The holiday season is upon us, with Christmas carols ringing from every side. An aroma of pumpkin spice permeates the atmosphere as Mrs. Claus works on her Christmas baking. That jolly old elf Santa Claus is making his lists of toy trains and Barbie dolls for all the good little boys and girls.
Meanwhile, the reindeer are getting extra rations to prepare them for the big journey, and the elves received a generous raise without threatening to go on strike. (Santa's elves aren't unionized.)
All seemed well, so I decided to get in touch with Santa's little-known half-brother Atnas, who doesn't get much facetime.
While Santa is fat and jolly, Atnas is dark and lean and melancholy. Santa is all about generosity and good cheer, but Atnas worries about the flip side of Christmas and of every other day of the year--the waste and the accumulation of useless things.
"Advertising is always urging us to buy things, whether we need them or not. In fact," says Atnas, "we're using up the world's resources at a galloping rate. Take sand," he said.
"What!" I answered. "Surely there's enough sand in the world for everybody!"
"Not when eight billion people are each using 35 pounds of sand a day. They dredge rivers so they can build more land elsewhere. And there are all the buildings and roads and dams." *
Atnas is not exactly the life of the party, and we humans generally don't want to hear it, so he seemed pathetically pleased to have me as audience.
"Have you noticed that every holiday is turning into a candy exchange?" asked Atnas. "Not just Valentine's Day and Halloween."
I observed that New Year's Eve, Father's Day, and the Fourth of July were still relatively free of candy. "Give it time," said Atnas pessimistically. "You'd think the American Dental Association would be on top of this."
He looked glummer than ever. We were meeting back by the dumpsters, and luckily there was an extra folding chair for me to sit on. Atnas is too skinny to have much of a lap, and I'm not a kid. Anyway, he's not taking orders for consumer products--quite the reverse.
"Every household in America now has 300,000 things," said Atnas. "Estimated. Of course, that includes every paper clip and toothpick." *
"What about every grain of rice or piece of macaroni?" I asked. What I was really thinking about were the thousands of clippings, and file cards, and scraps of paper with notes on them that were strewn around my apartment. Yet I can rarely find the information when I need it.
Atnas went on to say, "We've gone off-track for 200 years. Rushed into the Industrial Revolution and now we're stuck with it. Too many people, with too much stuff."
I told him that a lot of my Facebook friends would like to go back about 10 or 20 years. "They think we've been dumped into a parallel world and they don't like this one."
Atnas nodded in agreement. "The Luddites got a bad rap. They would have slowed things down."
I admitted that I too was something of a Luddite, not that I would go around smashing machinery.
Atnas shook his head. "Now we're dependent on all these resources that are going to run out. And people fight wars over them. Would anybody battle about the Middle East if it had no oil?" He added, "There's an Arab saying that oil is the Devil's urine."
Our conversation was, if anything, making Atnas sadder.
"Speaking of wars," I said, "There's something in particular I wish would disappear from the face of the Earth. Could you do something like that?"
Atnas looked interested, but shook his shaggy head. "I'm afraid I don't have the magic that my brother Kris has. But what did you have in mind?"
So I told him my dream, which is that every type of weaponry developed since the 14th century, everything since gunpowder--nukes and revolvers, cluster bombs, rifles, land mines, AK-47s, torpedoes, napalm, the works--would just go away.
No uranium mines, no missile silos, no gun factories, no instructions on how to make weapons.
No wars in Sudan or Gaza or Ukraine.
Atnas looked nonplussed. "Tall order," he said.
"I wish I did have the magic. You realize that people could still kill each other with bow and arrows, or swords?"
"Yes, but not nearly in such numbers."
I admitted that the knowledge would eventually be recovered. "But maybe in the intervening years we might learn how to work out our problems with each other without resorting to mass destruction."
Atnas sighed. Or was it a sob?
"Have a Merry Christmas," he said. And left.
Coralie Koonce is a writer living in Fayetteville, and the author of "Little Handbook of Arguments," "Twelve Dispositions: A Field Guide to Humans" and "Thinking Toward Survival," among other books.
* Information from Elizabeth Kolbert, "Needful Things," New Yorker, Oct. 30, 2023