Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 24: Evergreen Advent
Nick and Rustle stood outside Nick's workshop, beneath the Northern Lights -- solitary figures on the most barren of landscapes. But it didn't look so bleak to Rustle now that Nick was telling him his idea.
"I made a small joke before," Nick said, "about 'people down below' -- meaning everyone who lives below the North Pole -- meaning everyone else in the world. But there's really the same idea behind Christmas.
"Every other time of the year -- every single day -- the people down below are trying to get something done. They rush, and they fuss. If they're good people, they make as much time for their family as they can, but they can never make enough. It's just too frantic. Even when they take vacations, they know that the world they left behind is still there, waiting for them to come back to it.
"But on Christmas, that world comes to a halt, for that one day. Oh, I don't say every single place is like that -- some people celebrate other times, and some people who could celebrate Christmas don't, for one reason or another. But the people who celebrate other days have the same experience on those days that people who celebrate Christmas have on Christmas. And that experience is this: the world around them is quiet, and at peace. Everyone who celebrates that day has stopped the frantic life, to spend the day with his or her family, at home -- or to think about family if it's impossible to be there.
"It's not that far to knowing that we're all with our family: the family of living creatures -- in our home: the Earth."
Rustle said, "I thought Christmas was for celebrating a person called Jesus."
"It is, Rustle. It celebrates the birth of the man who gave his life to benefit everyone on Earth, then and forever after. He taught us that we all are one, and that each of us can be better than we might think we can be -- and on Christmas, everyone who celebrates him remembers what he taught. They may not do that any other day of the year, but Christmas makes certain that they remember at least once."
"Well," said Rustle, "I'm glad. But I never knew any of this before my adventures started, and I don't see what it has to do with me now."
"Don't you?" murmured Nick. He seemed, for the first time since Rustle had known him, a little flustered. "The point is, those of us here at the North Pole aren't like the people down below. I'm an immortal man, surrounded by immortal elves and immortal reindeer. Our 'North Pole' family is one-of-a-kind. And still, we work all the other days of the year, like them. After my deliveries tonight, we'll rest on Christmas, like them. And we'll think about our family.
"You've become a part of my family, Rustle. You helped me become what I am. And now I want to make that permanent.
"You've seen my workshop. Inside, it's the warmest, most wonderful place I can imagine. But outside the workshop, it's bleak. Nothing can grow up here. No grass, no flowers, no trees -- except, perhaps, a magic tree."
"You mean -- " said Rustle, turning to Nick.
"Yes, Rustle. I miss the trees that live down below, so I want you to plant yourself outside my workshop, right by the front door, just like when you were an olive tree outside my church in Lycia. You already are a Christmas tree, so live here, forever, with us. We'll be your family."
"Well !" Rustle faltered, now as flustered as Nick had been. " I'm very honored and I do want to plant myself. I do. But even so, I have been thinking that I'll miss traveling "
"You don't know what you want, do you?"
"No," said Rustle. But he didn't seem convinced any more.
"Then here's the rest of my idea, Rustle. Every Christmas Eve, when I travel around the world, I can pluck a sprig of greenery from you, and stick it in my cap. I know your spirit can live in the sprig. So everywhere I go, you'll go -- and each time I lay presents beneath a Christmas tree, your spirit will touch that tree. Your spirit will touch all the Christmas trees, all over the world. That way, you'll stay here, and you'll travel. You'll live with us, and you'll be a part of every Christmas tree, everywhere!"
"They'd all know me -- all of them. A family of Christmas trees " Rustle saw it all spread out before him, in his mind. "That sounds like heaven!"
"You gave me a gift 1700 years ago," said Nick. "It let me give gifts to millions of people ever since. And now, at last, I can give you what you want."
"You don't have to give me anything, Nick," Rustle protested. "I just did what I thought was right."
"I know," smiled Santa Claus. "And that's what I'm doing now. Because giving when you don't have to give makes for the best giving of all."
Nick reached out and took hold of one of Rustle's branches. Slowly, together, they turned back toward the workshop and crunched across the ice and snow. When they stopped directly in front of the cheerful door, where everyone coming out of the shop would see him first thing, Rustle settled himself. He pushed his roots as deep down as he could. He couldn't reach dirt, but he didn't need dirt to live now. He was, now and forever, the Spirit in the Bark.
Nick opened the door to the shop, and called out, "He's ready!" Then out of the door came all the elves -- hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of elves -- each carrying a tiny decoration. They crowded around him, chattering to him and among themselves, as they started to hang their ornaments on his branches, and Rustle saw that he would have to grow again to be able to hold all their gifts. He did grow, once, and then twice, and then three times and four, until he became by far the largest thing anyone had ever seen on the polar ice. And still the elves clambered up and down, from branch to branch, hanging their stars and balls and dolls. It took almost three hours for them to finish, and in the end, when the last of them had climbed back to the ground and joined the others in their circle around him and Nick, he had become the most wonderful Christmas tree ever imagined.
"This is your North Pole family, Rustle," Nick smiled. "What do you think of us?"
For the first time, Rustle knew -- really knew -- the Spirit of Christmas.
Then just as he'd promised, Nick reached out to Rustle's bottom branch and plucked a small green part of him, which he stuck comfortably into the white fur of his hat, to stand up proudly against the red. Somewhere, sometime, Rustle had heard a person talk about putting "a feather in his cap," and though he still didn't understand what that really meant, he knew from the way that person had looked that it was a very good thing. He put his spirit into the sprig in the cap just as Nick had advised him, and looked out at the world with a view very much like Nick's own.
Santa Claus laughed with seventeen centuries of satisfaction. Then he called out to his elves: "Gather my reindeer! And ask Melchior and Regina to join them! This year, those two will lead!" And so Rustle rode with Santa as Santa climbed into his sleigh, and together they rose into the clear winter sky to fly to the houses of good boys and girls everywhere
Just as they're doing right now!
So now, before you go to bed, say a special good night to your Christmas tree, because, as wonderful as it is right now, when you see it again in the morning a little bit of Rustle will be inside it, to say "Merry Christmas!" to you. You may not hear him with your ears, but you'll hear him with your heart, and that will be one extra present to brighten the brightest of all days!
email Rustle, Steve, and Joe! We'd love to hear from you!