words and images by mk swanson
St. Nichole and the Elf

St. Nichole and the Elf

Nichole is overworked, underpaid, and severely dispirited on Christmas Eve, but she’s determined to make the most of it by attending a holiday party dressed to thrill. Her plans go awry when a man knocks at her door, claiming that she’s the latest incarnation of the Giving Spirit. She’s pretty sure he’s crazy.

St. Nichole and the Elf: An Urban Christmas Fantasy was written primarily as a holiday gift to my friends and family.

Words: 5000

St. Nichole and the Elf

On Christmas Eve, Nichole was dodging late shoppers and early drinkers in her dash to go home and change. It wasn’t traffic making her late to the best holiday party ever, though. Sixty hours a week since graduation at an environmental non-profit was exciting, but a serious drag on her social life. She didn’t mind, of course. This work was all she had wanted to do since her parents took her to see the polar bears at the zoo, and she learned that their icy arctic home was melting. At a stop light, she tapped the polar bear totem hanging from her rear view mirror. “It’s for you, Polly. It’s all for you.”

Running up the steps to her second floor apartment, she hoped her sexy red velvet dress still fit. She reassured herself that while she hadn’t had time to exercise, she also hadn’t had the chance to eat—it would even out.

An elegant envelope leaned against her front door. As she picked it up, she saw her name written in antique script: Nichole Merry White.

Inside the apartment, she chucked it on the hall table, along with her keys and handbag. Probably advertising.

A half hour later, she was clean and clothed, her straight blond hair brushed until it shone like gold. “Shoes, shoes, shoes. If I were a pair of black patent pumps with gold heels, where would I be?” She flapped her hands in the air. “Don’t answer that! Don’t! I know I look like a trampy Christmas ornament, but when else do I get to dress up? Catwoman at Halloween doesn’t count.”

She had just discovered her catch me, kiss-me-under-the-mistletoe shoes when she heard an inquisitive-sounding knock.

“If it’s you, Liam, I’m on my way out,” and I don’t want to hear you brag about your last game or push you out the door when you make a pass at me. A very forward pass.

A muffled male voice, deeper than Liam’s, answered. “It’s Elvis del Norte. I left you a note?”

A reformed small-town girl, Nichole remembered to use her peephole to see the voice’s owner. Medium height, good build under the leather jacket, black hair and olive skin, but no one she knew. Still, he didn’t look like a bad guy. In fact, he looked good.

Whoa, girl. There’s a whole holiday of single guys at the party. She opened the door and stepped out, pulling the door shut behind her.

“It’s important that we talk.” The man didn’t touch her, but he stood close enough she could smell him. Not cologne. Pine resin? “I came by earlier, but you weren’t here.”

Nichole stopped in the middle of locking the door. “Drat, I forgot my good bag.” She turned her key in the opposite direction. “Stay there a minute.” Leaving the stranger in her doorway, Nichole ran back to rustle around in her closet. How could a white fake fur purse disappear?

When she emerged from the bedroom, the stranger stood in her living room, and her front door was closed. He didn’t look like he planned anything, but it was the principle. “Excuse me, but why are you in my apartment?” She walked purposefully to the door and put her hand on the knob, ready to run screaming into the hall if it was called for.

“I told you, we need to talk. About your family.”

“Family? I don’t have any family. Not for years. You must be looking for someone else.”

“You’re Nichole Merry White, aren’t you? I explained in my note.”

Nichole remembered the envelope leaning against her door. “That was yours?” She found it on the hall table and groped for her mother’s letter opener, the one inscribed,

‘For my wife, Christine: Merry Christmas.’ A silver knife didn’t seem like a romantic gift, but in her memory, they loved each other very much.

Inside, the note was written in the same antique hand as the envelope. An inked correction told her this wasn’t a fancy printer font: the word ‘destiny’ had been misspelled ‘deftiny,’ with an elongated letter f. “Is this your handwriting? Where did you learn to write this way?” she asked.

“My mother taught me.” “Oh.” She read:

Dear Nichole—
Please excuse my intrusion on Christmas
Eve, but it is essential that I speak with you before the day is over.

You may already know much of what I have to say, and if that’s the case, you know it is your destiny.

I look forward to meeting you again and working with you. I have no doubt that you will be everything your great-great-grandfather was, and more.

Yours truly,Elvis del Norte

“I don’t have time for this, Mr.—”


“I don’t have time. I promised I would be somewhere.” Of course, they would expect her to be late, if she showed up at all, but she didn’t have to tell him that. “Please,” she held the door open pointedly, “leave, so I can, too.”

Instead of leaving, he sat down on her couch. “This won’t take long. If you want to go after I explain, I won’t stop you.”

“I’m going to call the police.” She reached for the cell phone in her purse.

“Go ahead. By the time they get here, I will have told you what you need to know.”

Nichole balled her hands into fists. “Aarrgh! You’re here to make me crazy. If I listen, you’ll leave and never come back?”

“Once you listen, I’ll never come back unless you want me to.”

“Fat chance. OK, talk.” She remained standing, tapping her foot until her toe began to hurt. The more beautiful the shoe, the worse it felt.

“Nice outfit. Interesting choice.”

“Holiday party.”

“You like the Christmas holiday, then?”

“I like to be with my friends, rather than hanging out with a stranger on Christmas Eve.”

“But you were such a loner when you were a child.”

“You don’t know anything about me!”

Elvis held up a hand and starting counting on each finger. “Your parents died when you were eight, and you were raised by your grandmother, who died during your first year of college. You are an artist with a passion for the environment, which led you to a graphics design job at a non-profit, a job you pretend to love.”


“Don’t get me wrong, you want to help, but you find it disheartening that it’s all you can do. I’m here to tell you, you can do more.” He cocked his head, making him look a bit fey. “Did your grandmother tell you anything about your ancestors?”

“She didn’t like to talk about it. They lived in Germany in the thirties, and they were Jewish. You do the math.”

Elvis bowed his head. “A terrible time. So many of the kindest people were taken.” He looked back up. “Did she tell you about your ancestors farther back? Did she mention anything odd, like how you got your name? Were there old stories about gifting, about a home in the far north, about a great family responsibility?”

“No. She played cards, she hated holidays, and she missed my mother. That’s all I know. She wasn’t a sharer.” She paused, and then added the rim shot. “And my mother named me after her favorite soap opera character.”

A crease developed between the stranger’s black brows. “So you don’t know anything. This is going to be harder than I expected.”

“Well, you can just go, you know. There isn’t any reason for you to put yourself out.”

“No. I can explain, but you have to promise—and I know that means something to you—that you’ll listen.”

Nichole closed her eyes tightly, then opened them wide in exaggeration. “Fine! I promise. Unless you start to say something disgusting, then I call the police.”

Elvis laughed. “No, not that!” His expression sobered as he noticed the clock on the wall. “Time is passing. I’ll get to the point. Your family, specifically, your mother’s mother’s father’s father and his ancestors, back to the beginning, are the Giving Spirits.”

“The what?”

“They give gifts and inspire gifting—the right gift, the right person, the right time. In Western culture, the Giving Spirit has been called St. Nicholas.”

Nichole was struck dumb. Elvis watched her hopefully.

She finally choked out, “Santa Claus? For goodness sake, my grandmother was Jewish! Fallen away, but Jewish! My mother and father celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, but my grandmother ignored both holidays.” Nichole began to stalk around the living room. After a few passes, she took off her excellent footwear.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Elvis. “the Giving Spirits aren’t bound by religion. You are inherent in all of them.” Elvis watched her every move like he was at the zoo, following the pacing of a wild beast behind a suddenly inadequate barrier.

“And another thing! I hate the idea that Santa only gives you a gift if you were good, not pouting, not crying, not shouting. What else do children do? By that estimation, no one would ever get a gift. And when I was little, it didn’t take long to notice that the rich children got gifts and the poor children didn’t. Did that mean that they were bad?”

“The December gifts started with your ancestor, Claus. After the plagues, there was so much sadness, and on the longest, coldest nights of the year, it was at its worst. Children needed to believe in the spirit of giving, more than ever. When Claus, and then his son, Nicholas, left gifts for each child, parents would say, ‘Look what that saint, Claus, brought you! You must have been very good for him to have remembered you.’” Elvis shrugged. “It caused a lot of misunderstandings, but they were the right gifts then.” His eyes shifted briefly to the clock. “Even now, we do a lot of work on Christmas Eve.”

Nichole paused in her pacing. Elvis met her eyes. His, she saw, were green.

Pleased to gain her full attention, he continued, “But the true purpose of the Giving Spirits isn’t to deliver hats, stockings, and toys; your calling is to inspire people to give generously and receive graciously when they most need it—the right gift, the right person, at the right time. Sometimes that involves a physical gift.”

Nichole tore her gaze away and resumed furrowing a channel in the carpet. “So you’re saying that people aren’t good on their own, that they need some kind of gift muse to force them. I just don’t accept that. People are good, at least potentially.”

“But without the Giving Spirit, they wouldn’t know the exact moment and the perfect gift. Ideally, both the giver and the recipient are enriched, and the world is nudged away from the brink of annihilation.”

Nichole stopped, facing the wall to avoid green eyes. The clock told her she was officially late, but somehow, she wanted to hear more. “Putting aside the question of how handing out gifts can possibly save the world, how would these gift-giving Don Quixotes know the gift, the people, and the time?”

“Well, to give it a modern spin, you have the biotechnology to learn everything you need to know about who should get what gift.” He grinned and made a curious, seated bow.

Nichole eyed him askance. “So you’re saying, I’ll know when they’ve been sleeping, I’ll know when they’re awake.”

“Kind of like that.”

“Well, even if I did, how could I possibly give enough gifts to make a difference? There are about eight billion people in the world!”

“That’s where your family legacy comes in. You just do it. As many people as needed, as often as needed.”

“I can’t do that. I’m only human.”

“Well, not exactly.”

“I look human. I feel human. I had my appendix out!”

She poked her abdomen hard enough to hurt. “Ow.” She collected her dignity and went to sit in her most uncomfortable chair, across from the couch. “If I wasn’t human, the doctors would have noticed.”

Elvis jumped up. Now it was his turn to pace. “Your family was always close enough to pass for homo sapiens. You descend from a species of hominid so similar that the fossils just appear anomalous. My ancestors were less similar, but too rare to leave much trace.”

He paused in front of the couch. “These days, both of our families have become part of the human race, but our genetic material is included in the so-called junk DNA. Anyone with the genes of your family has the potential to become the Giving Spirit. In fact, it manifests all the time, in smaller ways. Someone like me, on the other hand, only comes along once in a generation. And our generations are long. I’m older than I look. I worked with your great-great-grandfather for a decade.”

“You mentioned him before. Are you saying he’s still alive?”

“He was until just a few days ago.”

“That’s impossible. Nobody lives that long.”

“Being the Giving Spirit has advantages. Like me, you would stay young,” he smiled winningly, “and not just young at heart!”

“But then, I would be alone.”

“You don’t have to be. Obviously, your great-great-grandfather had a family. Some Giving Spirits have more than one over the years.”

“Nice for them! What a crock. It sounds like you’re recruiting me for a cult. What’s next? Apocalypse surprise?”

Elvis collapsed onto the couch, blowing out his breath in consternation. “Look, the spirit of knowledge has never had to recruit before. Nicko should have done this, but he was so busy with what has happened in the world, time got away from him, so I have to do it. You and your cousin Christopher were the only ones in this generation that Nicko said had the ability and the heart. After thinking it over, I decided on you.” His voice wavered, or maybe it was her hearing.

She ignored it. “Why not him?”

“I’m not going to talk about him. You have the gift for true compassion. Nicko said so, when we met you.”


“I told you we met. At the zoo, in front of the polar bear exhibit. Nicko said, ‘She could be the one.’ And he was right. You want to save the world, and now you have the opportunity.”

Nichole sneered. She had never tried it before, it felt like being in a movie. “So now you’re saying that fixing global warming is down to gift-giving?”

Elvis didn’t answer immediately. When he did, his voice was lower, and softer, and sad. “The right gift, the right person, the right time. It’s a crucial part of healing. If we don’t get it right…I don’t know about you, but I want to see what comes next, rather than going back to square one, evolutionarily speaking. This last round, it took a long time for my ancestors to blend in with humans. Intelligent life was a lot smaller the last time.”

Something that had been swirling around at the back of her mind whooshed abruptly to the front. “Now, that’s just going too far! You can’t be an elf. You don’t have ears.”

His eyebrows rose.

“I mean, your ears are a little narrow at the top, but hardly pointy.”

Elvis grinned again. “The glamour is working!” She realized he was enjoying their conversation, too.

“But you’re like, five-six. Are you saying that you’re actually three feet tall?”

“No, though we were, at one time. We’ve been working on it. My grandmother was four-ten, and her great-grandfather under four feet. That was during the dark ages, though—he didn’t seem so small back then.” He smiled again, this time with more of an edge. “But the ears, now, that’s just who we are.”

She asked another question. “How do you know all this? I mean, you can’t be old enough to remember past civilizations.”


“Whatever. How?”

Elvis stood up to take another circuit of her apartment. It seemed to be getting too small for him. “We have access to the memories of our ancestors. I suppose it might go back to the dawn of time, if I had the ambition. It’s what humans call the collective unconscious, only for us, it’s conscious. It also gives me insight into living people, so that I can locate the right person, right gift—”

“Yeah, yeah. The right time. You’re a fruitcake, if you’ll pardon the holiday reference.”

Elvis stood up, and in spite of his height, he seemed to tower over her, angry.

She found she liked it. Stop it, she told herself.

“Christopher will do it.’

Offended, Nichole snapped, “I thought you said I was your first choice.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t. He’s more open-minded than you, but he’s not in the best position to help.”

Nichole felt deflated, and she wished she could figure out why. She shook it off. “So, how exactly does Santa fly around the world in the blink of an eye?”

Elvis shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know. This is where Nicko would have helped you. As far as I know, he just did it. I brought the intel, he provided the logistics. I never asked him how.”

“Great. So this is all just craziness. I’m not Santa Claus, and I can’t change the world.” Nichole slammed her feet incautiously back into her high heels, which pinched her toes in mute retaliation. “I’m going to a party. You can go back to your hollow tree.”

“You will change the world, you know. Just not as the Giving Spirit.” Elvis walked to the door and opened it wide. “Your party is waiting.”

The party seemed far away, and less enticing. Nevertheless, Nichole picked up her furry white purse and flounced to the door. To her horror, tears started as she crossed the threshold. “Even if you were an elf, with antenna ears to listen to people’s hearts—”

Elvis made a small objecting noise, but she rolled on.

“—I’m too selfish. I’m not remotely like a saint. Like you said, I’m not a very good person.”

Elvis put his hands on her shoulders, and she leaned toward him involuntarily. Without knowing exactly how, she was enveloped in the warmest hug of her life. Her tears kept flowing.

After a while, she sniffed, pushed back, and stood on her own two gold-shod feet. He still had his hands on her shoulders. She patted him on the chest. “Nice pecs for an elf.” She heard his frustrated sigh and added, “Tell Christopher I wish him a very merry Christmas.”

Elvis said, “You’re not selfish, you know. You have it in you to be a force of good in the world. Honor it.” He let go of her shoulders and stepped away. She searched in her purse for a tissue, and when she looked up, he was gone.


It was Christmas Eve again, and Nichole had forgotten most of what Elvis had said five years before. Still, when peace broke out in the Middle East, a cure for cancer was developed, and solar technology was employed to improve crop yields, she liked to imagine that Christopher and Elvis were behind it. Plus, she had uncovered a knack for giving. When she made a difference in the lives of people around her, it made her happy.

But the ice caps were still melting, and continents of trash roamed the oceans alongside icebergs. Whole species she used to see on Crocodile Hunter would be extinct before she reached fifty. Population growth was slowing, but not fast enough.

At twenty-seven, Nichole still worked for an environmental non-profit, but the effort versus the good achieved was burning her out. She wasn’t hardened; it mattered when there was a new oil spill, or a Cat 6 hurricane. Polar bears made her cry so predictably that she had to move Polly off her rear view mirror so that if she started sobbing, it didn’t happen in traffic.

And this Christmas was bringing her down even more. Her boyfriend of ten months, the first in a while, had disappointed her.

He had seemed thoughtful, funny and caring—maybe a bit of a snob, but at heart, a decent guy. He reminded her of Elvis.

Then, there was the restaurant. The look in his eyes when that poor sick waiter had dropped a glass of wine in her lap would stay with her forever, but she hoped she could eventually eradicate the grating sound of his voice. ‘You cretin! If you’re sick, stay home. You look like you have HIV, or something. That can’t be sanitary.”

The manager rushed over to talk to her date while she and the waiter stood nearby, mopping up her dress.

“Maybe I should have stayed home, today of all days. But my work is very important to me.” The waiter was a blonde man about thirty-five. He would have been handsome if it weren’t for sunken cheeks, dark circles, and a papery dry complexion.

“I’m fine. He’s just being an ass.” The man still looked so sad that Nichole put her hands over his where they held a wine-stained napkin. “I’m sorry for what he said. People need to work. You can’t stay at home just to make jerks feel comfortable.”

He smiled and thanked her.

She gave his hands a squeeze and said, “I hope you feel better soon.”

Next, she found the flustered manager behind the counter and paid the bill, doubling the tip.

The manager was startled. “But the service! Why would you leave a tip?” He pushed some of the money back toward her across the counter.

“My grandmother always said, don’t eat out if you can’t afford to tip. I can afford it, and I want the waiter to have it. It’s a gift.” She put the money back in his hand.

The manager nodded. “I’ll tell him. Thank you.”

That was almost a month ago. The party she would have gone to tonight was at the ex-boyfriend’s house, but she didn’t feel like attending a party, anyway.

Tonight, as she drove home from work, she missed her family. The weather was cold and crisp, snow weather if you didn’t live in Florida. The park across from her building was still and waiting, its newly installed bench empty.

As she mounted the steps, her neighbor Liam headed out past her with his wife and new baby. They murmured Christmas wishes.

As soon as she was in her apartment, she wanted to be out again. So, after dinner with her cat and a hot shower, she put on white flannel pajamas and faux-fur-lined black slippers, then spiked herself an eggnog. She would go out to sit on the new park bench. No one used it but her and a homeless man named Jack. On that thought, she poured and microwaved a second eggnog for him, this one nog-free. Wrapped in a huge red blanket, she carried two cups and a spare blanket down the stairs.

There was a man on the bench, but to her surprise, it wasn’t Jack. It looked like—


“Nichole. Merry Christmas.”

Suddenly, she remembered the night he visited her with clarity. The Giving Spirits, elves, destiny. “How are you? How’s Christopher? You’ve been busy.” She offered him the nog, and he took it. “Sorry, it’s virgin. It was for Jack, and he’s in AA.”

“That’s OK. I don’t like the taste of alcohol, and it doesn’t work very well on me, anyway.”

She waited, but he didn’t speak. He sipped his eggnog, holding it in both hands.

“What happened?”

“Christopher died at the beginning of December.” “What? You said the Giving Spirit lives a long time.”

“I told you, Christopher was dying, and globe-trotting for five years didn’t improve his chances.”

“You didn’t say that he was dying. You said he was your first choice.” She remembered, exactly.

“That’s not what I said. You don’t remember it right.”

And then, she did remember. ‘I decided on you because Christopher is dying,’ Elvis had said, but she had heard it differently.

Elvis watched her face. “You weren’t ready to hear.”

It was Nichole’s turn not to speak, so they sat quiet for a long time. Finally, Nichole said, “I wish I’d met him.”

“You did, the day he died.” Instead of objecting, she waited for Elvis to explain. “He was very weak. He hadn’t moved from his house in months. Not being able to help people hurt him, so I stopped telling him, and then I stopped knowing.” Elvis squeezed his eyes shut. She thought she saw the sparkle of tears. “That’s never happened before, in the history of my family.”

“Then, that day, he told me he wanted to give one last gift. I told him I didn’t know who needed one.” He shook his head. “He said that he did, and we went to see you at a restaurant.”

She knew instantly which restaurant he was talking about. “Were you there? You said you can change your appearance.”

“I was there, but not in the restaurant. I can’t change that much.”

She thought about the stupid ex, the sick waiter, and the manager. Had she met anyone else? Maybe, in the lobby?

“He offered you a gift.”

“I don’t remember. Did I accept?”

“Yes. Don’t you recall the waiter?”

“The sick waiter? Of course I do. What happened made me realize what a jerk that boyfriend was.”

“You couldn’t turn away from a sick stranger. You spoke with love and compassion. You needed to know what you were, so Christopher came in person to show you. He wished he’d gotten to know you.”

She put her hand around one of his where it held the cup. Her eyes burned. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She looked up at the gray sky, clouds lit by street lights. “What are you going to do?”

“Find another saint, I guess. They’re out there. It’s just going to take time. A Christmas without Santa.”

Nichole nodded. “I wish that I hadn’t said no. What you told me was so hard to believe.” She breathed deeply of the crisp air. “But I’ll do what I can. You told me that I should, and Christopher taught me that I can. Thank you, Elvis, for what you did for me and Christopher, and what you both did for all of us.” She let her hand fall back and wrapped it tightly around the other to stop herself from clutching. Elvis had his own worries, he didn’t need hers.

She stood up. He followed suit.

She wasn’t going to cry. The cold was just making her eyes water. “If I can help you find the next Giving Spirit, I will.” She offered her hand to say goodbye.

Instead of shaking it, he pulled her hand to his chest, then wrapped his other arm around her. It felt like five years ago, only better, so she closed her eyes. After a few minutes, to break the spell, she patted his chest with her trapped hand. “Nice pecs for an elf.”

Then she felt cold tap her cheeks. When she looked up, the sky was lit with stars, and a soft snow was falling. Snow in Florida? She turned around in his arms to watch.

And saw a polar bear ten feet away, looking as baffled as she felt. “A polar bear in the park?” She swung back around wildly, trying to make sense of what had happened, and felt her foot slip.

Quickly, Elvis pulled her closer. He nodded over her shoulder. “Watch your step. You might fall into a crevasse.”

Nichole looked down slowly toward the break in the ice. A faint glitter in the inky black told her where it stopped. Awestruck, she met Elvis’s green eyes. “What did you do?”

“Me? Nothing. Remember, intel? I can’t do this. You did it.”

“Does that mean I’m Santa Claus?”

He gripped her tightly against the bitter arctic cold and looked into her eyes. “That’s not how I’m thinking of you at this moment, but if you’re not, we’re going to be stuck here for a long time.”

His face looked so sweet that she kissed him. In the blink of an eye, they were back in the park.

As soon as she knew they were safe, she felt embarrassment creep in. She raised her chin and met Elvis’s eyes. “Sorry, I was just so happy…” And saw something else amazing. Elvis’s ears were pointed, the tips red with cold. She reached up to brush one with her fingers. “You’re going to get frostbite.”

He touched his ear self-consciously. “It’s unattractive?”

“Just odd. But I think I’m finally ready for odd.” She smiled at him, uncertain.

He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her close for a much longer kiss. After that, he took her hand and stood beside her, facing the apartment building. “Well, ask me in out of the cold. I promised I would only come back if you wanted me to, and we have a lot to do before Christmas morning.”