Well it’s that time of year again and Christmas is around the corner. So as you all sit roasting chestnuts by the fire and drinking hot cocoa waiting for the big man, here’s something to keep you entertained.
This is a story I wrote recently for an authors event at Independent bookstore Southcart books in Walsall. It’s an origin story for the bearded one himself.
The man with the Red Coat.
Bodies tire. Faith falters. Words fade to murmurs on the wind.
It was the 18th Year of the emperor Esebell’s reign when the world came to an end. Snow descended from the heavens as the sun clouded over and civilisation burnt to ash, strand by strand. Huddled masses whimpered in the cold in front of temples to the old Gods pleading for salvation from the eternal winter that had come.
The man with the red coat came to us then, reeking of love and redemption and we hated him for it. Of course we did not know who he was then.
This is his story.
This is my story, too.
Father passed away first, then my mother two days after. The cold had pressed against them, chilling bones and freezing flesh before bleeding their strength away. Together they lay in our family plot lying side by side as I shovelled soil and ice upon their bodies, trying not to cry, failing. It looked as though a thousand glittering crystals were entwined in the land where they rested.
Muscles tire. Will fades. The shovel fell from my hands and I lay huddled in the snow. Then he stood over me, his voice grumbling on the wind. “Rise, Aled Christos,” he said. “Feel the wind, feel the sorrow.”
“Why are you here?” I rasped “No body wants you here. You’re just another deluded fool that thinks he’s Sinterklass reborn.”
Since the man in the red coat had appeared, two span ago, there were rumours, whispers on the wind that he was back. Sinterklass was back. Curiosity turned to fear and fear to hate. Soon every one in the streets spoke venomously about the man in the red coat and a bounty had been put on his head for 1000 guilders.
Sobs wracked my body as hot tears fell onto the snow. Cool air was breathed on my neck, strong hands pulled me to my feet out of the dirt and snow like I was a child. Then we sat on the end of the ground in silence. I felt a hollow empty place inside that tried to swallow me whenever my eyes wandered to freshly dug grave.
Silence to honor the moments no words can carry.
Like this one.
Only, it didn’t feel like a moment — it felt like a year, in the cold, alone orphanhood settling onto my back and shoulders with a weight I’d never felt before. Winter’s Eve was two weeks away— our favorite holiday — it would be the first I spent on my own.
Faith fades. Fear fails.
My eyes blurred as the tears overpowered me. The questions began to rise even as the fear fell upon me. What will I do now? Where will I go? How will I ever learn to live around this vast hole in my heart?
The night was clear and cold but I paid it no mind. According to my father, who had kept an account of such things, it had been exactly two hundred and seventy three Winter Eves, since Longbeard, or Sinterklass as the Eturians called him, had rode through the night astride his steed Sleipnir dispelling the long winters night. And now in our time of need this red coated man taunted us with his presence, reeking love, reminding us that we were not on our own.
I was on my own.
A winter’s eve song surfaced from memory, times when the fire roared and my father sang raucously whilst dancing with my mother across the hearth.
May Winter’s Eve be cold and clear
Sinterklass grace may find us here.
As long as hearts be true and fair
Longbeard will fly astride his mare
Where those have faith his blessings fall
Light and hope, belief for all
Ice and snow shall melt away
And we shall live another day.
A hammer and chisel found my hands and I worked the stone boulder lying by the grave into what resembled a grave marker. ‘Here lies Durian Xristos and Tempa Xristos,’ it read : ‘Beloved father and mother.’
My knees were cold as I knelt in the snow and I remembered Winter’s eve long past, where we sang songs of Sinterklass and lit candles outside beneath the holly wreaths. “I don’t understand why we do this,” I had moaned. At ten years of age, I had mastered the art of the subtle complaint.
“We do this,” my father said, “because it’s important to remember what has come before, what banished the winter’s cold when we were unable to ourselves.”
I had clutched an unlit candle tightly. “But no one believes in Sinterklass anymore,” I had said.
“No one does,” he’d replied, and winked. “But we do.”
We finished our salutations as the wind rose to threaten our hats. For Winter’s eve we wore narrow conical hats made from stiff leather dyed red and green. I looked up. “Clear sky,” I said.
Father had chuckled again. “Yes.”
“Last year was clear, as well.”
“Yes,” he said again. “There have been quite a few clear, cold Winter’s Eves.”
I kicked the snow. “The song got it wrong.”
I felt his hand settle onto my shoulder. “Getting it right,” he said again, “isn’t required.”
We went back into the house and I pulled the door closed. He went to the stove and ladled stew into wooden bowls carved with fir trees and stars, that came out each year just for this tradition. He didn’t speak again until Mother had joined us and we were seated at the table, the fire crackling nearby.
“Besides,” he said as he tucked his napkin into his open-collared shirt, “they changed the song a long time ago. The song used to say ’banish the heat and sun,’ which implied at one time it wasn’t always cold.”
I’d heard this one before and I nodded. “So they changed it to suit the climate. Was it when they scorched the sky that we lost the sun.’”
He grinned, his broad face lighting up. “Yes. And No.”
I tried to imitate his deep, gruff voice. “Yes and no. Which is it?”
He shrugged. “Both. The Winter war is so called because we scorched the earth fierce making it raged against us and sent ice from the poles across the four corners, covering the land in an eternal winter. All that keeps us from dying is the sun. When that goes we will perish.”
I paused, my spoon paused above the rim of the bowl. “But the song isn’t true.”
He paused, too. “No, it doesn’t appear to be.”
“So the new words aren’t…accurate?”
He took a bite, swallowed, and thought for a moment. “Only if the underlying premise is accurate. I can sing about dragons that might bring vast wealth for Winter’s Eve, but if there are no dragons….” he’d shrugged.
I smiled and mimicked his shrug. “So… back to my question. Why do we do it?”
My father sighed. “To remember. To keep the faith. Someday, when you have a child, you’ll understand it better, I think.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think I will.” Then, I wrinkled my nose. “And I don’t want a child.”
“Ah,” he said, “but do you want your present?”
I had nodded.
That was the year that I’d written my last letter to Sinterklass asking about the Winter war, the White fist and how Sinterklass had lost his sword. I asked him when he was coming back and how all I wanted for Winters Eve was the snow to melt , for us to be able to till the land and grow barley and oats.
Muscles tire. It’s all we really knew. The dragon’s spine kept the blighted land at bay, a line of mountains that even the fiercest raider thought twice about before crossing.
The sun finally clouded over and the Emperor had no time to act, to change the course of this sudden, sweeping end. Instead the nobles drank mulled wine and spoke of birds singing softly in trees.
The people sat in the cold shivering, waiting to die until Sinterklass came back.
For the first couple of days I crept by with limited interaction. Storms of sorrow blew in at the slightest provocation—the smell of father on the bright green jacket I’d taken, mother’s pen laid carefully to left side of her desk blotter, the cards she’d started writing organized for me to deliver. And on the heels of the sadness, was a calm and foreboding hollowness that I didn’t know I could feel. Followed suddenly by inconsolable rage that had no place to go but inward, or else it might burn down the world.
It was when I was thumbing through the cards that I found one addressed to me. It was a beautiful card with a tall fir tree decorated with strings of beads and bright baubles raised upon its surface.
Inside was a message written in Mother’s clear hand.
I’m dreaming of a Merry Winter’s eve
With every Winter’s card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Winters eve’s be nice
Better watch out son
The wind is blowing
Sinterklass is coming to town
Love you always
Mother and Father
Tears welled up in my eyes and fury replaced sorrow. Constant belief in a mythological figure had finally worn my nerves red raw. It was because of Sinterklass that we lived up on the mountains eking out a miserable existence freezing in the cold. Any spare coin we had was spent tending the herds of Rhinedeer grazing locally.
And now this imposter had come as if he was a living mockery of everything my parents had stood for. I stormed out of our hut slamming the door behind me so that a fresh drift of snow fell on my head doing little to cool the fire raging in my head.
The man in the red coat was bent over a workbench and was shaping a large piece of wood. He hummed a ditty under his breath that sounded familiar. It tickled the edges of my memory. Something about bells jingling, or similar nonsense.
“Look here,”I started but the man in the red coat cut me off with a chuckle.
“Have you settled to your affairs?” he asked in a deep resonating voice.
The question caught me off guard and my anger began to melt away.
“What are you making?” I asked him, marvelling at the way he shaped the wood. One end was curving into a slope now.
“A sleigh. May come in useful.” He replied fully focused on his work.
I nodded. I knew of at least three passes around here where a sleigh would be useful.
“There’s no dogs about though. To pull the sleigh. None about for leagues.”
The man in the red coat chuckled again, deep and hearty and I felt it lift my spirits despite my recent loss. It was infectious, musical, invigorating. Tomorrow seemed less bleak when he laughed.
He nodded. “I prefer the help of others to pull my sleigh.”
“Are you really him?” I asked so suddenly that I was surprised at where the question had come from.
“Who?” the man in the red coat asked.
Again a chuckle, each time I heard it my chest filled with hope. This time my laughter echoed his.
“That depends.” He said
“Depends on what.” I sat on my heels and watched him fix the runner he had shaped onto the bottom of the sleigh.
“Depends on if you believe. Depends on if you’ve been good or bad this year?” the man in the red coat smiled at me, his cheeks rosy red, black eyes twinkling.
“If you’re him, why have you returned?” I asked. “Why now?”
The man in the red coat fixed me with a serious stare and I felt as if he was searching deep within my soul.
“Why not? The world is at its darkest. It needs hope, the winter draws near and endless night threatens to surround us. The men and women of this world are lost but the children. They are tomorrow’s promise whispered on the wind. I return for the children. I returned for you Aled. I need your help.”
It was the longest I’d heard him speak and the words seized me.
“Because your family stayed true. Your family believed, your family kept faith when others chose to follow false gods. Together we will right the wrongs in this world. On Winter’s Eve we will start to shift the balance from darkness to light.”
The man in the red coat finished and turned the sleigh which was at least 20 ft in length, over with a grunt. His strength was prodigious.
“But what good can we do in one night, what can we do?” I opened my hands up in a helpless gesture.
“We can spread a message of hope and love. Not to the men and women but to the children. We can lift hearts and ease the soul. We can spread laughter and joy in a land of misery. All this we can do.”
I nodded despite myself wanting to believe this man. Wanting to believe he was Sinterklass reborn.
For the next week we set to work, herding Rhinedeer and driving them into a pen we built nearby. We trained the eight brightest to run in teams of two and set the largest and strongest to lead them. Nine Rhinedeer hitched to a sleigh. At night the man in the red coat taught me how to carve toys made from wood and leather, laughing in delight at how clever my hands were. Each toy was painted with bright colours and wrapped in ribbon. Dolls, balls, spinning tops, simple toys and complex mechanisms with gears and levers. By the time we had finished the sleigh which had been stained with a red varnish, was filled with sacks and sacks of gifts. How we managed to craft such things in the time that we did I don’t know, but it was as if time slowed when I was with the man in the red coat.
On Winter’s eve Eve I woke early and prepared breakfast as my mother always did, candied fruits, honey porridge and toasted bread covered in plum preserve. But the man in the red coat was already awake checking the sacks and feeding oats to the Rhinedeer. With every handful they ate, the Rhinedeer became more and more animated, pawing the earth with their hooves.
“They seem excited.” I nodded towards the Rhinedeer as I offered a steaming mug of tea.
The man in the red coat smiled, eyes twinkling mischievously.
“Mayhap they are. We should name them.” he said.
Over breakfast we decided on their names but you already know what they ended up being called. Only Radulf the bright nosed stag had a different name but then what can you expect when time passes over the world.
After we finished I pulled on my green coat and Winter’s eve hat and asked.
“Now what? “
The man in the red coat chuckled loudly “Now we go to work.”
That day we moved from town to town village to village visiting the children giving out gifts of toys, grain, meat and wine to those with nothing to feast on during Winter’s eve. Where all the food and drink came from I did not know but there seemed to be no end to the bounty with the laden sacks.
On three occasions we were set upon by bandits and on all the man in the red coat drove them off with a large cudgel, knocking heads and breaking noses, but never killing.
Somehow, we covered every single village that day and night, every single house was visited across the whole of the empire. I can’t explain it but the Rhinedeer danced on the ground, eating up the miles and found paths across the water, skimming the land as of they were flying. It was magical.
Word spread as we travelled somehow and people waited outside in the snow covered streets. Excited faces red with the cold clamouring to see us. It filled me with hope that all was not lost.
We spent Winters day together at my parents cabin resting from our excursions. The next day as we sat eating breakfast I asked the question that had been burning inside me.
“So what now? Is that it, do people believe now?”
Another chuckle “It’s a start. More people believe now than before, more children now strive to be good. There is hope and love in the world.’”
“So what do we do now Sinterklass?” I asked smiling.
“So you believe now do you?” he said with a rueful smile.
“Of course. Will we do this every Winter’s eve?”
“Good, we will need that belief in the days to come. Now we find a home, a place to carry out our work. And more stout young fellows like you Aled to help our work. In the years to come there will be even more of a need for us. And I think we need a new name, Winter’s eve is not right anymore. We shall call it the festival of Christos.”
“When do we leave?” I asked feeling nervous excitement fluttering in my stomach.
“Today. And you’re wrong, my name is not Sinterklass.” He said smiling.
“But you’re. I don’t understand. I thought you were him.” I said confusion etched on my face.
“Oh but I am.” The man in the red coat said. “My name is Santa Claus.”
Myth became life. No one really believed in Sinterklass but they believed in Santa Claus. They believed in his red coat lined with fur and his sleigh led by prancing Rhinedeer. No one really believed in his undying love until he burst into our direst need and replaced our hurts and fears with hope.
Merry Christmas everyone, seasons greetings to you all.
Neil Sehmbhy is a Fantasy, Horror and Sci fi author from the Midlands, UK. Partial to a scotch egg, he is the author of Tea with Death and other stories, a collection of flash fiction available amazon. He is currently working on two Fantasy novels Beyond the Gateway and A Sundered Path.
Follow him on twitter @neilsehmbhy