Black Pete: A Christmas Tale

Have you ever heard of a Christmas Town? You know, those towns that always look like they are a wreath or two away from being fully Christmas decorated? Towns where, even in summer, a cloud and cool breeze are enough to bring to mind a Rockwell Christmas card? In some of those towns Christmas is real. Sometimes a feeling can become its own life, a nexus to all that believe and Christmas towns are the gateways to Christmas. Now, not all of them, mind you. Not the tourist traps and pop-up crap, but the real ones, nestled in the woods, or down a prairie lane, towns at the far turn of a mountain road, in some of those towns, Christmas is real.

I grew up in a Christmas town. It’s hard to remember it sometimes, like it was a dream, but I know I came from one, a town called Winterthistle. Winterthistle was located up Highway 21 past Bolton. Deep in the middle of the mountains, nestled in an evergreen forest, our homey little town thrived with happiness and tradition. And, as I said, in that little town, Christmas was real, and to us, Christmas was important.

The entire town had that Swiss chalet style design with gabled roofs, wide eaves and brightly colored weatherboarding. Aside from the level of enjoyment that the town took in Christmas, Winterthistle was much like any other small off the beaten path town. Everyone knew everyone else's business and, for the most part, everyone was pretty nice about it. Sure, there were the town busybodies, I mean, every town has to have at least one, right? But just like the mechanics, the clerks, the teachers and the pastor, even the busybody was welcome as a necessary gear in the tiny machine that was Winterthistle.

My family, the Hamlett’s, were known in town to be as good as any. My mother, Bertie Hamlett, was a school teacher, my father, Jimmy Hamlett Sr., was the town’s real estate agent, not that anybody ever moved to or from Winterthistle. My name is Weston Hamlett, but at the time I was known to all as “Little Westy Hamlett,” one of the town’s 2nd graders, seven-year-olds and young for my grade on account of having little interest in getting in trouble, and a whole lot of pride in my A+ report cards. My brother however, was known to be as much of a hellion as a town like Winterthistle could produce, which really wasn’t that bad. He was a few years older than me, ten or eleven at the time. Don’t misunderstand, he wasn’t a terrible kid, just had a lot of energy and wasn't really one for listening and parents back then didn’t really know what to do with a kid like that..

Every year Christmas was important, but I remember one year especially. As I said, I was seven and it was Halloween night. Nowadays I hear lots of people complain that Christmas starts too soon, that we need to leave space for Thanksgiving. Something about the consumerism or the speed that the modern world travels, but in Winterthistle, Christmastime would start the day after Halloween and nobody in town complained about it.

That Halloween I had made a good haul. Like most Halloweens, we had gone a few towns over to Selwyn’s Hollow for the town’s famous All Hallow’s Eve Festival and Trick or Treating. I’m not sure if it was my perfect costume of Space Ranger Rocket or my brother's trick or treating map that had taken him a month to plot out, but when we got home and I counted my candy, I counted a whopping one hundred and ten pieces. Other than being an impressive pile of candy, that number may not matter to many, but in a town where Christmas dreams start the day after Halloween, we know that there are exactly fifty-five days between Halloween and Christmas, and being the good student I was, I quickly deduced that it meant I had two pieces of candy a day until Christmas. One hundred and ten, the perfect amount to sneak two pieces under my pillow every night.

 I was amazed, as I counted and kept reaching in the old grayed pillowcase, it just kept coming until my one-hundredth-and-tenth piece, a gooey, nugety, chochlety Radu bar, the crown jewel of Halloween. There was a hierarchy to these things. At the bottom was Miss Betty’s homemade candy corn. Miss Betty was my teacher and new to the area and had no grasp on what the kids were eating at the time. Ranking at number two was any solid chocolate candy, which of course we found hilariously funny at the time. Three and four were gummy bears and worms, and five was a Rockefeller Candy Button. There was some debate at the time on candies five and six. Most kids agreed that is was Miss Grady’s cotton candy balls at five and leading that at six was Dellon Brand cotton candy balls, but stupid Geoff Trumbleson insisted that Miss Grady’s were better. But we all suspected that he had a crush on her, which was weird as Geoff Trumbleson was eight and Mrs. Grady was well into her seventies, but it made sense at the time for some reason. There was a larger debate to be had at the eighth and ninth places. The jury seemed to be permanently hung and it was decided that a Wanda Bar and a bag of Jet Jellies would collectively hold the eighth and ninth positions. At the top of the list, everyone who was anyone at Winterthistle Elementary agreed the best was the Radu Bar. There was just something about it, a core of nougat, covered in caramel, dipped in chocolate… my mouth waters even today just talking about that bar. That night I got one, my brother did not.

So the bidding war started. He offered me everything, every combo I had been talking about all month, but I wouldn’t budge. I had a great haul and I had the Radu Bar to boot.

This did not go over well with my brother, Jimmy, and he went into one of his maniacal tyrades that consisted of calling me names and went so far as threatening to poison Bruiser, the dog.

As I said earlier, Jimmy wasn’t that bad of a kid… normally, but threatening to poison Bruiser apparently didn’t sit well with my mother. She calmly sent us to brush our teeth and go to bed.

Jimmy and I brushed our teeth, the whole time he didn’t say anything. Jimmy always knew when he went too far, at least he always knew it in hindsight. We tried to be as quiet as possible. We tiptoed to our room and slipped into our bunk beds, Jimmy on the bottom and me on the top, but it wasn’t over.

That night, after hearing a long muffled yet obviously heated conversation between our parents downstairs, the door to our room opened and there, in the beam of hall light stood our mother. She came into the room and closed the door behind her. There we were, Jimmy and I tucked in bed as my mother took a seat at the other side of the room, the light of the moon beaming through the window creating a lake of moonlight between her in the chair and us in our beds. It seemed like an ocean away, but still not far enough. I could see the seering moonlit look of disappointment in her face.

In the dark she spoke. “I have had enough of your attitude Jimmy and both of you always fighting.” It was about to come, the worst punishment ever, and this time, not just for Jimmy, but for me too. But, it didn’t come. “You two are not in trouble. You have created your own trouble. Christmas is fifty-five days away. You have fifty-five days exactly to sharpen up and prove that you are going to be good little boys or else.”

She was calm, too calm. I was terrified. Everyone in Winterthistle knew of Father Christmas and we also knew of his servants, the creatures and characters that traveled with him at Christmastime. I wasn’t sure what she meant by “or else” but I knew it was scary, too scary to even want to know about, at least too scary for me to want to know, but not for Jimmy.

“Why,” Jimmy’s voice trembled, “What will happen?”

“Old Man Whipper will come for you,” she said.

At the mention of Old Man Whipper, every kid in Winterthistle would get the chill. We all knew the legend of Old Man Whipper and how when Father Christmas delivered toys to the good kids, Old Man Whipper would take care of the bad kids. The kids who were just a little bad would get coal and no toys or sweets. The worse kids would get hit with a switch, and the really bad kids? The really bad kids, I mean the really-really bad ones, well, Old Man Whipper would wrap them up in his bag and take them home to make stew. At that moment, both Jimmy and I felt like we had done really-really bad.

We both pledged to her that we would be good. We promised, told here even when no one was looking we would be the best kids in Winterthistle.

“You better be,” she said, leaning into the moonlit lake, “because  if you aren’t, Black Pete will see and Black Pete will tell Belsnickel and you will be marked... and there will be nothing that you can do.”

She didn’t need to explain. We knew the legend. Black Pete lived in the crawl spaces, attics and chimneys of our homes, watching us and making sure that we were good. On December 10th, fifteen days before Christmas, Belsnickel would walk from home to home and mark the kids that Black Pete said were bad. Belsnickel would mark you naughty on the list and that was it, your goose was cooked. On Chrtistmas eve Father Christmas would come to deliver toys and Old Man Whipper would deliver punishment or worse.

That night we both laid there in the darkness, afraid, but by morning, Jimmy seemed to have forgotten the gravity of the threat. That day at school recess he was spouting off some of the stuff the older kids were saying, that Father Christmas wasn’t real and that Black Pete, Belsnickel and The Whipper were just stupid stories that our parents had come up with to scare us into being good.

I didn’t believe him. Afterall, Jimmy was always in trouble and breaking the rules and where did that get him? Grounded mostly, but this year I feared it was going to get him beaten with a switch or worse, taken by Old Man Whipper to be used in his stew.

That night our mother complimented us on being well behaved.

As Jimmy and I laid in bed I asked him about the things he was saying with the older kids. “So, that stuff at school?” I asked. “You didn’t really mean what you said about not believing?”

“I meant it,” he answered.

The moment he said it I heard the clicking and creaking of the radiator come on, blowing warm air from the living room into our room via the duct. The warm air was calming.

“How could any of it be real? And, the older boys all say it’s made up. I mean, If it was real wouldn’t they have stories to tell. Like Jacob Conners, he sure isn’t a good kid. I saw him smoking behind the Lewis’s grain silo.”

“But, mom says it’s real?” I argued.

“And she’s a liar too, just like all the other parents.”

The clacking grew louder from the vent at the floor in the far wall.

Jimmy talked on as his voice grew more defiant, “Plus, how could a person keep an eye on us all the time? It’s stupid.”

“Magic?” I suggested.

He answered, “Magic isn’t real and Black Pete isn’t real. Watch, I’ll prove it. Fuck shit fuck fuck crap”.

I was stunned by his language.

I heard a hard knock from the far wall. I looked at the vent. Inside it was dark except for two round reflections.

“Black Pete is here,” I whispered.

Jimmy ordered me to shut up.

“There. There is the vent,” I continued.

There was a pause and then Jimmy said, “I don’t see anything.”

But I did. They had vanished, but I was sure that those two round reflections were there.

Jimmy told me to quit being a baby and to go to bed, but I couldn’t. I just stayed quiet in the dark, looking at the now solid black vent until I heard the calm heavy breathing of Jimmy asleep. Then, I got up and from under my pillow, where I kept my daily two pieces of candy, I took one and quietly climbed down and placed the candy right in front of the vent. I snuck back up into my bed and watched the candy until I fell asleep.

The next morning the candy was gone. I tried to explain it to Jimmy, but he just told me I was dreaming.

All of November went on the same, me trying to convince Jimmy that Black Pete was watching us from the air vent, Jimmy telling me that I was a cry baby and needed to grow up, and me placing a piece of candy by the vent every night. Every morning the candy was gone.

There were several nights that I put the candy there with Jimmy watching, trying to prove to him that the candy would be gone. Everytime he just accused me of taking it. He would call me a square and accuse me of trying to make him a square too.

By the time December hit, Christmas was all any of us could talk about and the conversations seemed to be evenly split between what each of us wanted for Christmas and if we were being good and if Black Pete was watching. My brother held fast with his belief that it was all just a ruse to put us in line, but I had seen proof that Black Pete was watching.

The first part of December was the same with me putting out candy as Black Pete took it. It got to the point where I would lay in bed at night watching the vent and once my brother started the smooth heavy breathing of his sleep, I would see the two reflective eyes approach through the grating. They would pause there and look at Jimmy. Once realizing he was asleep, they would look at me and if eyes could smile, I would swear that Black Pete’s eyes looked at me with a smile on his face. Then the grating would move aside and Black Pete’s hand would come out. It had awful, long claws at the end of boney jet black hands. His equally black arm would sleek along the floor, the taloned hand would slowly curl around the candy, and the arm would return to the vent.

There were a couple of times that Jimmy caught me talking into the vent. Black Pete never talked back, I wasn’t even sure that he could hear me in the day, but I was young at the time and figured Pete must have been lonely, hiding all the time and living in crawl spaces and between boards and rocks. When Jimmy would catch me he’d just tell me to knock it off cuz I was gonna get made fun of if any of the kids found out, but I didn’t care.

The whole situation turned into a benign entertainment of my evening, picking out which piece of candy I would give to Black Pete, waiting for Jimmy to fall asleep, watching the eyes approach and the arm take the candy. That is, until December 18th.

December 18th was Belsnickle’s Eventide, a day of fun and celebration in Winterthisle. Each year there was a parade of the older town boys dressed in all black with their skin painted coat black to represent the Schabmänner, or the scribblers, tamed demons that Father Christmas used in his shops. The parade of boys would dance through the town handing out candies to all of us younger kids.

Belsnickle’s Eventide was something that we looked forward to every year. It was a day that every child in Winterthisle looked forward to, and while it seemed like it was maybe a little scary, being demons and all, it was never a day that had brought me any concern before, but it did that year. Years prior I had never really had any reason to be concerned, but this year I was concerned. I was concerned for Jimmy.

All through the morning and well into the celebration Jimmy was still holding fast that he was not worried about Black Pete, he didn’t believe in Belsnickle and he certainly didn’t believe in Old Man Whipper.

Halfway through the parade Jimmy seemed to change his mind. From out of the blue Jimmy just started screaming and saying that he wanted to go home. Our parents tried to pay no mind, but Jimmy wasn’t having it. He cried and begged until they finally gave in and we went home early. I remember being somewhat disappointed, but still pleased because I had acquired quite a candy haul to add to my dwindling stash that I had been sharing with Pete.

We didn’t know at the time, but Jimmy’s reaction to the scribblers ended up sparking a bit of an outcry trying to ban some of the more “demonic” winter celebrations. Some towns kept the old ways, some changed them, and some got rid of them entirely. Those that got rid of too many of the old ways seemed to no longer really be Christmas towns anymore.

I was sent upstairs to my room in the nicest way possible as my parents sat Jimmy down and tried to calm him. Being the nosy little brother that I was, I laid down at the top of the stairs to listen to what I at first thought was my brother getting in trouble. It took a while, but eventually they got him to tell them what had scared him so much.

He told them that the two of us were struggling to get closer to the scribblers, trying to get more candy when he felt a tug at his leg and he fell down. He was talking through snot and some crying as he continued saying that he was struggling to get up and he couldn’t. Each time he tried to get up there would be another bump of a kid, a slip on the wet grass or a pulling at his legs. He had called out for our parents and they didn’t come. He was looking for them and crying when, through the clamoring children and black legs of the scribblers he saw a face looking at him. He said it was pitch black, just eyes and sharp teeth, but it was wearing a bright yellow dress and the yellow was flashing in and out of the darkness of the scribblers as the face just looked at him and smiled. It was about this time that he broke back down into unintelligible tears. I ran to our room and hopped into bed before they brought Jimmy up. It took Jimmy longer than usual to fall asleep that night as he whimpered in the dark.

That night I had selected a Wanda Bar for myself and a bag of Jet Jellies for Pete. I liked to keep it fair using the Halloween rating system. I did my usual routine and waited for Jimmy to sleep and snuck down to the vent to place Pete’s candy. It had become so common a practice now that I sat with him as we ate, my back to the wall chewing away as Pete took his piece. I would hear him take the candy and would even hear him sit there with me and enjoy it. A weird friend for a child to have but a friend nonetheless.

That night however, something new did happen. Outside the window, down from the knoll side of the house I heard faint whistling. It was a pleasant tune cutting through the night wind and the branches. I got up to look out the window. I could hear Pete making some kind of noise. Looking back, I believe he was trying to get me not to look, but I didn’t understand that at the time.

I crept up to the window and looked out. There, down in the yard, was a man. Not really a man, but a thing. His skin was coat black, just like Pete’s. He had an angular face and it was hard to see anything but his white hot eyes and smiling razor teeth. The idea of it would have terrified anyone, but I knew he wasn't there for me, it was there for Jimmy. He wore a yellow dress, like a fancy woman would wear and nothing else. He carried a long thin switch that he pulled up to his curled thin black lips and puffed on as the other end lit up like the end of one of our father’s cigars. He then let out a big puff of smoke and disappeared into the woods.

I went back to the vent, but Pete was gone.

That night it wasn't easy to get to sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about Belsnickle and his switch he puffed on like a cigarette, the burning end of that whip of wood and the pain that hot ember would add to the switch’s crack.

The next morning Jimmy was still a little rattled. He seemed to shake it off by the time he ran into some of the town boys and had to explain why he ran off like a cry baby. Jimmy’s excuse was that someone had taken his candy. By dinnertime Jimmy seemed to be back to his usual self, other than he had stopped making fun of me and my concerns. He would just tell me to stop talking about it. I pushed a little, until our parents said that if either of us brought up anything about Belsnickle again we would be grounded. The next few days pretty much went the same, me keeping my mouth shut to keep out of trouble and Jimmy avoiding the topic all together in an attempt to get back in with the older boys.

On Christmas eve Jimmy was scared, but he didn’t want to admit it. After all of our festivities and dinner, our parents sent us to bed with a glass of warm milk, a concoction that always put us out quickly, but not me. Not that night.

After hearing Jimmy’s heavy breathing of sleep and my parents going to bed, I snuck down to take Pete his nightly confection. That night being the final night before Christmas, I split up the candy I had from both Halloween and Belsnickle’s Eventide right down to the Radu Bar, which I’d halved right down the middle. I placed Pete’s candy right in front of the vent and took up my usual position, back against the wall, so that we could eat together. But that night Black Pete didn’t come for his treats.

I sat there in the darkness waiting for him. Eventually I fell asleep but was startled awake by sounds from downstairs. I went to Jimmy to wake him. At first Jimmy pushed me away and told me to go back to bed. Then, he too heard the sounds. He got out of bed crouching to the ground, pushing me down to the ground too. Jimmy grabbed his shoes from under the bed and put them on, instructing me to do the same. He was always smart like that.

We snuck into our parents room. With me on my mother’s side and Jimmy by our father, we tried to wake them. It didn’t work. They didn’t move. In fact, they were barely breathing. They looked like dolls, frozen in the moment, not alive and not dead.

Another sound startled us from our astonishment. Jimmy gave me a signal to stay as he went out the door and toward the stairs. I didn’t stay. I quickly moved out of the room and down the stairs stopping right behind jimmy. He had a look on his face that both conveyed anger at me for following and fear of whatever I had followed him into. We both stood quietly in the dark, cold, wood floored halfway, peering into the living room.

There in the living room were two men, faintly lit by the warm light of the fireplace. The first was tall and shrouded in a black cloak, just his whit beard protruding from the deep cowl. The other man was Father Christmas. He was not like I imagined him. Had he been like the pictures or carols I might have called him Santa Claus, but this venerable, stocky man in leathers and furs conjured more thoughts of wisdom and sagedom than sugar plums and jollyness. His wiry hair receding from his forehead, as much steel gray as it was white and it was messy and unkempt. He was messy and unkempt, but not like a vagrant, more like an arctic witch doctor or scientist on the verge of a discovery.

Jimmy gasped at the sight of them to which Father Christmas said one word, the servant’s name, “Ruprecht.”

The name was half out of his mouth and the oldman in the black cloak swept toward us, Jimmy pushing me back, protecting me. As Ruprecht swiftly flew towards us his cowl blew back, exposing his solid black bony demonic face. The sharp nose creesed and yellow eyes squinted in rage. Jimmy and I both closed our eyes, expecting to be torn apart, but when we opened our eyes both the men were gone and the room was pitch black. The fireplace was extinguished and the cold night was quickly piercing the room. The cold was unnatural and bitter and chilled us both to our bones.

Jimmy turned to me and grabbed my shoulders making direct eye contact as if to ask if I was okay. I assume my returned look conveyed that I was physically okay but terrified. We started to move when we heard what sounded like boots on the front doorstep. From the hall to the door we could see the figure, black against the glass.

Jimmy pulled me down the hall and into the living room where Father Christmas and Ruprecht had been. We hid behind the couch. We heard the front door slam open and again the boot sound started down the hall. I could see him through a crack, not clearly, but clearly enough to tell that he was large, dressed in black with animal fur trim, with black scraggly hair. His face was black and white and there was something wrong with it. I couldn’t tell what it was, but in the dark hallway I could see that there was definitely something wrong with his face.

He went upstairs first and I was relieved until I thought of my parents, bewitched, laying in their beds, exposed to whatever horrific intentions this creature of Christmas Eve had.

We sat there in the dark holding each other as we trembled. I startled as I felt something on my leg. I looked down and saw a black clawed hand patting me, Black Pete’s clawed hand. I looked further back and saw the arm and followed it to the vent where I saw one of Pete’s yellow eyes look up at me with concern. He brought his hand up between our eyes and pointed at me. He then wagged his finger indicating no. Then he pointed at Jimmy. I shook my head and started to tear up. Even through the small vent in the floor I could tell that Pete was shaking his head yes.

I blurted out, “I don’t want them to take him, please!”

Pete’s hand quickly slipped back into the vent replacing the grating in one fluid motion.

Jimmy looked at me, he grabbed me by the shoulders again, lifting me up as we started to move toward the hallway to escape, but the monstrous man must have heard as well. We heard a clamoring from upstairs and right as we got to the stairwell we heard a smashing and banging between walls of the monstrous man as he started to make his way down the stairs. The fear overtook us and all we could do was take several steps back into the side room as we saw the massive black boots start to come down the stairs.

We were both pulled back and fell to our butts in the blackness. I went to scream, but I couldn’t. Around my mouth was a jet black clawed hand. I looked over to jimmy. Around his mouth was another clawed hand. Between us, in the blackness, an even more black face slowly crept forward, looking back and forth between us. Pete’s face. All he did was mouth, “Shhhh”.

As we were held quiet in the dark by Black Pete, the man came to the side room doorway, lit by the starlight that barely came through the window above us. It was Old Man Whipper. He was a massive man in black robes holding a large dirty piece of fabric. His face was haphazardly split between solid black and colorless white, his hair was a shock of black wires, his eyes were deep and black, his tongue moved around his mouth and face like a snake. He eye’s looked wildly about the hallway, looking for the perpetrator of the sound.

He started to walk down the hallway toward the living room as Pete slowly released our mouths from his muffeling grip. Looking back I am constantly reminded of that moment. It must have been fear, or panic, the primordial fight or flight response. I look back and I know that they were protecting me, both Jimmy and Pete. Jimmy pushed me out of the way of the monstrous man and Pete shielded me from the sounds of my own fear, but for some reason I ran. As soon as I was free of Pete’s claw I ran.

I leapt up and darted toward the door of the side room, running to the hallway to turn the opposite way from the monstrous man and dart out the door into freedom.

But that’s not what happened.

I made it to the end of the side room and as I passed through the doorway but I was hit with an arm, an arm and hit so large it sent me sliding on my butt back into the dark room from which I was trying to escape.

I could hear Jimmy yell my name in the darkness as the man charged into the room passing me and going right for Jimmy, his huge taloned hands revealing that his tattered cloth was actually a dirty bag. He grabbed in the darkness for Jimmy.

It must have been shame from my previous cowardice when I lept on the back of the man. He was greasy and smelled of must. I bit and hit him as he tried to get me off. Black Pete leapt into the fray, scratching and clawing at the monstrosity.

Black Pete looked at me with a strange look that my young mind couldn’t grasp at the time, but looking back I know it to be appreciation and thanks. He then pushed me hard, so hard I went flying from the back of the creature, landing against the wall. In front of me, I squinted through the starlit darkness at the mass that was Jimmy, Old Man Whipper, and Black Pete.

Eventually the center of the black mass flexed sending the two smaller bodies across the room. One of Jimmy’s shoes came off and landed right in my lap. A tattered old athletic shoe. He was hoping to get a new pair for christmas.

Through the dark I saw the shoe’s other half laying on the ground. The only response I got when I yelled his name was a groan and a twitch of the shoe.

At the sound of my voice, Old Man Whipper turned and looked at me. He smiled, his snake of a tongue curling out and then back in, licking the tips of his teeth. He charged toward Jimmy’s body. In the darkness I could see that Jimmy struggled, but it was of no use. The creature swept Jimmy up and stuffed him in the rotting old sack in one violent movement. He pulled the draw cord on the sack and threw it over his shoulder.

He walked right past me, paying me no mind at all as he exited the room. He stomped down the hall and left the house completely. As he left, I heard a massive whoosh of wind as a light began to glow in the hall. It was the light from the fireplace in the living room reignited. I looked at my hands, dirty with soot and mold as they trembled in the amber glow that flickered around the corners of the house.

I heard a whimpering. I got up to find Jimmy hiding in the corner of the room, his eyes full of tears. For some reason, I handed him his shoe, even though I knew what happened to the other one. Black Pete had put it on his foot to trick Old Man Whipper.

From that day on, both Jimmy and I took our families Christmas traditions seriously, even though neither of us ever got a present again placed under the tree from Father Christmas. There was one change to our family traditions though. We taught our kids to be nice to Black Pete, the demon enslaved by Father Christmas to watch you. Not only is he there to watch your bad deeds, he watches your good deeds too.