It was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. The stores were staying open until midnight, and the crowded malls were noisy. But all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. We had just settled down for a long winter’s nap, when there was a clatter on the roof and a stirring in the living room.
“Call 911,” my wife murmured.
“It’s probably just a fallen branch and the dog in the living room—did you forget to walk him?”
“I walked him. You’d better take a look.”
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. To my surprise, the living room light was on, and an old fellow with a white beard was sitting in my easy chair. A bundle of toys was flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he said. “But they tell me you teach a course about our new media and technology. I need some advice.'”
My guest was so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick,
“What’s the trouble?” I said.
“The trouble began with the slowdown of children’s letters back at the North Pole,” he confided. “I put my elves on the problem, and they found the answer. Children don’t write letters any more. Most of them are using the Internet—and ordering from websites and catalogs.”
“We’re facing a new millennium,” I said. “To quote my students—’Get a New Life.'”
“I heard that kind of talk way back at the beginning of this century. They called it the Progressive Era. ‘Day by day, in every way, we’re getting better and better.’ Then we stumbled into the Great Depression, a couple of world wars, and a holocaust. But at least we kept the old mythology alive. Bing Crosby dreamed of a white Christmas, kids whispered their wish lists in my ear, everybody watched Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and my reindeer made their appointed rounds without a mishap. Last year, Prancer got hit by junk from a satellite and had to be hospitalized. The FAA made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer turn off his red light, since it confused low-flying pilots. How do you think he felt?”
“Sorry about that—but we have to adapt or perish. In the new Global Village, there’s not much room for reindeer. Everything’s in Now Time. We live on silicon chips and potato chips, send John Glenn back into space, and give up natural reality for virtual reality. Don’t you have cable TV and WWW at the North Pole?”
“Oh yes. Now the elves’ work output has dropped 40 percent. They’ve become couch potatoes, watching the same reruns and silly commercials over and over again. They’re beginning to sound like Andy Warhol—they like being bored.”
“Junk television, like much other useless stuff, will fade like a fallen star. Here today, gone tomorrow. Take a look in our attic—full of things like old plastic records, outmoded sound systems, 8mm movie projectors, reel-to-reel tapes recorders, box cameras. Your elves will improve.”
“I used to be respected, even loved. Now when kids sit on my lap, they try to pull my beard off. When I suggest a ten dollar toy, they want a 50-dollar model, with remote control. A baby doll that doesn’t talk and wet its diapers? Forget it!”
“Thats a different problem—affluenza.”
“You mean influenza, don’t you?”
“No, affluenza, the disease of affluent America. Always more. Glut. The shortsighted view that things will get better and better, bigger and bigger. Buy now, pay later. Forget what we’ve always known: Things that go up always come down. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, with all the bumps and bruises.”
“Do I have to wait for another war or depression to regain my status and self-respect?” Santa asked.
“Not if we can insist that we’re master of our technology—not vice versa. It’s the difference between technology and technopoly.”
“A word which tries to restore Socrates’ wisdom to today’s world. He knew the unexamined life is not worth living. Technopoly warns us that unexamined technology is not worth having. Emerson put it differently. He wrote that ‘Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.’ The same thought comes down to our day through thinkers like Lewis Mumford, George Orwell, and Neil Postman. We’ve got to get back in the saddle, bridle the horse, and decide where we want to go.”
Emerson’s out of date,” Santa said. “My brighter elves read books by John Pfeiffer and John Kemeny, who forecast a ‘symbiotic evolution’ of the human and computer species. Humans are out, computers are in. We’ve been turned from names into numbers. Computers are not only smarter but more durable than us. Sooner or later, Kemeny says, they will dominate ‘life’ on Earth.”
“Trendy nonsense. Homo sapiens hasn’t evolved over two million years, producing a Homer, Jesus, Shakespeare, Mozart, Jefferson, and Mother Teresa to be sent into oblivion by IBM, Intel, or squawk-talk. Our patriots didn’t die to set Bill Gates free. Prancer will be prancing and Dancer will be dancing when the toys of the 1990’s have gone into my attic or to the local Goodwill Shop. You can count on it, Santa.”
The old man was laughing now. He had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. Apparently, I had helped to put his worst fears to rest. A wink of his eye and a twist of his head assured me at once I had nothing to dread.
“I can’t wait to explain all this to my elves,” he beamed. “How many reruns of I Love Lucy and Gunsmoke do you have to see before you’re ready to move on? Speaking of moving on, that’s just what I’ve got to do. I’ve still got lots of real surprises in my bag—ones that don’t talk, squeak, or comment on Clinton’s impeachment.” We both laughed now. He got up from the chair.
“I’m going back to tell my wife everything’s O.K.” I said. “Like lots of people, she’s forgotten what the clatter of reindeer hooves means on Christmas Eve.”
“You do that,” Santa said, “while I find an extra stocking and leave her a good old-fashioned sugar plum.”
Back I went, with more Christmas spirit than I’d had since hearing Bob Hope talk to the troops during World War II. Santa laid his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
I knew what was happening. He was back on his sleigh, giving his team a whistle. I even heard Santa talking to his reindeer:
Now Dasher! Now Dancer
Now Prancer and Vixen!
Who says we all died
In the Age of Dick Nixon?
“Is everything all right?” my anxious wife asked.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ve just had a good conversation with Santa.”
She stared at me in disbelief—until we both heard him exclaim ere he drive out of sight:
Happy Christmas to all
And to all a good night!
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