On Christmas Eve 1899 a vicar named The Rev Nathaniel Cleary was dressing himself as Father Christmas, the way he did every year. This year however was special. It was a new dawn. 1900. That year he had wanted to get matters off with a bang, so he’d made some enquiries and duly brought to the town, under cover of darkness, a real live reindeer. This was in the days before health and safety, so The Rev Nathaniel had met the delivery off the back of a moonlit carriage, no questions asked. He had then secreted it in a small outbuilding at the bottom of the vicarage garden and had fed it a few sticks of cinnamon as a reward for its arduous journey. After washing his hands he retired to bed, anticipating the fulfilment of his merry scheme with all the excitement of God planning Amsterdam.
When he awoke the next morning, he went to the outbuilding and found to his horror that the reindeer had keeled over, stone dead. He wondered if his cinnamon sticks had something to do with it. “Are reindeers allergic to cinnamon?” he asked himself. Either way he would have a lot of awkward explaining to do and the parish, who were a lynch mob at the best of times, would see the occurrence as a bad omen. It was then, under the big fat eyes of Our Lord, that The Rev Nathaniel made the decision to dispose of the body.
He had been, to his mind, unobserved. Being as you might expect a man of abstinence, with no wife or servants to be aware of his nocturnal smuggling, he was acting alone. So with the hour early and the sky dim as a potato, he wrapped the reindeer in a tarpaulin and dragged it for an agonizing hour and a half to the brook, which had taken many a careless goose and streak of worker’s urine out towards the mountains. As he cut the beast free of the tarpaulin with his pocket knife and shunted the corpse with all his might towards the water’s edge he thought his troubles were approaching that brink too.
Unfortunately for Nathaniel his employer was angry, for the bank collapsed under the reindeer’s weight and it lodged antlers-first in three feet of water and mud. He tried furiously to push it out further, but it remained stuck fast. Panicking, he began to hack at the neck. I suppose he had hoped to get the head free and send it upstream. One bloody cassock later he’d managed to haul the body clear and toss the severed noggin into the current. Hiding the remains of the creature in a heavy copse, he hurried back to his cottage and waited for the world to darken. It was Christmas Eve, and he would be expected at the carol service in the town square. He knew there would be no time to execute his back-up plan and then get changed. Muttering at the Almighty to forgive him, he buckled his belt, pulled the big white beard over his head, and sprinted back to the copse in full regalia in order to bury the body, a spade stashed in his sack alongside the childrens’ presents.
An hour later he appeared, as he usually did, from behind the fountain at the close of ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, with a hearty bellow of “Merry Christmas!” and the joyous lobbing of wrapped surprises into the crowd. The last and biggest was always a mystery donation from an unseen benefactor and was traditionally addressed to the Mayor’s son, so it was always assumed to be a gift from his father. The present this year had seemed especially large, almost ungainly in its appearance. Nathaniel had presented it with the customary mixture of generosity and craven self-regard. The lad tore the paper away but soon began to scream. Cleary peered inside.
The reindeer’s sodden head was staring boss-eyed up at him. How had it got there? No-one knew. It was a question he would ask himself over and over in the ensuing years. On the one hand he believed God had punished him. On the other the package had been very shoddily wrapped.