It’s the same every year. The last minute panic, the frantic rush to get the final items, the rising stress levels. Christmas is like that.
Gia was a rare one. She lived on her own and didn’t sweat much over Christmas. She bought the food, put up some decorations in her small apartment; she had everything ready on the twenty-third.
On Christmas Eve, she went for a walk. She stopped outside the railing of the local superstore’s car park. Two drivers were shouting at each other. Inside the superstore, an event best described as retail carnage was going on. Why is it like this, she thought.
“Sheer madness, isn’t it?” said a voice near her.
She turned with a start. A man was leaning against the railing next to her. He wore a dark overcoat and—a top hat. Gia hesitated. Should she run or… then she decided not to. After all, this was a busy area with a lot of people, unlikely that the stranger would want to assault her here.
“Indeed,” she said. “Worst is, it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“How should it be?”
She shrugged. “I’m pretty sure that the world won’t end if you forget one or two things. The pressure is only there because people put it on themselves.”
“Ah, but it is the presents they’re getting.”
“Surely something as positive as present should not cause this much headache?”
“Have you got all the presents, Miss?”
“No. I don’t buy Christmas presents. My family live far away and I have no one in this country. But when I used to buy presents, it gave me pleasure.”
“I suppose for many buying presents for terrible relatives is not a source of pleasure.”
“Yes, but then the problem is elsewhere, isn’t it? What’s with the obligation towards terrible relatives?”
“That’s people for you. Full of obligations.”
“As you say.”
“How do you say Christmas should be celebrated?”
“Anyhow you like. Prepare the food you like, watch the TV you like, do what you like. Spend it with your loved ones, or no one at all. With family, with the big dinner, turkey and all the trimmings, pull Christmas crackers, watch the queen’s—I mean, the king’s speech, Christmas telly… or be on your own, eat pizza and watch Studio Ghibli films. Both are valid.”
“Ah, but what is the meaning of Christmas?”
“The meaning is that winter sucks. It’s cold and it’s dark at four o’clock, so humans invented a holiday to cheer themselves up. Then the church decided to celebrate Jesus’s birthday, so that’s what it became.”
The stranger smiled. “You’re not a religious person, are you?”
“No, but honestly, what does it matter. I think everyone should be able to celebrate Christmas, but at the same time, nobody should feel like they have to.”
The stranger nodded. “I see your point. And how do you like your Christmas?”
“I just cook the food and chill out at home with my cat.”
“Sounds good. And the cat, how does she like the holidays? Or is it a he?”
“It’s a she. And she doesn’t care. Cats are too regal to bother about a human holiday.”
“Hmm, yes, they do think of themselves as gods, don’t they?”
“Aren’t they though?”
“But you just said you’re not religious.”
“That’s not religion, that’s a fact. Or at least it’s a fact that cats believe they’re gods, not that they are. But they are in a way. They do what they want, humans be damned.”
She looked at him, taking him in for the first time. He was tall and dark and handsome and—how she came to this conclusion she didn’t know herself—out of this world.
“What about you?” she asked. “How do you spend your Christmas?”
“I don’t have much time to, as you say, chill out. I have duties at Christmas.”
Well, if you want to be so mysterious about it, then be, she thought. She wouldn’t ask him about it.
“I get plenty of time to relax throughout the year,” he added.
Unsure how to react to that, she gave a nod. “You know,” he said, drawing closer to her, “I’m afraid I’ve been awfully rude. I haven’t introduced myself.”
Gia wasn’t bothered about that, she chatted with people in parks and shop on regular basis; this was a friendly neighbourhood. But she was intrigued. The stranger lifted his hat.
Among the mass of dark hair, two little blood red horns poked out. She gasped. “Are you–?”
He nodded. “But call me Nick.”
Nick. As in, short for Nicholas? That didn’t seem right.
“Isn’t Nick the other guy?”
“He’s the Young Nick. I’m the Old Nick. We’re two Nicks.”
“Two Nicks,” she repeated, not knowing what to say. “My name is Gia.”
“Pleased to meet you, Gia. Say, would you like to join me for dinner?”
“Yes. Unless you have other plans.”
“No. I just… I just need to feed my cat.”
“Of course. By all means, go feed your cat. I’ll wait for you here.”
She went home and fed her cat. Then she returned. He was there, waiting for her. He offered her his arm. “Let us go then.”
He snapped his fingers twice. The world around them faded. At first there was nothing, then little by little features became visible. A great hall, a big table. A black chandelier hung from the ceiling and in it burned hundreds of candles. Everything looked ornate and luxurious. Nick pulled out a chair for her, she sat down. He sat opposite her. He clapped his hands. Out of the darkness, his minions, dark elves, entered with dishes. Once everything was placed on the table, Nick said: “Tuck in!” And so she did.
It was a feast worthy of all the kings and queens that ever ruled on planet Earth. There were several courses and, despite the presence of so many carbohydrates, Gia didn’t feel full. But, of course, this was not the real world.
And they talked. About religion and philosophy, books and films. Gia had not had such stimulating conversation for a long time.
“Well I do hope you enjoyed yourself,” Nick said when the dessert dishes were cleared out.
“I did, thank you.”
He raised a glass towards her. “Happy holidays!”
They finished the wine and looked at each other across the table. What now, Gia thought, is he going to take me back? What if he doesn’t? What if I’m stuck here for eternity?
She hoped that should that be the case, he’d bring her cat too.
“Time to get back then.” He stood up.
The relief was mixed with a tiny bit of regret. She realised the foolishness of it. This was not her world.
He dropped her off at the same spot where they met. He bowed, lifted his hat and said: “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Gia.”
She said nothing, only nodded and smiled at him. He snapped his fingers twice and disappeared.
She made her way home. Her cat was sleeping on an arm of a sofa in blissful ignorance.
Gia settled herself on the sofa, grabbed the remote control and navigated to the relevant streaming service.
Krampus agreed with her. Die Hard was a Christmas classic.