WILLIAMS, Ariz. - I was off to a sluggish morning. I peered out the window to find five inches of new snow covering my car in the driveway. I plugged in the teapot, dug out my boots from the closet and went on a mission to find the ice scraper under the McDonald's wrappers in the back of the car.
An hour later I was on the road, joining the slow moving traffic to town. Christmas lights peeked out between the pinion-juniper trees and an occasional car with a bow passed me by. The Christmas spirit seemed elusive at this point. I wanted to go back to my pot of tea and sit by the wood stove.
As I arrived on that cold wintry morning at the Williams-News building on Third Street in Williams, I was greeted by a beaming Santa Claus, Chef Nick and Conductor Julie relaxing in the back editorial offices. A few days earlier our editor had lined up an interview with the crew.
As I saw them chatting near the stacks of newspapers and old file cabinets, my senses began to wake up. Seeing Santa in his bright red jumpsuit, Nick in his crisp white chef coat, and Julie in her sharp conductor suit brightened my day. They emitted an overwhelming feeling of good cheer as they laughed and joked with our photographer.
I have to admit, an interview with Santa was something I have had on my editorial bucket list for years. A chance to ask the all-important questions about how all this Christmas business works. A one-on-one, an exclusive.
Santa greeted me with a jolly grin hidden behind his thick white beard. To my surprise he reached into his pocket and presented me with a key. It was one of those old keys, the kind my great grandparents would have carried. It wasn't an ordinary key, he said. It unlocked the door that would show me the magic of Christmas.
We circled around my desk as I flipped open my notebook and got down to business.
"How did you find time to come here today with your busy schedule?" I asked.
"Its all the magic of Christmas," he said.
Before he said anything else he handed me a beautiful silver bell. I naturally jiggled it, but no sound came out. I asked Santa why he would give me a silent bell and he said only those who believed in the magic of Christmas could hear the bell. I tucked it in my pocket with no further thought and proceeded to interview Santa and his helpers as they answered my questions about life at the North Pole and their experiences on the Polar Express train.
"Bernard and the other elves are working hard wrapping presents for the big event," Santa said.
Santa said he, Nick and Julie were on a break from their duties at the Polar Express. Julie brought her special watch to help them stay on track. She showed me her unique watch that kept the train on time. The dial read almost early, a bit early, kind of early, on time, almost late, a bit late or very late.
"I keep track so we make sure we get back to the train on time," Julie said. "The children are so excited and we don't want them to be disappointed."
Nick said he was concerned about leaving the other chefs to do the work of baking the cookies without him.
"We go to the candy factory and collect all the chocolate bars so we can get the hot chocolate ready to go," he said. "Keep it cooking in the pot and soon you'll have hot choco-LOT."
Nick said he enjoys spending time with the other chefs and also the elves in Santa's workshop.
"They spread Christmas cheer," he said. "It's kind of infectious. It builds on us and then we like to spread it to the rest of the people that ride the Polar Express."
Each car of the train has a chef that distributes cookies and hot chocolate to the kids. Nick said Mrs. Claus makes all the cookies. She has them packed and ready to go when Santa's sleigh comes by.
I couldn't contain the big question I've always wanted to ask, so I anxiously blurted out "How do you manage to visit all the kids in one night, Santa?"
Santa leaned back in the old leather office chair.
"Well, that's the miracle of Christmas," he said. "There are just some trade secrets that we aren't able to share."
Nick said "The paparazzi have been after us for years... it's a secret we won't ever reveal."
Santa said his reindeer are extremely fast and can deliver him to the North Pole within minutes. He said the magic allows him to deliver packages to children all over the world.
"I also have a lot of helpers," Santa said. "On the train, the conductors and chefs do all the hard work. I get to have all the fun talking with the children and meeting their parents. The hard work for me comes on Christmas Eve."
I asked Santa how the reindeer can pull the sleigh so quickly. He said the reindeer have to be conditioned. They feed them properly and exercise them regularly.
"If they are out of shape they will have a hard time pulling that heavy sleigh on Christmas Eve," he said.
Santa said he, Nick, Julie and the other elves spend the off-season at the North Pole. He said they practice Christmas carols, help Mrs. Claus develop new cookie recipes and play with the toys.
"I like to build snowmen and play Monopoly with Bernard, our head elf," Nick said.
When Christmas season rolls around, Santa and his helpers get down to business. The elves begin packaging up the presents, Mrs. Claus begins baking, Santa cleans his suit and Nick orders up the chocolate.
"You have to remember that it's just more than three of us," Santa said. "When we begin the Polar Express rides we have elves that clean the train every single night. We have elves that print the tickets for the children and more elves that inspect the train to make sure its safe for us."
I asked Santa whether he had many people on the naughty list this year. He said that many of his kids on the naughty list are 20 to 25 years old. He said sometimes they grow out of it, but he likes to talk with them when they are on the train.
"I hope that a gentle chiding will help them make the right choices," Santa said. "To be on the naughty list at Christmas... there isn't anything worse."
"There's always room on the nice list," Nick said.
Julie began tapping her watch to remind the crew that it was getting close to time to go back to the train. I tried to sum up my last few questions so I could write a good report on what Santa has been doing.
"Do you ever go to the Grand Canyon?" I asked.
Santa said he flies all over the world and even rides other Polar Express trains. He said he's been to all seven continents and delivered packages to children living in the desert, the mountains, near the ocean and open prairies.
"But Arizona is one of my favorites," he said. "I fly over the Grand Canyon almost every night. Sometimes the helicopters give us some concern. I like to give the pilots a shout out with 'Merry Christmas.'"
What is your favorite part about Christmas?" I asked.
"The smile and the twinkle in the eyes of the kids," he said. "They get on the train and they forget about everything. The kids are anywhere from one year old to 99. The magic takes over and they forget about all the grown up things they have to do."
I wrapped up the interview with Santa as he and his helpers stepped over to have his picture taken with our photographer. I pondered my conversation with Santa and his crew but I was already thinking about what I had to do for the rest of the day. Interview with the forest service, basketball game at the high school, dinner at the senior center.
The photographer had Santa pose in a variety of positions and then had Nick and Julie participate. Other newsroom staff members began to appear from their cubicles and offices sneaking snapshots with their cell phones. Phones began to chime as those photos were Facebooked and Snapchatted and Instagrammed around the world. To have Santa in our very own building was a site to behold.
Santa and his friends said they must get back to the train, there was more work to be done. We shook hands and escorted them to the front door. Everyone seemed a bit hesitant to say goodbye. We watched them walk down Third Street and around the corner to the train, with a few staff looking up at rooftops perhaps for a glimpse of his sleigh.
We returned to the newsroom and packed up the camera equipment. No one said much; it seemed so quiet without the jolly red-man, the sharply dressed conductor and the cookie smell of the chef. It was as if a tidal wave of excitement drifted out the door.
I packed up my tape recorder and checked the battery of my camera as I headed out for my next interview. As I dug in my jeans for my keys, I heard a jingling sound in my pocket. I didn't know what it was, but I reached in to retrieve it and came out with the silver bell. I rang it again and again and smiled as I knew I had found the magic of Christmas.