Alaska in the winter is nobody’s idea of fun.
Up here, the nights are long and the days are short, and every minute of either one is brutally cold. When I told my editor what I was planning, he told me I was crazy. Alaska is nearly as big as the lower 48 states combined, and here I was chasing a ghost in a population made up of people who often don’t want to be found.
Luckily, it was Christmas. That meant my editor, like many of his ilk, was drunk from noon instead of the customary 3p.m., and after the office Christmas party I managed to convince him in between wincing sips of Pepto Bismal that yes, he’d signed off on my Alaska trip and no, those weren’t my buttocks on the photocopier printout. Two for two, and I was on my way to Anchorage.
I wanted to go to Alaska because I’d been tipped off that somewhere, way out in the wild north, could be found men of legend – men who most people spoke of in awed whispers, if at all. Somewhere up there, in the silence and the snow, were the last veterans of the War On Christmas.
It’s been two years now since the war ended, but many of the veterans seem to head towards the North, as though the snow is calling them.
After asking around for a few days in Anchorage I had a lead as hot as mulled wine, and I rented a four wheel drive and set off alone. After a day’s travel, I went to sleep, and my dreams were merry and bright. I was getting close.
Eventually, dashing through the snow, I came upon a small cabin. It was strung with lights and baubles and inflatable lawn ornaments, a wreath of holly on the door and plastic reindeer on the roof. The whole place was lit up nearly as bright as the fleeting daylight around me. This had to be the place. I parked up and trudged through the snow to the door, but paused when I heard the thwack of a log being split from behind the house. I made my way around and came face to face with one of the last of Santa Claus’ Extermination-Liberation Force.
“Charlie Dickens?” I asked.
The man in front of me straightened from pulling his axe from the chopping block in front of him. He was grizzled and stubble-chinned, fleecy denim wrapping his lean, hard body. A vicious scar ran down one side of his face, interrupted only by one of the flinty eyes that had seen too much.
“Who wants to know?” he asked. He put the axe down, but still within reach. Close enough that he could swing it at me if he had a mind to.
“I’m a reporter. I’m looking for the survivors of Santa’s Extermination-Liberation Force.”
He drew a candy cane from his pocket and sucked the end, meditatively. “Nobody’s called me one of Santa’s ELFs in a long time,” he said, as much to himself as to me. “You part of the Fake News Media, boy?”
I swallowed. “No, sir. Not at all. I’m from a website that’s almost exclusively read by cranks and shut-ins, if at all.”
He considered this, chewed his candy cane for a moment, then invited me inside – although only after extracting further promises that I wasn’t a liberal, or a Jew, or a Communist. “Lousy communists,” he muttered as we walked inside. “Going around, dressed in red, distributing things for free. That ain’t what Christmas is about!”
I nodded, awkwardly, as he poured himself an eggnog and offered me a seat. “What do you wanna know?” he said, shrugging off his jacket.
“It’s still hard, even two years later, to find anyone who served as an ELF,” I began.
“It’s almost like the War on Christmas wasn’t real at all, ain’t it?” he interrupted.
“That’s sort of why I’m here,” I agreed. “I wanted to hear a firsthand account from someone who was really there.”
He sighed. Nodded to himself for a moment, collecting his thoughts. His eyes slipped from the thousand-yard stare seen in many combat veterans into a look that was softer but somehow even more distant.
“The first thing you have to realise about the War on Christmas was that it wasn’t like any other war,” he began. “You know why?”
“All the tinsel?” I asked.
“No, you idiot! It was different because at first, we didn’t even know it was a war. Every December, there were hostilities that never quite became open. There should be a term for it, but there isn’t…”
I snorted. “You mean it was a literal Cold-”
He shushed me with an irritated hand wave. I made a mental note to tell that joke to someone who would appreciate it, one day.
“The threat of the Anti-Christmas was always there, just never had an outlet. Then Obama came in,” he spat. “You remember the Obama years, kid? Christmas was outlawed. For almost a decade, it just straight up didn’t happen. There were no presents, it wasn’t allowed to snow, anybody who owned a tree of any kind all through December was thrown in jail, and if you said ‘Merry Christmas’ ? Well. You had to go and face one of the Obama Death Panels.”
“I heard about them,” I nodded.
“So some of us fought back,” he continued. “Of course, that wasn’t easy. Obama and Hillary Clinton had taken everyone’s guns. They personally came around, door to door, took ‘em from every home they could find.”
“Couldn’t you have just shot them?” I asked.
“Of course not! They came around while we were all at work, then hired crisis actors to play us and agree to the whole thing. When I saw the footage of ‘me’ on the news, handing over my AR-14 and gratefully bumping fists with that god damned Kenyan socialist, well… I went out and I joined the resistance the very next day.”
“Did you take part in any of the heavy fighting?”
“Fighting? Hell, kid, I saw fighting the likes of which you wouldn’t believe. I remember in December of ‘14, we were marching through Pennsylvania and we came on a Starbucks. Must have been fifty, sixty liberals in there, all completely unconcerned with the birth of our Lord being right around the corner. They were playing songs that didn’t involve bells, drinking from cups that didn’t show the Christ child, the works. We took what weapons we’d been able to keep safe and rained fire on that place for an hour, until it was a smoking ruin, all to teach the godless liberal bastards the meaning of goodwill to all men. Men, you understand? There’s no official idea about what we should do for women at Christmas, and the way I see it they should be happy with a friendly pat on the ass from their boss or the chance to cook for four hours for their husband on Christmas day, just like the Bible says.”
He sipped his eggnog. I’d notice that his fridge contained nothing else.
“The hardest part of the whole war, if I’m honest, was adjusting back to civilian life,” he continued. “War is hell, and it changes a man, and then every December 26th we had to stop and go back to civilian life. People we’d been bombing and shooting at the day before were now just our neighbours and co-workers again. It was hard.”
“Did you even know who the enemy was, the rest of the year?” I asked.
“Well, sure,” he said. “We made a list.”
“…and checked it twice?” I ventured.
“What? No, of course not, we’re not incompetents!” he growled. “Still, it didn’t matter. We bombed the shit out of the Anti-Christmas types, but we still couldn’t win. I remember one time, me and my platoon were pinned down under a barrage of indifference. We tried to advance, but we were still getting beaten back by this relentless tide of agnosticism and irreligiosity. Then they brought out the big guns. Just as we were trying to retreat, we got hit by a shockwave of suspicion about the commercialisation of the holiday. These crazy bastards weren’t even sure about spending a crippling amount of money at Christmas! What kind of ludicrous, pagan holiday would that be?! Even when the cavalry came in – the 82nd Reindeer Division rode over the hill in the nick of time and launched an RPG attack on the skeptical sons of bitches – even then, they didn’t give up. It was all ‘My leg’s been blown off!’ this and ‘Someone call an ambulance!’ that. Sure, a few of them yelled ‘Jesus Christ!’ or ‘My god!’ but you could tell they didn’t mean it in a religious way…”
“Then how come you won?” I asked, baffled.
He swallowed hard. Took a sip of eggnog. Then another. “Because…” He cleared his throat, grit his teeth to eliminate the tremor in his voice. “Because our Supreme Leader Donald Trump got elected and saved us all!” he said. His eyes shimmered for a second and he blinked back the patriotic tears. “Being able to say-” his voice caught again and he gulped it down, “Being able to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again in 2016 was the proudest god damned moment of my life, and the fact that I don’t mind saying that is only one of the reasons my children won’t talk to me,” he said, his face breaking into a proud grin, too swept up in his ultimate victory in the War on Christmas to care that the whole thing had made him a social pariah.
After a beatific moment, he returned from his reverie. “Anyway,” he said, “I’ve got chores to be getting on with.”
I told him that I understood. We rose from our seats and shook hands, and he showed me to the door. “Merry Christmas,” he said, as I walked down his driveway.
“Happy holidays,” I replied, reflexively.
He shot me in the ass for that.
And I don’t blame him a bit.
Luke Haines is a British writer who has never been to Alaska and would rather Starbucks paid their taxes than changed their cups. Follow him on Twitter @lukedoughaines