way. Except the woman in the ad seems to be living in an Alpine chalet or something. Add a lot of elves yelling at each other, constant factory noise and the smell of reindeer droppings, and you’re slightly closer to the real thing!”
It’s been hard, she admits quietly. She was very young when ‘Nicholas’ came courting, a sheltered girl from a well-to-do Swedish family. He was older, and quite mysterious. She was charmed by his bushy beard and dynamic manner, but the need to remain incognito meant she didn’t really know what she’d let herself in for – she thought he was just a businessman – until she came face-to-face with her new home in Lapland, a snowy wasteland in the middle of nowhere. Ingrid was a hardy woman, not much given to whining; and of course she and Nick were in love. “But it was a shock,” she says emphatically. “For a while, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. And the elves – my gosh, the elves. Spiteful little creatures!”. Elves are tribal, she explains, and didn’t take kindly to an outsider telling them what to do (Santa put his new bride to work in the factory, in a managerial position). For a while, it was open warfare: the elves made faulty toys on purpose – jacks-in-the-box that wouldn’t jump out, footballs that burst on impact – to make her look incompetent, and changed the clocks so she almost missed her deadline on December 24. Mrs Claus shakes her head, her expression darkening: “I hate elves”.
Even worse, however, was the way her husband turned (and still turns) into a madman for a couple of months every year. The summers are lovely, she muses. Santa shaves off the beard, dumps the red suit and they go on holiday, to a beach hotel or on a Caribbean cruise. (“To be honest I’d prefer somewhere more lively, like New York or London – but he likes the sunshine and a nice game of bingo, nothing too strenuous. After all, he’s not getting any younger.”) As autumn turns to winter, however, Nick grows increasingly gruff and impatient, feeling the tension of the upcoming holidays. Letters to Santa start streaming in from all over the world. Naughty and Nice lists have to be compiled, frantic calls made to Disney to decide on this year’s action figures. How does Santa cope? Lots of Xanax, and other remedies too. I recall the hint of something alcoholic on his breath – not to mention the splitting headache – and enquire discreetly.
“Yeah, he drinks,” confirms Mrs Claus ruefully.
These days, the situation is both better and worse. Better, of course, because of technology. “You can’t imagine what it was like with the sleigh,” she sighs. “Having to feed and harness all those reindeer, and keep them going all night”. Nowadays, they have the plane – and of course the system is computerised, with the NSA and other intelligence agencies supplying helpful dossiers on everyone in the world. It’s now quite simple to hack people’s emails and social-media posts and determine what presents they want – though it’s also harder, because the numbers have grown so dramatically. Mrs C talks fondly of the “good old days” when the world’s population was so much smaller, meaning fewer presents to deliver. “And of course the poor got no presents at all,” she adds with a touch of nostalgia.
Now, on the other hand, everyone gets presents, making the job near-impossible – especially since very few houses have chimneys anymore, and almost every house has a burglar alarm. But then, I ask in bewilderment, how does Santa deliver all those presents on Christmas Eve? Mrs Claus gives me a sly look, taking a sip of her tea.
“Let’s be honest,” she purrs. “You’ve met my husband. He’s a sweet old darling – but do you really think he’d be capable of running such a complex global delivery system?”
I see her point – but then what are we talking about here? A high-level conspiracy? A worldwide Operation Santa, masterminded by the military-industrial complex for the benefit of toy companies? Does it involve mass hypnosis, or human cloning? If Santa didn’t exist, would they have to invent him? Or perhaps they already have.
Unfortunately, I’m sworn to silence – but one thing is clear: Ingrid Claus has grown in confidence and authority since she first went to Lapland as a callow young girl, indeed it’s now possible to call her the power behind the throne. She’s essentially the CEO of Santa Claus Ltd, having organised the factory on modern lines (elves have been laid off in record numbers, she reports with a touch of malice) and liaised with major corporations to get presents designed, built and delivered in time for the annual jamboree. Marks and Spencer have no idea: Mrs Claus is fearsomely efficient – so efficient, in fact, that it almost makes me wonder if she might’ve lost a bit of the true meaning of Christmas.
There’s a rustle, and the creak of a door opening – not from the back of the plane, where Santa can be heard snoring at intervals, but from the front, near the cockpit. A workman in overalls stands at the door looking sheepish, flanked by the small figure of a five-year-old boy. “I’m sorry,” he says in a language I don’t understand (it turns out to be Polish). “I know I’m not supposed to come in, but my son really wanted to see Santa”.
“That’s all right,” replies Mrs Claus in Polish, not missing a beat. “But I’m afraid Santa isn’t here at the moment”. The child had been fidgeting excitedly, still young enough to believe that Santa is real – but now I notice that his face drops at the news. Mrs Claus notices it too. “But maybe I can help,” she adds quickly.
The boy looks unconvinced. She’s not wearing a red suit, after all, nor does she have a bushy beard or a bulging belly – but she looks at him and smiles, browsing through her mental archive with the speed and photographic memory that comes from years and years of being who she is. She smiles again: “You’re Kazimierz Drzezinski, right?”
The father gapes. The boy nods happily.
“And let’s see…” she goes on, taking out her iPhone for a quick perusal, “you want – a Lego boat set, an orange school satchel and a talking Minion?”
Mrs Claus looks around at the piles of presents. “Well,” she muses, “it’s not quite Christmas yet, but I guess it wouldn’t hurt –” Her hand goes to one of the piles and there, as if by magic, are three packages in festive wrapping paper, their shapes matching the toys on the boy’s wish-list. She hands the gifts to the father and son. Kazimierz Drzezinski laughs in delight – then rushes to Ingrid, and throws his arms around her elegant figure. “Merry Christmas!” he pipes in Polish.
A little later, when the visitors have gone and the pot of herbal tea is almost empty, Santa himself comes to join us, looking rested though still a little woozy. “So, did you get what you came for?” he asks amiably. “There you go, I knew the missus would come through”. He sits down, looking philosophical. “Don’t mind telling you, I needed that nap. Christmas wipes me out, it really does. I suppose it’s only once a year – but it’s madness, far too much for one couple!”. He’s thinking about retirement, he admits, not to mention that children’s sensibilities are changing anyway; already there’s talk of replacing him with Miley Cyrus. “I don’t mind. Looking forward to it, actually. Somewhere with a bit of sun might be nice – maybe one of those places up near Paphos. What d’you say, my dear?”.
He looks over at Mrs Claus, who says nothing. She’s retreated into her traditional role, the dutiful consort – but I think I spot a gleam in her eye, as if to say that Santa’s retirement might not, after all, be such a terrible idea. The Santa jet is ready for departure – but I don’t see them moving to Paphos anytime soon, I think to myself as they escort me to the door; I don’t see them moving at all, in fact I see them staying in the Christmas business – only with a slight change in emphasis, Nick enjoying his well-earned retirement and Caribbean cruises while Ingrid builds the brand, delivers the toys, and eventually – assuming she gets over her fear of celebrity – puts on the red suit.
“Ho, ho, ho!” booms Father Christmas as I leave, and his wife gives a shy wave.
“Merry Christmas!” shouts out Mrs Claus.