The year he resumed gift delivery, Santa was shot down by an F-111 fighter plane. He saw the missile coming and knew he couldn't evade it. The reindeer bucked and brayed and threw howling fits, and both sleigh and beasts went into a dive after the missile's impact. Since magic, though now undeniably diminished, was on his side, Santa's sleigh was not destroyed by the blast, but he crashed hard into the Canadian tundra, and his sleigh was rendered inoperable. The reindeer, dusted in snow, gathered in a misshapen circle and hung their heads in dismay. They knew the score--shot down before visiting one house. The situation seemed hopeless.
Santa had been watching the pilots since infanthood--Gus Rodriguez from San Antonio, Texas, Jimmy Seevant from Brooklyn, New York--and, though he had been on hiatus during their childhood, knew that he would've put presents under their trees, the little troublemakers, as he had done for most children. Gus, who couldn't help himself when it came to firecrackers and armadillos, and Jimmy, who never saw a street fight he didn't start. Until age seven, both of them believed in a Santa who didn't actually bring their gifts. After someone stopped believing, whether or not Santa was active, the belief could never be restored.
For the world's children, Santa had always overlooked youthful transgressions and put something under the tree as long as they believed in him. It was the holiday's promise of hope. For hundreds of years, he was the deliverer of hope and the fulfiller of dreams and wishes.
That ended in 1951, when Santa quit. That year was the other time he had been shot down. Television, advanced weaponry, swelling paranoia--he saw the coming trend. The world's population was growing exponentially. He could handle that. But the new technologies, and the new ways of thinking that accompanied them, had squeezed him and his magic out. He had embraced a cynical thought he had never known--let the people of the world get their own gifts. And he refused the wishes of Bertram Wingberry, his former elfin Chief Officer of Toy Weaponry and Combat, who, in a letter written to Santa once a year, stated he should've made the holiday more Lethal Weapon than Miracle on 34th Street by fitting the sleigh with a guided missile system. On Donner, on Busey, on Glover and Gibson, he wrote. This was not what Christmas was about, Santa thought. It's better I bowed out, left the world alone.
In the snow, Santa tried to encourage his reindeer. The night's still young, he said. Somehow, we'll get airborne again. Hope is on our side.
But how? After Santa nixed Christmas, the elves quit. They had nowhere to go, and ever since have wandered the world hiding in shadows. They couldn't bear Santa's abandonment of the world and left. It was just the reindeer and Santa now, alone in the cold night. Neither reindeer nor Santa, unlike the elves, was a sleigh mechanic.
Restarting Christmas giving was a venture that welcomed failure. There were many questions. Since Santa had been gone so long, parents had been buying their children toys--what would he do about gifts already under trees? He could enter homes without notice, but seemingly couldn't fly without being tracked on radar--how would he counteract that? He knew that his magical abilities were diminishing--how would he adapt? And since the elves were gone, how was he going to build all those toys?
Despite the questions, Santa decided this year was the time to return. From the North Pole, he had watched the world the last fifty-eight years. It had become an unforgiving place, especially for children. In the last few years, the deterioration has accelerated. The world--the children--needed hope once again.
So, he worked feverishly making toys himself, deciding not to worry about the rest, and, on Christmas Eve, suited up and hopped in the sleigh. It felt great. The cold air washing his cheeks, the stars painting the night sky in twinkling white light. He could already taste milk and cookies, the warmth of lived-in homes. He had been thinking of stockings embroidered with children's names when he heard the sear of the missile approaching.
On the ground, Santa saw Gus and Jimmy returning for the kill. The reindeer scurried behind him, as he stood firm, red clothed belly extended toward Asia. There was still hope, he thought, as the plane, like an angry shark, moved feverishly closer. There's always hope.