There is a tale of days of long ago that is very seldom told – not because it is so antiquated, but because elements of it are tragic. It has therefore has been swept under the rug so to speak – hidden from audiences all these many years. And yet, it is a tale that needs be told. And so, breaking from the hustle and bustle of a busy season, I pause to share it with you.
Throughout history social orders have divided groups by class or culture. Societal norms do not allow for transcendence through class boundaries. Such was the case in this tale.
Kristopher Kringle was born to Elizabeth and Kristoph Kringle. They were peasants and worked each day of their lives just to provide scanty clothing for theirchildren and put a meager spread of food on the table. On the last day of his existence, Kristoph Kringle was found in the woods, slumped over his axe which had been sunk deep into the trunk of a deadfall tree.
This left young Kristopher in the care of his mother. She had once been young and beautiful, but years of manual labor had worn the curves from her body, the roses from her cheeks and the fullness from her lips. Without her beloved husband to provide for the family, she could put but little food on the table, so many evenings Kristopher went to bed famished, having sacrificed what he might have eaten so that one of his younger siblings could have a portion more.
At the age of 15, Kristopher left home and procured work as a messenger for Lord Shropton. The pay was poor, but if he didn’t light a fire in his quarters and ate coarse bread, country cheese and an occasional cabbage or turnip for his sustenance, the income was enough for him to survive and to send a small amount back to his mother to provide for his family.
It was through his service as messenger that he first met Mary. Mary Kristmas was born to be a duchess. The first time Kristopher saw her she was seated in the garden, painting a picture of the vineyards. Though she faced away from him, the setting sun splashed orange highlights across her brunette locks. So compelling was the image that Kristopher paused, entranced by the shimmer in her full hair. Had not his horse nudged him, he might have stayed rooted to that same spot on the gravel drive until he was caught and punished for looking upon one so far above his station. On that fateful day, he delivered Lord Shropton’s message and left – but his heart stayed on.
Months passed after the chance encounter. As fate would have it, one day while Mary was out riding, a terrible storm hit the countryside. Icy winds picked up and torrential rains blew like a volley of bullets into anything within their path. The storm burst so suddenly that Mary and her lady riding companion scarcely had time to turn around before they were hit full force. At the first clap of thunder, the young, skittish horse Mary was riding bolted, pulling the slippery reins from Mary’s grasp.
The terrified pony plunged wildly into the relentless weather with Mary clinging to the saddle. Her cries for help were lost in the howls of the wind and the horse ran too fast for her to safely dismount. She felt helpless, doomed to perish in the untamable storm.
Time and time again she reached unsuccessfully for the wet reins. At last she managed to grab one side of the reins and pulled on it with all her might. The horse balked at the bit, reared up, and fell to its side, crushing Mary’s leg beneath its weight before scrambling up and disappearing into the darkness.
Stunned, Mary lay on the sodden forest floor. Eventually she attempted to stand, but her leg was twisted uselessly at an odd angle. Fighting back waves of nausea and dizziness, she dragged herself to the side of the roadway beneath the sparse shelter of an evergreen. Surely someone would come for her when her horse returned home without her.
The storm raged on. Soaked and in shock, Mary began to shiver convulsively. She fought to stay conscious. For what seemed like hours, she sat beneath the failing shelter of the large tree, propped against its trunk.
I will die here, thought Mary. There will be those that mourn my passing; my mother, my father, but who else? I’ve done very little for this world, certainly nothing heroic, and once I am gone I will soon be forgotten.
The thought discouraged her, but only for a moment. She could not die, cowering beneath the needled branches; she was born to be nobility and should live to fulfill some greater purpose.
Wincing and moving cautiously so as not to injure herself further, Mary reached for an overhead branch that had died long ago. It was sturdy and required her full body weight to snap it from the trunk. It gouged into her armpit as she attempted to stand, but she knew it was her best chance at survival. Warily she leaned forward. The makeshift crutch held. Dragging her useless leg beside her, she hobbled forward.
She had gone no more than fifteen paces beyond the tree when she heard it: the thundering sound of hooves beating against the ground. Had her horse returned? Perhaps it had calmed enough so she could coax herself onto it to be carried home. The sound grew closer and Mary braced herself for what might be her only chance of survival. Within seconds her mount would round the bend, hopefully see her and stop – for she was in no condition to capture it.
As predicted, the horse rounded the bend and stopped, but this was not her horse and this steed already carried a rider, a messenger boy. The saddle groaned as the young man eased himself to the ground. “Are you hurt my lady?” he shouted over the din of the storm.
“Yes,” she gasped. “I was thrown from my horse and I believe the fall has injured my leg.”
The man’s face cringed as he looked toward her mutilated leg. “May I offer you a ride home?”
It was improper, he a commoner and she without an escort, but what choice did she have? Surely her parents would be grateful he had preserved her life and not be vexed about the impropriety of her sprawled across his lap. Perhaps they would even reward the young man for such chivalrous behavior.
She inched toward his mount before realizing she couldn’t climb into the saddle with her mangled leg. He seemed to understand and - refusing to meet her eyes – scooped her up and gently lifted into the saddle. Instead of climbing up beside her, he took hold of the reins and began walking. Clearly the boy had a sense of decency.
Mary had little way of gauging how far she was from her home. She had been miles before the cloudburst and then the horse had carried her farther in the wrong direction. The raging storm blocked all familiar landmarks.
“Do you know how far we must go?”
The young man didn’t look back as he replied. “Several miles, less than fifteen.”
Less than fifteen? With him walking, it would likely be hours before they reached the house. She shivered involuntarily, which seemed to set her chills in motion. If he were truly a gentleman, he would offer her his cloak, but he wouldn’t know that; how could he? She pulled her arms closer to her body and attempted to draw her legs in tighter.
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m chilled,” she answered.
The man stopped the horse, took off his cloak, and settled it over her shoulders. Already drenched from the rain, it did only a little to ease her suffering.
“Thank you,” Mary said.
The man nodded, still refusing to meet her eyes. Onward they trudged but the storm worsened and Mary could not tell how far they had traveled. Night stole away the dim light not already drowned out in the passing storm.
Surely my parents will have sent someone to look for me by now, thought Mary. There is but one road to my home and I’m certain to have been missed.
Mary’s fingers clutched the edges of the cloak, drawing it closer around her. She could no longer feel her extremities and likely could not have loosened her grip had she tried. Was it cruel to persuade the young man to allow her to ride on, galloping home? He was sturdy and had quite obviously seen much worse in his day. Surely a walk in the storm could do little more damage.
“We’ll stop here,” the youth said suddenly.
Mary looked up, too shocked to respond. “We’ll do no such thing. I have to get home. Even now I imagine my parents are terrified that I have become lost to them. They’ll be sick with worry.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
Mary clenched her teeth, but didn’t respond.
“There is a small hut not far from this spot. We’ll go in it, build a fire, have some supper, and dry out. When the weather has cleared, we’ll continue onward. I am cold and hungry and I imagine you are as well.”
“It isn’t proper,” Mary answered.
“Very well,” answered Kristopher, “you may stay here and await the search parties. I, however, will be going to the hut to feed myself and my horse. When I return if you are still here, I will continue to lead you home. If you’ve gone, I’ll deliver my message to your father and then be on my way.”
“I demand that you take me home. Know your place servant.”
For the first time, his eyes met hers. “I am a servant to Lord Shropton. My place is in his service. I was given the task of delivering a message to your father. You have kept me from that task. My place would be to leave you and continue on as I was intended to do. Is that what you wish?”
Put that way, Mary could hardly protest and so, looking away, she answered, “Very well. We’ll rest.”
With no comment, Kristopher led her off the path and down into a shallow ravine. It took little time after reaching the hut for him to light a blazing fire. In the dimly-lit interior she saw as chair, a small table and a platform probably used as a bed.
“It might take me some time to find food,” Kristopher said, tossing her an abrasive wool blanket he’d carried in his saddlebag. “Hang your things by the fire and I will be back as quickly as I can.”
“Where do you mean to get food?”
“I am an expert huntsman.”
Rage filled Mary. “This is my father’s land, you thief. How dare you hunt on his grounds!”
A smile played at the corner of Kristopher’s mouth. “And I am using his game to feed his only daughter.”
His response silenced her immediately. She waited until the sound of his footsteps were no longer distinguishable over the rain, and then stripped off her clothing and hung it from the mantle over the fire. Listening for his return, she took time to examine her leg. It was surely broken, probably in two places. Large bruises had formed on both her upper thigh and the middle of her calf. Wincing, Mary eased herself on the platform and tried to get comfortable on the hard surface.
There was no way of telling how long the young man had been gone, for when Mary awoke, he was already there, slowly turning a game hen on a spit.
“You’re back,” she remarked, stupidly.
He nodded almost imperceptibly. “I believe your clothing has dried and the sky has cleared. Though I saw no signs of your father’s men looking for you, I’m certain they are worried. I’ll step out so you can dress and then we’ll be on our way. We can eat supper as we go.”
Mary watched as the young man secured the meat over the glowing embers and then exited the shelter. She pulled herself to a sitting position and made to swing her legs over the side of the bed. Sharp pains caused her to cry out.
“Are you well, my lady?”
Tears forced their way out of the corner of her eyes. Gasping she answered, “Will you fetch me my clothing?”
Silence was her only response for several seconds. At last, she heard the door scrape against the floor as it was pushed inward. Gathering her underclothing and her gown, Kristopher set the items gingerly on the platform beside Mary and then, pausing only to turn the hen, again went outdoors.
The process was long and painful, but at last Mary had dressed herself except for her stockings and shoes. Her broken limb was too inflamed for her to force her foot into the shoe and the other foot she could not reach on account of the first. “I’m ready,” she called out.
Kristopher entered once again. He carefully folded the blanket and then offered an arm to support Mary’s walk to the horse.
“I can’t,” she whispered.
Kristopher hesitated, as if making a decision. Draping the blanket over one arm, he eased himself down on one knee. Gingerly, Kristopher lifted Mary in his arms and carried her out of doors. He was still damp, she noted, and had obviously not taken time to dry out. Loading her once again back onto the horse, Mary grimaced.
“Your feet are bare,” Kristopher noted.
“I worry you shall become chilled again.”
Mary looked away. Without waiting for invitation, Kristopher grabbed her shoes and stockings. With surprising dexterity, Kristopher eased her stockings over each of her feet, doubling them over several times until they rested loosely against her calf. Gently he secured the boot on her non-injured limb before draping the blanket across her shoulders.
Returning again to the shelter, he came back with the roasted hen. This he tore in two and gave half to Mary. All her training flashed before her eyes. It was uncivilized to be eating without linens and utensils and fine goblets for sipping cider, but her ravenous hunger won out and with little hesitation she devoured her meat.
“Have you a name,” Mary finally asked?
“Kristopher,” responded the young man. “Kristopher Kringle.”
“Well Kristopher, I expect you shall be handsomely rewarded upon my return.”
“Do you not care for money?”
“Money is necessary, but it isn’t why I helped you.”
Despite herself, Mary smiled smugly. She had often been praised for her poise and beauty and though she wasn’t at her finest, clearly he must have seen it. It gave her power and she used it to her advantage. “Then why did you help me?” she teased.
His response silenced her. “You were in need of help. I should hope had the roles been reversed, you would have done the same.”
For much of the long journey home, Mary contemplated his response. Would she have helped him had he been in need? He was common. He was poor. He was barely human. Her honesty with herself sickened her.
Had she died on the roadside, her parents would have made a show of losing her, but what loss was she really to humanity? At last she spoke. “Reward or no reward, you must come see me again.”
It is here we escape the storyline. You see there is much to tell, but it can all be summarized in a few short sentences. Kristopher did come to see Mary again, as often as occasion would permit. As one might expect, the two fell deeply in love though such a relationship was doomed from its conception. Though fairytales attempt to tell us otherwise, logic tells us a relationship between nobility and a commoner could not flourish. Their mutual devastation was all-consuming the night she told him her parents had promised her as wife to a king.
“I can’t go through with it,” Mary said.
“What choice do you have? A king is king and his word is law.”
“Kristopher, I love you. I wake each morning and spend the day thinking of you. At night I dream of you. There is no part of me that doesn’t belong to you.”
Concealed in the darkness of the grounds, Kristopher lost his inhibitions. “Mary, my love. . . what can I do?”
“Go to my parents, beg for my hand.”
Even in the opaqueness of night, Mary saw the tears as they slipped down his cheeks. “You know I cannot. You are well above my station and by admitting any feelings for you, I would immediately be executed.”
“Then take me away,” she whispered. “Take me away from this life and let me be yours.”
“And where would we go? How would we live? My family depends on me for sustenance. No one will hire me when it is discovered what I have done.”
“Then let us go away, beyond the inhabitants of the world, to a place where money has no meaning.”
“And my family?”
“You forget,” replied Mary, “I am a duchess and my house has untold wealth. Were I to take only my inheritance, it would be enough for you, me, our children, your family, and a whole household of orphans besides.”
“I cannot ask you to do that – to steal and forsake your family – forsake your life.”
“I shan’t steal. I will take no more than my dowry.”
“It is deception.”
“My parents intend for me to wed, and so I shall.”
“It is a lie.”
Mary looked away from him. “I do not want to be the woman I am destined to become in this environment; selfish, greedy and so caught up in meaningless things like the way I hold my hands or the perfection of my needlepoint. I want a family with children that I see - not just when I send for them on occasion - but each morning at breakfast. None of that is possible here.”
“So I am your escape plan?”
“You are my world Kristopher. We have the same dreams and goals. We can’t be together and we can’t have those dreams here.”
Pulling her too him, he kissed her fiercely. “Oh Mary, I wish it were to be so.”
Gently she kissed him back, “You’re wish is granted,” she whispered.
I must again interrupt because those who are bound to happy endings often intercede at this point and retell the tale ending with Mary and Kristopher departing for the South Pole, using her family’s fortune to start a toy shop, and having hundreds of little children that never really grew up due to the polarity of the South Pole. Yes it is true that one night, shortly before Mary’s intended wedding date, Kristopher came for her. Mary was ready with her portion of her inheritance, much of which she gave to Kristopher’s siblings and some of which she used to give his mother a proper burial in a churchyard. But Mary Kristmas did not go on to become Mrs. Clause, nor did their children spend their lives as toy-making elves.
It might have happened that way had not something deep inside Mary broken the day her parents promised her in marriage to a man she did not love, offering their only daughter as though she were some sort of trophy or premium. Or perhaps her betrothal date is when something had indeed snapped, but the damage had begun on the day of the fateful storm that led her to Kristopher. That day she had returned home only to discover she had not even been missed, her parents assuming she had been in the care of the servants. It was with no regret and little remorse that a steel-hearted Mary left her home.
Kristopher and Mary made one stop on their way to the South Pole and that was in Australia, where they were at last wedded. It was a small affair, but was the happiest days in both of their lives.
Once at the South Pole, the two found a hidden steam vent that sent tropical temperatures up through the earth’s crust. So though surrounded by icebergs, frigid temperatures, and an abundance of snow, their small little oasis was almost constantly warm and sunny for half of the year. It was a good life; plenty of fish to eat, fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden, and time to spend loving one another. But decades passed, and though their love was still strong, Kristopher began to feel selfish in his complete happiness.
It was then, after the two had been married for more than twenty years, that Kristopher first approached Mary about spreading the joy and prosperity they had enjoyed. Mary was reluctant at first, terrified of returning to the world in which she had been so harshly objectified, but at long last, she was persuaded, remembering how the first time she had felt sincere love was that day long ago when Kristopher had rescued her from the roadside. He hadn’t done it because she was nobility, but because she was in need. It had changed the course of her life. Perhaps it would be healing if she could do that for others.
So it was that Kristopher Kringle, hoping to disguise his identity, took on the name of Santa Clause and began delivering presents to those in the world that fortune had overlooked. Mary joined him on this quest and with each passing year the two looked forward to the winter season when their hard efforts made with love could be spread throughout the world.
Unfortunately, there was one obstacle between them. It began as playful banter, but year after year it grew until it could easily be recognized as the wedge driving them apart. You see, Mary had not forgotten her ill treatment by her parents and by others like them and continued to feel that those type of individuals should be punished with terrible creatures sent to haunt their dreams.
As a compromise, Kristopher begged her to let them send coal to these individuals. The message would be clear; that they had not acted in a way that upheld others and made the world a better place because they were in it. Yet those individuals would still receive something, a gift that could be burned to bring warmth and hopefully thaw out their icy hearts. Mary contended that any gift was too great a gift.
Year after year, the rift between them grew. Finally, one Christmas Eve as the sleigh of presents was being packed, everything came to a head.
“Did you pack the sack of coal, love?” Kristopher asked.
“Not this year,” answered Mary.
“Must we go over this year after year?”
“No,” responded Mary, “this year I’ve made my decision. I love to go with you to deliver small tokens of joy to deserving and good-hearted individuals, but why should those ill-behaved mongrels of the world be given anything? If you insist on giving them coal or any token of our passing, I can no longer support this effort.”
Kristopher stopped strapping down the overflowing bags of gifts. “Don’t do this Mary. Remember how you feel when you do something for others. Don’t let this hatred fester and destroy you.”
“It doesn’t destroy me, it completes me. I cannot bear your hopeless optimism, your eternal view through rose-
glasses. You must see that not everyone deserves something.”
“Please, don’t do this.”
“I have no choice.”
Tears filled Kristopher’s eyes as he stepped toward Mary and gathered her in his arms. “Mary we defied everything to be together and we were given that chance. We have love. We have prosperity. We need to share that with others.”
“I can’t on these terms,” whispered Mary. Her voice strengthened. “I’m sorry, but I there are some people I cannot forgive and some actions I cannot overlook.”
“I will be gone by the time you return.”
Stiffening, Mary disentangled herself from her husband’s embrace. It broke her heart that it should end this way; she’d enjoyed such bliss, such happiness, with a man she could no longer abide. “Just go. You’ll be late.”
They had fought this fight before and he fully expected her to stay. Disagreements are a naturally occurring part of a relationship. Delivering the gifts gave him time to cool off, to blow off steam. Certainly it would do the same for her. One can only imagine his heartbreak and the months of depression that followed when he returned to a South Pole that had fully iced over, chilled by the frosty disposition of the mistress.
None alive today will remember the tales of the years that Santa Clause didn’t come. He couldn’t come. Upon seeing the South Pole and imagining it without Mary, he left, signed all the legal paperwork for the divorce and spent several years in Australia, working as a cowhand and trying to forget. It was there he met Karma Noel, one of the cooks for the large ranch. She was kind. She was hard working. She was selfless. She helped Kristopher regain hope for humankind. And so he married her and she became the Mrs. Clause so often recounted in tales of Santa and the North Pole.
Working together, they relocated to the North Pole, created an empire, and used Mary’s inheritance – constantly growing through proper investments – to hire elves. Though he found peace, hope, love and joy, Kristopher continued to wear the red fur-lined suit that Mary made him as a reminder. A reminder that although there is a world full of hatred, cruelty, disaster and violence, if the focus is placed only on those negative entities – all the goodness, kindness, gentleness and humanity will be overlooked until it ceases to exist.
Many who have been privy to this little-known tale wonder what became of Mary. Do not mourn her. The night Kristopher flew away, Mary was momentarily stunned, but her pride helped her recover quickly. Loading her few belongings atop a magical flying candy cane, and kicking the snow from her red ruby slippers, she took off into the night, landing deep in the forest at the hut where she and Kristopher had spent an evening decades before.
At first she was heartbroken that a love so beautiful and so tender could have collapsed with such finality. Grieving and lamenting the loss of her one true love, Mary switched out her fur lined red cloak and minty-striped stockings for stockings striped in black and white and mourning black crepe. From there, her life became what legends are made of.
Some cultures agree that she used the candy cane to adorn her house, adding other sweets as time permitted so that she could lure in little children to eat. Eventually she was baked in her own oven by some intelligent orphans.
Others say she was cast in a major film production and though her face was never to be seen, her legs with their black and white striped stockings and sparkly red shoes became iconic.
In several countries it is said her hut has been bewitched to travel about on the legs of a chicken and that it travels through the forest in search of children to devour.
A few believe when her grieving had passed, and with vengeance in her heart, Mary vowed to begin a celebration of her own kind at her own time of year. It would be in the season when the frost came and plant life was wiped out. It would be at the time of year when hours of daylight were scarce. It would follow the rules she had set forth for the universe. A treat would be given for those who had been good and kind and for those who exploited the innocent and were a drain on society, there would be nothing but monsters, ghouls, hauntings and tricks. And so Mary Kristmas, having been made immortal through her time at the South Pole, traded her flying candy cane for a broom, and has found contentment in spending October 31st of each year passing out tricks or treats.
Yet I prefer the legend of the Italians. The tradition follows a witch who was approached by the Wisemen and asked to lead them to the Christ child. As she was busy sweeping her house at the time, she dissented. Only later did she realize the gravity of her error and then began searching all the houses of the world on the eve of January 6th to find that special baby. Though He has long since passed, the messages of His life have not. La Befana, as she is called, leaves a gift in the stocking of the Italian Children and continues to look for the Christ child. I’m sure she too sees that the prisons are full, families live in broken homes and life has become unnaturally busy. Yet HOPE still survives; hope in healing from wrongs, hope in forgiveness, hope for a little more compassion and understanding -- hope made possible by a baby who came into this world centuries ago and whose birth we celebrate this season.