“Good evening, Gazette Chicago, how may I help you?” I answered the phone in the waning hours of Thanksgiving weekend, 2020.
“Lieutenant Frost here, from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Remember me?”
How could I forget—it was almost a year to the hour that I first heard from Lieutenant Frost. “Funny thing, Lieutenant, I was just sitting here under the glow of my Christmas tree, thinking about my out-of-the-world adventure from last year,” I responded.
“Well, I hope you don’t regret it. You and your staff did a great job for us last year. There was no doubt where to turn this time around,” the Lieutenant answered.
“Thank you, sir. It’s not every day one gets to meet the Little Drummer Boy and travel from one hemisphere to the other, thanks to the United States Air Force. It’s good to know we came through to tell his story the way you needed us to.” [Editor’s Note: Read the account of how, through NORAD and the U.S. Air Force, Gazette Chicago met and shared the story of the Little Drummer Boy in December 2019, pages 34 and 35].
“Well, our problems are just as challenging this holiday season, and this time it involves the ‘Big Guy’ himself,” Frost said tactfully.
“The ‘Big Guy’…you don’t mean…,” I couldn’t get the words out.
“No, no, not that ‘Big Guy,’ I mean Santa Claus,” he retorted.
“Oh, well, in that case…wait a minute, you want me to meet Santa Claus?” I stammered.
“Yes, and it’s urgent. If we don’t get you up to the North Pole ASAP, there may not be a Christmas this year,” the Lieutenant said, making himself very clear. “You know the drill—we’ll have a car at your door at: 0600 hours. From there, you’ll be flown to NORAD to receive your orders. I’ll see you then. Oh, and dress warm. Where you’re going, you’re going to need your long underwear.” Click went the phone.
NORAD? It was “deja vu all over again,” and this time I even had to pack my “moo-dans” (a term of endearment my Italian-American father, Ralph, would call our woolen winter underwear). Like clock-work, the government car pulled up at 6 a.m. and a U.S. Air Force cadet ushered me into the vehicle. I boarded a jet from O’Hare and arrived in Colorado Springs in a jiffy.
“Good to see you again; take a seat,” said Lieutenant Frost. He had a worried look and a furrowed brow and there was more gray in his short-cropped hair than last year, and he said, “Boy oh boy, 2020 has been something else, hasn’t it, son?” I nodded in agreement, even though our age difference didn’t seem that far apart.
“Yes, this year has been a real struggle for everyone dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic: From medical personnel all over the world to first responders; from essential workers to teachers, students, and parents; from global leaders in government to the scientific community. We are experiencing world-wide, deep hurt, but instead of coming closer together, we are even more fractionalized. Even he feels it,” Frost explained.
“He?” I asked.
“Santa Claus, remember? Even he feels it. And, that’s where you come in. You see, no matter what happens each year, no matter the calamity—whether made by man or nature, Santa Claus always rises to the occasion. But not this year. Go ahead. Take a moment and read the letter in front of you.”
It was hand-written, in a flowery style and the stationery was marked “Santa and Mrs. Claus, The North Pole” and included a drawing of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and his friends.
It began, “Dear Lieutenant Frost: Thank you again for the stellar weather reports last Christmas Eve and the on-going updates on global warming and the impact it is having on our wooly friends, the polar bears at the North Pole and in Iceland. Santa, the elves, and I remain extremely concerned and pray every day that the world community will urgently come together quickly to address climate change once and for all. This is just one of the many things that is keeping my husband awake every night. It has gotten so bad that Santa is in a deep depression. I worry that he won’t be able to shake these doldrums and deliver Christmas to the millions of children and adults, who need him more than ever in 2020…”
The letter from Mrs. Claus continued, but the need was clear. If Christmas 2020 was going to be saved from Santa’s perspective, someone needed to get up there quickly and find out what was troubling him, and tell his story to the world. Within two hours, I had arrived at the North Pole. Armed with nothing but my laptop, some pens and paper, and of course, my long underwear. I was firmly instructed not to take any video. Lieutenant Frost was kind enough to give me NORAD-issued winter boots and a parka.
“Hello, I’m Everett the Elf, Santa’s personal assistant. Thank you for coming. I’ll first introduce you to Mrs. Claus and then usher you up to Santa’s private quarters,” said the thin looking man in the green and gold wardrobe and red shoes and hat. He seemed rather tall for an elf, I thought.
We drove from the airport through the North Pole in an open sleigh—not that open sleigh, but a sleek one nonetheless. It ran on electricity—I learned quickly everything in Santa’s village was eco-friendly. The town looked like almost every down-home American town I had ever seen. I could have been in Long Grove, IL, Middleton, WI, or Union Pier, MI. Then it dawned on me. Something was amiss—there were numerous “Store for Rent” and “Out of Business” signs in the windows of the storefronts. Others read “Open for Carry-out Only” and “Dear Elves: Please Practice Social Distancing and You MUST Wear a Mask to Enter.”
“Excuse me, Everett,” but has the coronavirus impacted the North Pole and Santa’s village, too?” I asked.
“Sadly, yes it has. Some of the Elves just wouldn’t listen to Santa and Mrs. Claus. They just shrugged away the virus as if it didn’t exist. Called it the regular flu. It has really devastated and demoralized the entire town, not to mention the negative impact it has had on our toy factories. Herbie, our dentist, has been giving out flu vaccines and thanks to the good folks at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Dentistry, can treat dental patients with proper PPE and aerosol mitigation. But, I am sure Santa will tell you more,” Everett explained. “Here we are. Let’s have you first meet Mrs. Claus.”
I climbed out of the sleigh and entered a land of magic. One could feel the buzz of excitement in the air and the hurried rush to get something done, pronto. And it smelled just like a peppermint candy cane.
“Oh hello, there, young man, it is so good to meet you,” said Mrs. Claus as she extended her bent elbow. “Because of the virus we are doing our best to not shake hands or hug, but I warmly welcome you to the North Pole and to our home. May we prepare you something to eat while you visit with Santa? We made a pot of hot chocolate and I just took a fresh batch of lemon cookies out of the electric oven.” She winked at me.
“Lemon cookies!” I exclaimed. “How do you know how much I like lemon cookies?”
“Oh, do you think Santa is the only one who knows a thing or two about you and all the other children of the world?” she asked, slyly. “After all, this is the ‘Year of the Woman.’ Just ask Kamala Harris. And, yes, if you do want to know, this is your mother, Della’s, original recipe…I got it from a friend of yours.”
Everett lightly shook me out of my startled state of mind. “A word of advice: they will be two steps ahead on everything you think or say,” he said. “Just get used to it and don’t try to figure out the magic or the mystery. Your head will only hurt.”
With hot chocolate and lemon cookies in tow, I was ushered into Santa’s study. “Have a seat in the chair over there,” Everett pointed. “Santa will be with you in just a moment.”
I looked around the room and saw things you might expect to see in Santa’s study: snow globes and gnomes, colorful dishes filled with various assortments of candies and cookies, and several pipes in a pipe rack. But, there were things beyond even my wildest imagination. Against one very long wall were more than a hundred LED monitors and placards with the names of nations from all over the world beneath them. In front of this mass display was a control desk with three chairs—I could tell the one in the middle had to be where Santa Claus sat, as it was the largest. In between the control desk and the monitors was a very large, illuminated globe of the world that rotated and lit up in various colors ranging from blue to green, from yellow to red. There was a lot of red.
The middle chair suddenly twirled around. There he was—the man himself. He got up and came over to me. He was everything I expected Santa Claus to be—about six feet two inches tall, maybe 250-260 pounds, broad shoulders, with a shock of dazzling white hair and a glorious beard, a glistening velvet red coat and pants with alabaster white fur trimmings, shimmering black boots and belt, each adorned with golden buckles, wire rim glasses, and eyes that…well…
“Hello, and thank you so much for coming. You noticed too, didn’t you?” he asked. I tried to be polite and cast my eyes away at the wall with the portrait of Santa and Mrs. Claus and their family—beautiful grandchildren, great-, and great-great-grandchildren, by the way.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Everybody knows what’s missing. I just don’t have that sparkle in my eyes, do I?” Yes, I nodded, reluctantly. “Well, maybe you can help me do something about it—you are my last hope—you and all of your readers, of course. Sit down and make yourself comfortable. And let me tell you what’s on my mind.
“Those monitors behind me—well they do come in handy as you can imagine in the walk-up to Christmas Eve when I call together Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen and the gang, gather all the toys the elves had made so lovingly all year long into the sleigh, and head out to make Christmas happen all around the world. But you know what these monitors do for me the other 364 days of the year?
“Let me tell you, then. They inform me of all the hardships and the lack of empathy and understanding, compassion, justice, love, and respect that fails to exist in so many governments, corporations, and individuals, and makes the world such a cold, grey, uninviting place. Sure, sure, I can bring joy and anticipation, hope and magic one day a year—but the world and the billions of the people in it—have to do their job every other day.
“So you see, those monitors tell me a lot—and lately, I have to say, what I see and hear is really making me worried and depressed. That globe there—those colors are not meant to warn me of winter storms to avoid on Christmas Eve. No, they portend the terrible things that are occurring in every corner of this earth and what will soon come. The red spots are the worst areas—I see you noticed that.
“Of course, COVID-19 has made most of the world a red zone. Such a terrible tragedy with millions infected and so many hundreds of thousands who have perished. I am afraid no present that I place under the tree this Christmas can ever replace the lost love or guidance of a parent, grandparent, brother, sister, or cherished friend. I’m sure that Everett told you how even Mrs. Claus and I have struggled with urging some of the elves to keep themselves and others safe. When evil and misled forces band together, it is so difficult to get even the people with the most common sense to see what is happening around them.
“My concerns go beyond this terrible pandemic, as difficult as that may sound. You know, millions of children and grown-ups too, even though they don’t often admit it, write to me every year with their Holiday Wish List. I do my best to meet their expectations. It gets really challenging when it’s Dad asking me for help to get him a better paying job so that he can earn a decent and fair wage for his family. Or, it’s Mom asking me to stem the violence in her neighborhood so that her children have a chance to grow up and live up to the promise that each child has burning deep within and an educational system that is equitable. So, instead of asking you to give me your Holiday Wish List, I am asking if I can give you mine,” he said.
“Sure, Santa, you can do that, but what do you want me to do with it?” I asked.
“I just want you to publish it. Then, it will be up to your readers to decide if what I am asking for makes sense and if they have the courage, the commitment, and the passion to work hard those other 364 days a year to make the world a better place so that when I look at that globe in the future, I will see a lot more blue and green than yellow and red. Do we have a deal?” he asked.
How do you turn down Santa Claus? So, I sat there, opened my laptop and typed away. I did ask for clarification now and then, just to make sure I gathered all of this correctly. Here goes…
Santa’s Holiday Wish List for 2020. Santa wishes for…
Peace in the world and an end to all wars, forever. Those who suffer the most from wars never ask for them to happen. That all elected leaders (and dictators, despots and demagogues, too) govern with human kindness and make every decision as though their own grandchildren can be harmed by them. Maybe then…and only then…
America to once again be the beacon of hope for the rest of the world. I saw with my own eyes what happened these past four years—I have a very long list of houses in the U.S. where I am NOT stopping this Christmas—there isn’t enough coal in West Virginia to leave for those who acted so cruelly, disrespected and broke the rule of law so openly, and harmed their fellow citizens so frequently.
Americans to stop becoming so enamored with their elected officials. Your job doesn’t end after you vote. You cannot expect your elected officials to be the “be all and end all” in your lives. I do wish President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris well and that all Americans come together to heal your battered nation after four tumultuous years. Get involved, stay involved.
Your country to have the moral courage to enact term limits on all politically held offices—especially in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, end Citizens United and enact campaign finance reform, and limit the access and influence of lobbyists.
America to believe in science. This pandemic would have been under much better control and would have caused deaths in the hundreds not hundreds of thousands, if everyone just listened to reasonable people. And, when the vaccines do arrive soon—take them! Don’t stand in ignorance and risk your lives and that of your loved ones and every front-line hero that has to try and save your skin when you wind up in an emergency room.
Americans who wave their Confederate flags, love their guns, and carry their torches in the night, finally see that their racist views and angry vitriol do nothing to make your country better or stronger and that systemic racism that has endured for centuries must finally be addressed openly and honestly. When I see armed militia plotting to kidnap elected officials and the person in the highest office of the land offer nothing but flippant remarks, then I know the United States is in peril. The hard work is just beginning…
The 500-plus children left homeless at the U.S.-Mexico border to find their parents through the dogged help of President-elect Biden, the ACLU, and others righting the horrible wrongs of President Trump, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and miscreant advisors such as Steven Miller and Steve Bannon. I also hope that you provide citizenship to all DACA-designated people and that fair and just immigration reform occurs soon.
President-elect Biden and his administration to find success in dealing with the racial, social, and economic injustices that have come to bear in your country these past five years and especially in the turbulent spring and summer of 2020. I wish that bringing together representatives of Black Lives Matter, police departments across the country, social workers, public health and public policy experts, and those dealing with racial, educational, health, housing, and economic disparities help bring an end to these indignities and that effective and measurable police reform takes place throughout your land.
The United States to swiftly reenter the Paris Climate Accord and become a global leader in climate change. Time is running out to save Mother Earth. I wish your reliance on fossil fuels be replaced with a stronger, green economy that creates good paying jobs and saves the planet.
“Is there anything else, Santa?” I asked.
“Oh, I can go on and on, but this list would be a good start. I have great hope for your country. It has always shown the rest of the world how to look out for and protect each other. Yes, you have fallen on some difficult times, but America has always lifted itself off the mat. You can, and will do so again. I hope that everyone has learned a valuable lesson. Your democracy, as great as it has been, is also as fragile as this snow globe. You almost allowed one narcissistic man and his movement to smash it to smithereens. You now have the opportunity to create an America that is more inclusionary and to allow everyone to reach for their dreams.
“Well, I feel better now that I have shared what has been weighing on my mind. Thank you for visiting with me and Mrs. Claus. Everett will be happy to take you on a tour before you leave. Be sure to say hello to Rudolph—he loves the attention. Don’t forget to take some hot chocolate and lemon cookies for the ride home,” he said.
“I also wish that as we turn the page on 2020, that Americans and people throughout the world don’t forget the hardships we have endured and come out of this pandemic better people. I encourage everyone to read a poem entitled, Life Itself, by Laura Kelly Fanucci. It is so appropriate for these times. The ending reads: ‘When this ends, may we find that we have become more like the people we wanted to be, we were called to be, we hoped to be; and may we stay that way—better for each other. Because of the worst.’
“Oh Santa, before I forget, may I ask, did you receive my letter?” I asked.
“Of course I did,” he answered cheerfully. His bright eyes began to sparkle once again and I knew that my greatest wish this Christmas had just come true.
When this is over, may we never again take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbors
A crowded theatre
Friday night out
The taste of communion
A routine checkup
The school rush each morning
Coffee with a friend
The stadium roaring
Each deep breath
A boring Tuesday
When this ends
May we find that we have become more like the people
We wanted to be, we were called to be, we hoped to be
And may we stay that way – better for each other
Because of the worst.
By Laura Kelly Fanucci