Editor’s Note: The following story was originally printed during High Country Press’ newspaper days on Dec. 20, 2007. Due to requests over the years, it has been printed a number of times. Here it is one more time on Christmas Eve.
By Sam Calhoun
Dec. 24, 2014. After emptying our work expense account and liquidating our office’s petty cash drawer, my boss sent me on a Business Spotlight assignment like no other—Ken sent me to the North Pole. I guess one too many jokes at the expense of Santa Claus’ existence bought me a 24-hour flight to the coldest place on earth, but I wasn’t complaining—after all, who else gets to see Santa’s toy operation in person? I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity.
With my pad, pen, camera (which was confiscated upon touchdown at the pole), cynical humor, enough jackets to make me look like a sumo wrestler, a copy of the Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeermovie as a primer for the journey and an old broken toy from my childhood that I was hoping to get some answers on concerning quality control, I boarded the plane…in Charlotte, oddly enough. One full day and 12 showings of Rudolf later, I touched down in the North Pole.
When I boarded the plane, it was full of other travelers. When I arrived, I was the only one. I froze in my seat, arms paralyzed by my side and peered out the frost-covered windows. Snow, snow, wintergreen trees, a caribou—could that be a reindeer?
I leaped out of my seat and banged on the pilot’s cabin door.
“Open up, please,” I said. “What happened to all the passengers? Are we in Greenland? Iceland?
“Are we in the North Pole?” I whispered in disbelief.
The cabin door opened slowly and a shot of cold air rushed my face. In the pilot chair sat Sam—the talking snowman from the Rudolf movie. Things did not look good for my mental health.
“Sam, I’m Sam,” he said grinning. “Welcome to the North Pole.”
“Hey…Sam,” I said. “I remember you from that 1964 cartoon. That was a cartoon, right?”
“Yes—don’t be scared—it’s amazing the advancements in film these days. That movie was shot on location and they say the camera adds 10 pounds,” the snowman laughed.
Was that a joke? Not only was the snowman talking, but he was also joking…and using pop culture references.
“Only in the North Pole,” I thought.
“Now, hand me that shiny camera,” said the snowman.
“Why?” I asked.
“No cameras are allowed at the North Pole. Santa’s weird about pictures,” said the snowman.
“Will I get it back,” I said, like an ugly American.
“Sure, and if not, we’ll send you a new one for Christmas,” said the snowman. I did note the irony of the statement.
A wave of trust washed over me and I backed out of the cabin door to let the snowman—a talking snowman, mind you—get out of his seat. He walked to the plane’s door as I inspected—like a good reporter—to see if a water trail followed his snowy lower section. Nope.
The door swung open and fluffy white snow coated the blue vista. The snowman waddled down the ramp, turned and beckoned me to follow. I gathered my bag, shoved the copy of Rudolf to the bottom so as not to look like a first-timer and scampered down the ramp.
“You ready to see what you came for?” said the snowman.
“Yes, sir,” I said, excited.
“No one says ‘sir’ around here Sam,” the snowman said. “Call me Sam, or Big S—the elves call me Big S.”
“Alright Big S, do you know why I’m here? I mean, I guess you do, you drove the plane, but I’m here to see Santa—the other Big S,” I joked, coming out of my nervousness.
“It’s the first castle on your left,” he said, missing the humor and pointing his umbrella into the snowy expanse.
In fact, Santa’s castle was the only castle on the left for that matter—the only castle in sight, actually—but I wasn’t about to argue with a talking snowman. If a snowman could talk in the North Pole, that probably wasn’t the extent of the realm of possibilities, and I wasn’t about to test any limits. And, after all, Big S had my camera; I didn’t want him to prematurely lose it, although I was quite sure it was going to get “lost.”
I trudged on through the snow, waist-deep, occasionally looking behind me as Big S re-boarded the plane. Soon, the lights of the castle became clearer and the lights of the plane faded in the distance.
I was here—at Santa’s house…to interview him…for a newspaper in Boone.
I stepped on the porch, grasping a High Country Press from last week, hoping the paper could be an ice-breaker to start the interview, you know something like, “Hey Santa, I work for a newspaper in Boone, North Carolina, and you…well, you make toys for the millions of boys and girls around the world every year for the past who knows how many hundreds of years.”
Yeah, I was prepared.
Two knocks and the door opened. Candlelight—the brightest you have ever seen—flooded the room. It was a modest cabin-style castle, with winding wooden staircases, glass cases filled with homemade toys, wreaths of all shapes and sizes, Christmas trees, sleds, dozens of red coats, pictures of what seemed to be elder elves, a large portrait of Santa and Mrs. Claus, a wedding photo of Santa and Mrs. Claus and dozens of TVs hooked up to decades worth of video game systems. A large doorway on the right of the room read “Toy Shop,” and you could hear the noise of banging and laughing and power tools. Alone, I started walking toward the door.
“Who goes there,” grumbled a loud bass voice.
I froze and slowly turned to the top of the steps. I couldn’t move. In front of my eyes was a large, plump man, with a white beard and a red and white coat. Words escaped me.
“I’m just kidding,” Santa said, tromping down the stairs. “The elves love it when I do my mean voice. You must be Sam. Welcome to the North Pole!”
“Uh, welcome… I mean, thanks for having me…Santa,” I stumbled.
“I have something for you,” he said smiling, revealing a package from under his coat. “I sent you a defective toy when you were 8 and I’m sorry. Here’s a replacement.”
“Oh, Santa! Thank you,” I said, stuffing my toy that I had brought with me to ask about quality control issues further down in my bag.
“I know you brought the broken toy with you, Sam,” Santa said. “I know everything.”
“Great,” I thought. “I am probably the wrong person to be doing this interview. No freebies on this interview.”
“I brought you something, too,” I said, handing him the High Country Press, “a copy of our newspaper so you can see where your story will run.”
“Thank you, Sam,” Santa said. “That’s very nice of you. You are a very thoughtful boy.”
Boy, was he wrong on two accounts—the “nice” and “boy” descriptors—but I let it go as pleasantries.
“I’m here to write a Business Spotlight on you,” I said, “You see, we did The Incredible Toy Company in Blowing Rock last week and this week, it’s you.”
“Sounds good. Let’s get moving, though, I’m a very busy man this time of year, you know,” Santa replied.
No answer needed—kind of self-explanatory.
“Follow me,” he said, walking toward the door to the Toy Shop.
Whereas the foyer was somewhat quiet, once the door opened, Christmas music filled the air, akin to any Wal-Mart or shopping mall these days. Large furnace looking machines sat at either end of the football field-size room and long wooden tables filled the middle. A sea of green jackets—elves, I assumed—flooded the spaces in between. Toys and design instructions cluttered the tables and everyone was whistling. Signs hung on the walls that read, “Make Safe Toys; Not Chinese Toys.” At the far corner of the room—probably 400 feet from me—Mrs. Claus sat in a glass room 40 feet above the floor; she was knitting, smiling and occasionally looked down to admire the progress.
By the time I came back to reality, Santa had already walked 20 feet into the room and was inspecting a random toy just completed by a 4-foot-tall red-haired man.
“Are you scared, son?” Santa called back to me. “You look dazed. Where has all your wonder gone Sam? Did you not believe that someplace like this existed?”
“I…I…is that a He-Man action figure? I didn’t even know they—I mean you—still made these!” I said, rushing to the table.
“Yes, would you like one for Christmas this year?” Santa asked. “We can make another and add it to your already long list. We already made and packed away your Muppets Take Manhattan DVD.”
An elf—hearing my gift selection—looked up, apparently not amused with my choice.
“It’s a good movie,” I shot back at the elf.
“So, what do you want to know?” asked Santa. “This is where it all happens,” he continued, pointing at the room. “Our customer service begins here and ends when I deliver the toys to all the good girls and boys. We take pride in making toys of our own design, but with the kids these days and all their TV commercials, we had to broaden our horizons. Now, we make toys that are sold under a variety of names—Nintendo, Barbie, Playstation, Sony, Blackberry, Verizon Wireless, Playmobil, Lego—you get the picture. If you can play with it, we make it.”
“So, what’s that over there?” I asked, pointing to a large barn door that seemed to point to the exterior of the castle.
“That’s our sleigh staging area,” said Santa. “When the toys get done, they are put in large red bags and placed in the sleigh that is stored in that room.”
“How do you get these millions of toys to fit in that small sleigh?” I asked.
“It’s like a Mary Poppins’ bag kind of thing,” answered Santa. “Magic, if you will.”
Ah yes, magic. Why didn’t I think of magic?
As we walked closer to the barn, I could see a large room inside the structure filled with massive pillows. On top of the pillows were Santa’s eight reindeer—they were resting, and sure enough, one had a red nose. That was a little much for this mountain boy to handle so I switched my attention to the other side of the barn. Four chimneys of various sizes sat in a row.
“What are those for?” I asked.
“That’s where I do my chimney diving training in the off-season,” said Santa. “To stay in shape, I dive in various sized chimneys, but it’s like riding a bike; you never forget.”
Fighting the urge to try out the plump man’s training regimen, I returned to my questions as Santa peered off to survey the toy-making progress.
“Do you have any business secrets that you would like to share with our readers?” I asked.
“Don’t give service to people that are mean,” Santa said quickly.
“But sometimes don’t you have to give service to people that are mean?” I answered. “I mean those people aren’t mean all the time, right?”
“How are people going to learn to treat people like they want to be treated if you don’t give them a little coal in their stocking now and then?” Santa said. “I know all people are equal and have good in their hearts, but it’s just not nice to hurt other people. And I don’t like things that are not nice—that’s my business secret.”
“But Santa, I bet I’ve not been nice in the past,” I said, trying to keep a straight face.
“You definitely haven’t been nice in the past,” said Santa, and my heart dropped. “But you said sorry and you meant it, and that’s why you are getting the Muppets Take Manhattan DVD.”
Another elf heard my DVD choice and shot me a negative glance.
“It’s a good movie,” I repeated in defense, “and I’m sure you guys are much nicer little people than the muppets.”
“Don’t mind him,” said Santa, “he’s overworked this time of year.
“Enough talking though. I’ve been listening to kids from all over the world tell me their wish lists for weeks. You want to make some toys with me?” Santa said.
“Sure,” I replied.
Santa tapped an elf on the shoulder and told him to take a break and motioned me to the empty chair. Santa sat beside me and picked up a half-done wooden toy.
“This one is for a good little boy in Virginia,” said Santa. “He wanted a Power Ranger, but since the recall, I’ve been making them out of wood instead so that the parents know it’s safe. You want to help?”
“I’d love to,” I said.
Then Santa—sitting two feet taller than his nearest neighbor—got quiet and smiled. He picked up some tools and went to work, whistling all the while. I looked around the room at the sea of green and the blip of red right beside me and I realized, I really do believe in Santa Claus.
When I turned back to Santa, he had already finished his toy and was wrapping it in the newspaper I handed him earlier in the night.
“I’m sorry, I love wrapping with newspaper. It’s like recycling!” he said grinning from ear to ear. “Besides, I’ll get another one when I swing by your town on Christmas.”
Santa and Mrs. Claus’ Toy Shop is located at 8 Reindeer Lane in the North Pole. The shop is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week 364 days a year, closed on Christmas for an elf party. For more information, write Santa a letter.