It was December in the town of Mud Lick, Alabama and Christmas magic seemed to fill the air.
For one, it was snowing. Mud Lick almost never got snow in the winter months, but this year it came in huge, fluffy white droves. The town’s residents were typical Southerners, which meant everyone was enchanted with the thought of a white Christmas for about a day. When the schools closed because buses couldn’t run safely and businesses closed as a result, everyone started getting frustrated with what they called “White Death.”
Both grocery stores had a run on bread, milk and eggs. Teachers at Bear Bryant Elementary moved their classes to Zoom school since that was the way of the world these days. More importantly, everything in what was normally a very quiet rural Alabama town slowed down and quieted so much that if you weren’t a local you would’ve sworn time came to a complete stop.
Sheriff Roy Templeton, Mud Lick’s top cop, had an evening off and he wanted to be alone with his thoughts. That meant on this dark, wintry night he was headed to the one place where folks in Mud Lick were able to engage in such pointed self reflection: The Grassy Knoll Pub.
Jesse Custer, the Knoll’s owner, was not really in a mood to celebrate Christmas this year, having suffered a death in the family back in April. His long time girlfriend, Tulip, was quite the fan of Christmas and decorated the whole bar in tinsel, garlands, wreaths and lights.
“Fucksake, woman, this place looks like an elf vomited all over my bar,” was Custer’s first reaction to seeing the Knoll’s holiday makeover.
“That was the point, lad!” Cassidy, the Knoll’s inebriated Irish doorman told him that evening, much to the lapsed preacher’s chagrin. While Jesse wasn’t really in a mood to express his appreciation for the holiday décor, he did use the season as an occasion to wear the ugly Christmas sweater Cassidy gave him two years ago that read “JOLLY BASTARD” to work.
But I digress, gentle readers. Let’s return to this snowy December night.
Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy welcomed Sheriff Roy, who nodded at the Knoll’s staff in gesture of thanks. The Sheriff asked for a bottle of beer, and Tulip pushed a Sam Adams to the lawman.
The Sheriff took a sip and said to no one in particular, “Nice to have some quiet in a world gone barking mad.”
“Did the snow and your department’s inability to deal with the fallout bring the ACAB out in the locals?” Cassidy smirked from near the door.
In almost perfect unison, Sheriff Roy and Jesse Custer turned and yelled “CAN IT, YOU DRUNKEN IRISH BASTARD!”
Cassidy almost wilted from the pair’s collective venom. When Jesse and Sheriff Roy realized what happened, both chuckled.
Jesse poured himself a shot of Jack Daniels and toasted the Sheriff.
“Hard month, Sheriff Roy?”
“Hard year. But the snow right now makes everything so much harder to manage. Honestly, Reverend, even though the vehicles at the Sheriff’s Department are able to manage snow just fine, most folks around these parts don’t really know how to handle snow and ice covered roads. Accidents are up. The elderly have a real hard time getting what they need. Shoot, I just took a mess of groceries to Nana Wentzel.”
“Her fool son can’t do that, Sheriff?”
The lawman exchanged looks with Custer, who said “fair enough” and poured another shot of Jack.
“You got plans this year for Christmas, Reverend?” asked Sheriff Roy.
“Not particularly, since Jimmy went home to the Lord this year. Just not really feeling in a jolly Christmas mood.”
“I get that. Folks go even crazier this time of year than most, if you ask me. Something about the holidays gets people as riled up as a possum in heat. I will be very happy when I’m finally at home with Arlene and Roy Junior and don’t have to think about anything else but them.”
The Sheriff asked Tulip for one more beer. She obliged.
“What about you, Reverend? Any plans for you and Tulip this year?”
“Same as usual. We’ll all exchange gifts here. Nothing too fancy. Just a quiet day with my girl and the old drunk Irishman I still pay for some reason.”
“How long have you and Tulip been together?”
“When do you plan on marrying that woman?”
Jesse Custer was about to respond with a witty remark about not being the marrying kind when the door of the Knoll flew open. A man in a Santa suit walked in and sat at the bar.
And the night got really interesting from that point forward.
All four people in the bar gave the man in the Santa suit a bit of a once-over.
He was tall, built like a brick shithouse, with what appeared to be a very elaborate Santa costume adorning his massive frame. This “Santa” had an immaculate grey beard and curly grey hair. His face bore an expression of weariness.
Cassidy took all that in and turned white as the driven snow outside. Whispering and stuttering in turn, he said “That’s sa-sa-sa-sa…” This died off into a raspy whimper.
Jesse Custer approached the man in the Santa suit. “Pay the Irishman at the door no mind, he’s”
“Very old, very drunk, and very Irish,” “Santa” responded. Custer was a bit shocked at that, but he kept a smile on his face.
“Something like that. What’ll it be, Santa?”
“Do you have peppermint schnapps? I’d like a shot of peppermint schnapps and a White Russian.”
Jesse poured “Santa’s” beverages and took them to his seat at the bar. “Santa” downed the schnapps in a gulp and took a sip of the White Russian. He smiled.
“That’s really good. Do you have any food? I could use some food.”
“I just made some cookies, Shug,” Tulip said with a smile. She produced a platter full of delights from chocolate chip to Snickerdoodles. “Please, with my compliments, Santa!”
“Santa” eyed Jesse at this.
“She’s got a good point. The shot and the White Russian’s going to set you back $13, but it doesn’t seem right to charge Santa for cookies at Christmas.”
With a chuckle,”Santa” bit into a chocolate chip cookie. “Say,” he said with a grin, “these are really good!”
“Tulip’s no slouch in the kitchen,” Custer said with a grin.
“I’m no slouch at a lot of stuff, Hon,” Tulip called out as she headed to the back.
Sheriff Roy was next to speak. “You just get off a shift at the mall in Burning Fork?”
“You could say that I’m in between shifts,” replied “Santa.”
“I hope you’re not driving tonight,” the Sheriff replied.
“There’s not much driving I do, Sheriff. That’s the reindeer. I just sort of steer.”
Both men chuckled.
“You got some ID, Santa?”
The man in the red and white furry suit fished a drivers license from a pocket and handed it to Sheriff Roy. Mud Lick’s top cop gave it a look. Much to his surprise, Sheriff Roy was looking at an Alabama license bearing the name “Kristopher Kringle.”
“You are really committed to the bit, Mr. Kringle. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Santa who actually got his name changed like you.”
“Wasn’t changed. That’s been my name since I was born.”
“Izzatafactnow.” said Jesse Custer, moving in closer to see the ID. Sheriff Roy showed it to him before returning it to Kringle. It was a legit ID from the State of Alabama, all right.
“So what’s got you in our neck of the woods, Mr. Kringle?” Custer asked.
“I needed a break from everyone’s bullshit. That and the rampant commercialism this holiday seems to bring out in everyone.”
“You sure the ‘everyone gets a handout’ mindset a certain jolly old elf puts in everyone doesn’t factor in that spiritual malaise, your grace?” Cassidy snickered from the door.
Kris Kringle turned to face the doorman. “Proinsias Cassidy O’Malley, I planned to leave a bottle of Pappy Van Winkel you’ve struggled to find for two months in your stocking this year. I would like to emphasize the word ‘planned.’ You can always get coal again if you’d like to keep up with the sass.” With that, Kringle turned back to his drink.
Sheriff Roy and Jesse Custer exchanged a shocked look before erupting in fits of uproarious laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Cassidy asked over the duo’s guffaws.
Sheriff Roy took a couple of deep, heaving breaths. He managed to get the words “Your fucking name’s Proinsias!” before erupting in laughter once more.
“It’s a very respectable, very masculine Irish name, I’ll have yeh know.” Cassidy stared at the floor, clearly embarrassed.
Custer managed to regain his composure long enough to walk over to Cassidy and clasp his friend on the shoulder. “We’ve run all over this country for twenty years, you and I. We’ve seen a lot and gotten into some stupid shit. My friend, I can now say nothing you and I have done together will ever be as stupid as you being named ‘Proinsias’ and you never telling me!”
With that, the barman broke into laughter again.
Eventually, everyone calmed. The bar got quiet once more save for the CD of Christmas music playing in the jukebox. Cassidy was very, very embarrassed.
Kris Kringle smiled. “That should keep him quiet for a while.”
“I thought Santa was a round, plump fellow,” Sheriff Roy said with a grin.
“Well, I was until a year ago when my wife told me if I didn’t lose some weight I wasn’t going to make it to next Christmas. So I started with the keto thing everyone’s into these days and weight training three times a week. The muscle helps when I’m lugging around all those toys.”
“Didn’t you say something about reindeer? I suppose they’re up on the roof?” asked Custer.
“Well you can’t park them on the street. It would attract too much attention. Plus kids love them, but they really aren’t fond of being groped by small hands without their consent.”
“I wonder,” Sheriff Roy mused, “how many politicians are on the naughty list.”
“Almost all of them. There’s one nasty little trollop of an elected representative who seems to think none of her coworkers realize she’s having relations with her brother. That one seems to really enjoy coal. I think she takes some sort of bizarre glee in it each year. ”
“Y’all should be ashamed,” Tulip told the men. “Santa’s in our bar and no one’s asked him what he wanted for Christmas? I am embarrassed at your lack of hospitality.” Tulip sauntered up to Mr. Kringle, put one arm around him and asked “What’ll it be, Shug? What does Santa Claus want for Christmas?”
Kringle sighed. “I want people to remember what I do isn’t about getting, it’s about giving. Is that so hard for people these days? When I give a gift, it brings me joy because just the act of giving for the sake of giving is the purest form of Christmas magic there is.”
“No one seems to get that anymore. The elves got me to watch this thing called YouTube and I couldn’t take very much of it. All these ‘unboxing’ videos break my heart. Everyone in them obsesses over what they’re getting. If there’s an expression of gratitude in one to the person who gave them that box in the first place I’ve yet to hear one.”
“So yes, I wanted a drink in peace tonight. In a few days, I will make final preparations for the biggest night of my year. I will then proceed to give so many boys and girls what they desired most for Christmas. And never once will I get a thank you for it. Most everyone will tear into their presents and then move on to the next thing that distracts them in life.”
“All I ever wanted was a lousy thank you. That’s it. Does any of that make sense?”
The bar fell silent as everyone took Kringle’s words to heart.
Strangely enough, Cassidy was the next to speak.
The Irishman shuffled next to Kringle at the bar. He placed a small wooden slingshot with a leather cup and elastic braids in front of the exasperated Santa.
“I’ve kept this with me since I was twelve. It still reminds me of one my father used to have as a boy that never left his side. I always thought he was just fooling me when he said Santa brought this as a present. If you really did bring me this when you did, thank yeh. I think of how happy I was my dad wanted to give me a present that year and it still warms me.”
Mr. Kringle smiled. “Proinsias, you’re a drunk. You’re also mean to your best friends, a serial philanderer, and occasionally a foul-mouthed bully. If there’s one thing you have in spades, though, it’s a good heart.” He stood, took out his wallet, and laid a twenty dollar bill on the bar.
“I really should be going. It being this time of year, if I’m gone from the house too long Mrs. Kringle gets upset. And I do not need to make my wife upset at Christmas.”
Kringle laid another twenty on the bar. He looked Jesse Custer straight in the eye and winked.
“Add this to the donation Proinsias makes this time of year to the orphanage in Cork. And that thing you got Tulip is perfect for this year.”
The strangest thing happened next.
If you asked Sheriff Roy, Jesse Custer, Tulip O’Hare or Cassidy what happened next you’d get a very peculiar answer.
Those four would swear on a stack of Bibles Mr. Kringle touched his nose with one finger and and then zipped straight up the Grassy Knoll Pub’s fireplace chimney.
The trouble with that, however, is the Knoll had no fireplace or chimney, dear readers.
One other peculiar detail about that December stands out. You see, friends, Cassidy does a weekly sweep of the Grassy Knoll Pub’s roof. And he claims the week Mr. Kringle visited the Knoll he found reindeer droppings on the roof.
Pay Cassidy’s strange rantings no mind this Christmas season, SJ readers, unless it brings you some holiday joy.
After all, he’s very old, very Irish and very drunk.