There was a robot who believed he would be a better Santa Claus than the real Santa Claus, and to prove it, he went up to the North Pole and challenged Santa to a duel.
“What kind of duel?” Santa asked, a bit wary. He’d never been challenged to a duel!
We will each deliver presents tomorrow night, the robot said (I forgot to mention that the robot had arrived at the North Pole on December 23rd) and whichever of us does it better will get the job.
The robot then beeped and blinked some lights in a challenging manner.
Santa didn’t want to accept, but Mrs. Claus and the reindeer were all watching and he didn’t want to look like a wimp, so he really was backed into a corner.
The next night, Xmas Eve, the Robot and Santa each took ½ of the “Nice” list, at random, and each took a magic bag full of presents and set off to deliver their half.
It wasn’t even a contest. Santa and his reindeer worked as hard as they could, but the robot, what with his rocket feet and mechanical arms and Stealth™ technology finished all his presents in about 1 hour.
When he returned to the North Pole, Santa handed the robot the keys to the cottage, showed him where the reindeer feed was kept and gave him a copy of the elves’ union contract, and then retired.
For the next few Xmases everything was fine, pretty much. Santa relaxed a bit and took up jigsaw puzzles, and entered Scrabble™ tournaments. He even came close to winning a few. He was kind of a hit at the conventions.
The robot, meanwhile, managed to make the elves even faster with his introduction of new technology. The reindeer were free to roam the wilderness again, never having to be harnessed. And presents were more plentiful and arrived well before the dawn on Xmas. The robot re-evaluated the list of Naughty and Nice, finding mathematical theorems to better sort who was naughty or nice, and because he was a robot and could not make mistakes he never needed to check twice. He even processed the milk and cookies left for him without complaining, using the components to 3D print a small Thank You Figurine.
Everyone was more or less content, although truth be told it was sort of more to the or less side of that. Nobody could quite put their finger on what, exactly, they felt was wrong, but if anyone had ever talked about it (nobody did) they’d have agreed that yeah, right, something was wrong, they knew it too, they were just thinking that.
Nobody, as I mentioned, ever talked about it. Except Terry. Terry decided to do something about it. First, he wrote a strongly-worded letter to the editor of the local, twice-a-week paper, the Lake Area Reporter. When this did not have any effect at all, other than Terry’s mom clipped it out of the paper and put it on her refrigerator to show the neighbors when they came over for tea, Terry sat up on Xmas Eve, waiting. When he heard a clatter on the rooftop, he rushed outside, where he saw the robot preparing to slide down his chimney.
“Hey, robot!” he yelled, loudly enough to be heard down the block.
Several neighbors threw open their sashes to see what was the matter.
What is it the robot asked.
“I don’t think you should do this job,” Terry said. He had had a whole speech planned, the kind of thing Jimmy Stewart might have said, had Jimmy Stewart ever starred in a movie about a robot taking over for Santa Claus (which is a very good idea, if the author of this story says so himself: someone should make this into a movie!) but the speech sort of dropped out of his mind, and Terry wasn’t a speech-ifying kind of guy. So he said what was in his heart. He said:
“I know you’re more efficient at it, and things are generally better in a sort of mechanical, objective sense. But some things aren’t meant to be perfect, or improved. It’s like the time I was making Xmas cookies with my mom. We were cutting them out with her old cookie cutters, and putting red hots and sprinkles and candied cherries on them, and then frosting them. Those cookies were a mess, and the whole kitchen was. They didn’t even look like reindeers or snowmen or Santa or nothing like that.
Later that week when we were shopping I saw a bakery with the most perfect cookies you ever saw, and as a surprise for my mom I bought them. I snuck home before her and I threw out all the cookies we’d made, and put out a platter of these beautiful gingerbread men and angels with golden dust on them and Santas with actual rosy cheeks, and when my mom came home she saw that and she started crying.”
Terry paused, and realizing how many people were listening, got a little stage-frightened. But he gathered his courage and went on:
“I never knew why she was crying, and she didn’t tell me. I figured it out the first year you took over this, full time. I realized then that it isn’t how perfect Xmas is. It’s how much feeling is in it. It don’t matter if we get the right present or the tree is a little crooked or the Xmas turkey is a bit dry. What matters is that for at least a little part of our lives, we put our hearts into trying to do something nice for other people, to think about nice things and make the world prettier and generally be in a better mood.
“You’re really good at this, robot. But you don’t handmake the toys and you don’t wink at the kids when they peek at you, and you don’t lick your lips when you eat a sugar cookie some little girl made. You're just cold circuits. You're efficient, but you ain’t got no heart, and I think you oughta give the job back to Santa and let Xmas be a little less perfect and a little more human again.”
With that, the whole neighborhood began applauding, and because a local news crew had shown up and caught the tail end of the speech and a live feed had gone on CNN, people around the world were watching and everyone cheered in their houses and at Xmas parties, and various websites posted clips and the hashtag #Xmasaintperfect began trending.
The robot watched all that and then blinked its lights thoughtfully.
It made a couple of pensive beeps.
Then it went back to doing its job and nobody ever said much again because you can’t stop progress, man.