“Not this again!” Nicholas sighed. “Shift over.”
Peter groaned but he moved from the driving seat, sulking in sullen resentment. Nicholas climbed into the sleigh. “Cheer up,” he snapped. “It’s Christmas.”
Peter grunted and told Nicholas where he could stick his Christmas cheer.
Nicholas cracked the reins. Four pairs of reindeer began to trot. Seconds later, the sleigh lifted into the sunset-streaked sky.
“Look,” Nicholas said, “it has to be like this. It’s tradition. I drive the sleigh. I give out toys to the good ones; you give out coal to the bad.”
“Huh,” Peter crossed his arms. “Just once, I would like a change.”
“Tradition forbids it,” Nicholas said smugly. Using the stars to navigate, he steered the sleigh south. They would work their way up the country and be back home in the north in time for breakfast.
“Tradition, my black arse,” Peter complained. “Just once, I want to leave the toys and you can leave the coal.”
“Not going to happen,” said Nicholas. “Now, cheer up, and let’s have a good night of it.”
But Peter had a piece to say and would not rest until he had said it. “Tradition! Tradition says you reward the well-behaved, and I punish the bad. I know it’s supposed to introduce the kids to the idea of eternal reward, heaven and hell and all that malarkey, but you keep undermining my role. You leave toys for every kid no matter what they’ve been up to. I never get to leave a single piece of coal.”
“Well,” Nicholas shrugged. “It’s Christmas.”
“It’s getting so bad that I’m being edged out of the picture. Lots of kids have never even heard of me. So don’t talk to me about tradition. You’ve whitewashed me out of it.”
“Bloody hell,” Nicholas rolled his eyes. Crystals of ice where forming in his bushy white beard but they only served to accentuate the twinkle in his eyes. “Stick to the plan. I’m reward and you’re punishment. That’s why I’m dressed like a pope and you’re done up like a devil. You can’t tamper with that – it would give out a mixed message.”
“Bah,” Peter grunted. He remained in the sleigh, muttering to himself while Nicholas made his deliveries, climbing in and out of chimneys and humming Jingle Bells.
Their final stop of the night was an isolated cottage, deep in the northern forest. An old woman lived there, her children long since moved away, her grandchildren in the city strangers to her.
“Bottle of sherry, I think,” said Nicholas, “that should keep the old dear warm.”
But before he could reach it from his sack on the backseat, Peter sprang from the sleigh, his own sack on his shoulder. He skipped across the roof and tipped his whole supply of coal down the chimney. Black stones rained into the old woman’s fireplace.
Peter strolled back to the sleigh, whistling Jingle Bells. He folded his empty sack and put it in his pocket. He dusted his hands together and leapt into his seat.
“How’s that for a mixed message?” he laughed.