((Hey, all! This is the Christmas story that I meant to write for Tenk’s call for Christmas stories last year, but didn’t get going on it in time. This takes place a couple years or so before the Great Fire. I hope you enjoy it!))
The city walls of the city-state of New Babbage, rather anachronistic in these long-peaceful times, were rarely frequented by citizens even at the best of times. And winter was definitely not the best of times. Bitter winds whipped sooty snow across the walkways on top of the walls, before leaving it piled in corners around the squat towers that rose up from the walls here and there. In such weather, one would have to have a very compelling reason to linger up there for any length of time.
Today, however, was the 21st of December – just four days until Christmas – and the children of New Babbage had a very compelling reason indeed. And so the walls were dotted with youngsters, all facing out from the city, all scanning the skies… watching for Steam Santa.
Steam Santa never arrived in New Babbage on the same day, or at the same time, or even from the same direction, twice in a row. But the children, over the years, had noticed that he always arrived sometime within that last week before Christmas, and so – the urchins first, but the rest quickly following – they would set up a watch during the daylight hours starting a week before Christmas.
The watch evolved into something that had elements of both teamwork and competition. They worked together to ensure that every bit of sky and horizon was watched… but everyone wanted to be the first to spy Steam Santa. Every child had a megaphone with them, from makeshift ones using old, rolled-up newspapers, to highly-decorated store-bought ones. The first child to spy the sleigh would grab their megaphone and yell, “STEEEEEEEAM SAAAAAAANTA! STEEEEEEEAM SAAAAAAANTA!” Children nearby would take up the call, spreading it farther and farther, adding news of which quadrant of the city the call had come from. Once the sleigh landed in the city, the children gathered there would use their megaphones to call out where it was, to be spread to those who were still hurrying from other areas of the city.
Children weren’t the only ones attracted by the call. Many adults would hastily close up shop and make their way to the landing zone – some simply to act as chaperones for the hordes of children, but many bringing their wares to set up shop. Bakers, confectioners, sellers of hot chestnuts and hot drinks, as well as musicians, jugglers, and other entertainers – of all abilities – would converge on the site, creating an impromptu Christmas fair. It wasn’t always in the most convenient place, but no one seemed to mind.
Even city officials came. Urchins, of course, were unlikely to have money to buy any of the treats, but allowance had been made for that. The stall owners would give items to those who couldn’t pay, and the city officials would keep track of their bestowals, and give them compensation later.
All this made Steam Santa Day a real favorite with the children – better than Christmas Day itself, in some ways – but these weren’t the only reasons they braved the cold and wind on the city walls. Somehow, even though Steam Santa’s sleigh was always spotted long before its occupants would be within earshot, Steam Santa always knew who it was that first called out his appearance. That child would be the one he summoned to sit on his lap first. And rumor had it that that child would always receive a special gift. Those children who had been the first spotters, though, would never confirm or deny the rumor; they would just smile, with a special, secret smile. The possibility of joining those in the know, of receiving a special gift, brought the children back to the walls year after year, and those too young to join the watch could hardly wait until they were finally deemed old enough.