Christmas Crisis in the Pony Division

December 10, 2009

by Neil Clarkson

It's a little known fact that Santa Claus is a very good judge of horses. At quieter times of the year he can even be found judging at an occasional agricultural show.

He leaves his red suit at home, of course, instead donning a tidy tweed jacket and moleskin pants.

Next time you're at a show, look carefully. That overweight, jolly judge with the beard and moustache just might be the big man himself. It's best not to say anything if you do spy him. We wouldn't want to let the cat out of the bag!

Santa's good knowledge of horses is very important to the smooth running of Christmas.

His multibillion-dollar company, Christmas Inc, is based in the Arctic Circle. It employs tens of thousands of elves who work tirelessly to ensure that millions of children around the world get their presents every year.

Santa's Pony Division is the biggest of all his departments, even though ponies are given to only a tiny fraction of the kids who receive gifts on Christmas Eve.

The department is packed with staff because giving ponies takes a lot of organising.

Each Christmas, Santa delivers around 26,000 ponies to boys and girls around the world.

It's a very expensive business. For a start, Santa wants to ensure that all the little boys and girls and their families are suitable to own a pony.

His workers travel the world to ensure the home environment for every pony will be just right. He has people based around the globe whose job it is to find the thousands of ponies needed. Then there's the job of matching each and every pony to the right boy or girl.

In the week leading up to Christmas, the ponies are secretly located to paddocks around the world, only a few blocks from their new homes. This means Santa doesn't have to carry all 26,000 ponies at once. You can imagine the mess in his sleigh if he did that!

How much does all this cost? It worked out at $3476 per pony last year, including all the vet examinations, home inspections and delivery costs. They're a very expensive Christmas gift, but Santa knows how much ponies mean to the children who are good enough to receive one.

We know the cost of each pony because of the very miserly directors on the board of Christmas Inc.

There are 12 of them in all. They're very concerned about how much Christmas costs each year.

It was no secret last year among the employees of Christmas Inc that Santa had very little time for the board.

He is more concerned about the wellbeing of children and the joy of Christmas than the dollars and cents behind it all.

The directors spent their days poring over the company accounts, seeing where the annual Christmas budget was spent. Some of them were delighted to be able to take Santa to task.

Santa knows he's got to watch his costs, but he also realises how much ponies mean to kids. Most of the board members wouldn't know which end of a horse even pooped, he thought!

Last Christmas, it all came to a head during the September monthly meeting.

The first board member to raise the issue was Cashin Carrie.

"Santa," she said. "It can't have escaped your attention that each pony given to children at Christmas costs $3476. That's more than $90 million! It's an enormous amount of money, considering it's for only 26,000 presents."

"But the ponies mean so much to the children," Santa replied.

Santa was soon to realise that the board was gunning for him, and his beloved Pony Division.

"Look at this," said Penny Sterling, pulling a plastic pony out of her bag. "This lovely little pony costs just $29.95. If we gave away 26,000 of these, it would cost under $800,000 all up. That's a saving of $89 million!"

Santa could see the eyebrows of several board members lift, clearly impressed by the savings.

He grasped the plastic pony and donned his glasses. Stamped on the pony's belly could be read "Cheap and Nasty Plastic Toy Corporation".

"This just won't do," Santa said. "It's not a horse. It's a plastic toy. A pony is something for children to enjoy and love. Kids will have this plastic pony wrecked in five minutes."

"What about this, then?" chimed in Check Bouncer. He held up a stuffed toy. "Isn't this fabulous?"

Santa took hold of it. "It's very nice, but it's not a pony!" he exclaimed. "It's a toy! I'd happily give this to a pre-schooler or a baby, but I can't give this to older children who ask for a pony!"

Rich Pickings leaned forward in his chair. "I agree with Santa. These toys are boring. What kids need is this," he said, pulling a Pony Power Plus video game from his briefcase.

By now, Santa fully understood what was going on. "I'm happy to give some children video games, when appropriate," he said, "but a video game is nothing like having the real thing. A pony provides children with love. It's a healthy outdoor pursuit for them. It teaches them about care and responsibility.

"I accept that the Pony Division is very expensive to run," he continued, "but a good pony can be a life-changing gift. It's something that a cheap plastic toy or video game could never replace."

One by one, the board members voiced their concerns about the ongoing cost of the division and the need for reform, pointing to the global downturn and high debt levels.

"This division is an outrageous extravagance," suggested Lotsa Moolah, the Eastern European representative on the board.

"I agree," said Malcolm Moneybags. "Christmas has to stay within budget. I can't see what's wrong with a soft toy."

The grumpiest member of the board, a former military man named Major Spendup, was even blunter. "Bah, Humbug!" he said. "If children can't get by with a little plastic pony, they can go without. Think of the savings!"

Santa came to realise that every one of the 12 directors on his board wanted the Pony Division buried.

The board broke for lunch and Santa raced to the Pony Division, catching the section manager, Jack Shetland, as he headed out to buy a filled roll.

"Jack," gasped Santa. "Do we get much feedback from the children who get ponies at Christmas?"

"We get thousands of letters," Jack replied.

"Can I see them, please?" Santa asked.

Jack led Santa to a filing cabinet brimming with letters from thankful children.

Santa raced through them and grabbed a small selection. He made it back to the boardroom as the directors were easing into their plush leather chairs. They looked well satisfied, after an extravagant all-expenses-paid meal at a posh restaurant down the road.

"Ladies and gentleman," said Santa, "I have a selection of letters here from children who received ponies. Let me read you one.

"Dear Santa," he began.

"I cannot thank you enough for the wonderful pony you gave me. It was three years ago now and Penny has been fantastic. I rode her solidly for a year but then got busy with other things. She sat in a paddock for 18 months because of school work and other stuff that was going on in my life. One day I had a huge fall-out with my friends that left me in tears.

"I looked out the window and there was Penny. I went out to see her. She gave me a gentle snicker and nuzzled me. I realised then what unconditional love really meant. Despite me turning my back on her for 18 months, Penny was still there for me.

"I got out my saddle straight away and we went for a ride. It was fantastic. We've been inseparable ever since.

"Thank you so much, Santa!"

Rich Pickings rolled his eyes. "It's not our job to make kids happy. It's our job to make sure they get presents - within budget!"

Santa reddened in anger. "That is not so, and any board member that believes that should not be sitting at this table."

Sadly, it appeared that all board members held a similar view and a vote to close the Pony Division was certain to go against Santa.

Santa desperately played for time. "I can see where this is going," he conceded. "Give me a week. I'll try to identify some cost savings, perhaps running a much smaller division.

"If I can't identify costs savings, I'll accept your decision with good grace."

The board was happy and finished up, heading back to the five-star hotels where they stayed during board meetings.

Santa knew that he had an uphill battle, but it was one he was determined to win.

He strode from the boardroom and headed for a little known and secretive division of Christmas Inc called the SES - Strategic Elf Services.

He spent the rest of the day locked behind closed doors before heading home.

September is a busy month and Santa busied himself with Christmas preparations, making sure that toy production was on schedule and that the elves were working happily.

Truth be known, he didn't lift a finger to find one cost-saving within the Pony Division. Staff continued with their work, finding ponies, checking out prospective homes and organising Christmas delivery details.

The day of the board showdown arrived. Santa strode into the boardroom with a steely glint in his eye and a sheath of paperwork under his arm.

"Well," exclaimed Rich Pickings, "I thought you would have circulated a list of potential cost-savings beforehand so we could have considered them before the meeting."

"I have identified some cost savings," assured Santa, "but perhaps not as you might think."

Santa turned his gaze to Pickings.

"Mr Pickings," he said, "it's my understanding that your board salary is $100,000 a year."

"Yes it is," Pickings replied.

"And you sign most of the cheques for Christmas Inc? Is that correct?"

"Correct," replied Pickings.

"But checking through the books, I see you signed a cheque to yourself last year for a bonus of $3.2 million for 'exceptional services to Christmas'."

Colour drained from Pickings' face. "Well, yes, but it was thoroughly deserved."

Santa continued: "Looking at your travel expenses, you spent $25,000 travelling to China to make sure that our Panda soft toys were life-like."

"I-i-i-i-t's important work," stuttered Pickings.

"Oh," said Santa, "and I see the trip happily coincided with the Beijing Olympics. And Mrs Pickings went along, too!"

Malcolm Moneybags was now in Santa's gaze. "Mr Moneybags, I see you have three children."

"That's correct."

"I did enjoy delivering them presents last Christmas. I do hope they appreciated them."

"Certainly," said Moneybags.

"It's a funny thing, though. I could find a birth certificate for only one child. Yet the Christmas paperwork you filled out indicated you had three children, aged 7, 8 and 9."

Santa was smiling now.

"I guess scoring extra gifts from Santa for your child isn't the worst sin on the planet, but your travel records make for interesting reading, too. It seems you thought it worthy of spending $50,000 on a world trip to check out gift-wrapping paper on three continents.

"And your Christmas bonus of $2.1 million must have been very handy."

One by one, Santa picked off every single director. Cashin Carrie was changing her company car every three months and had travelled more than 40,000 kilometres on personal business aboard Santa's company jet, Rudolph One.

Penny Sterling had undertaken $300,000 in house alterations, paid for by a backhander from a toy maker supplying Christmas Inc with battery-powered model cars.

Major Spendup had three holiday homes paid for by Christmas Inc and it was discovered he was awarding contracts to toy suppliers only on condition they paid cash into his Swiss bank account.

The board was beaten.

"I think we can all see the merits of keeping the Pony Division going," Santa suggested.

All the directors nodded glumly in agreement. "In fact," said Santa, "I believe it would be a nice gesture this year to give all the children receiving a pony a properly fitted saddle as well. I'm sure with proper cuts to bonuses and travel expenses, it would be quite affordable."

The board agreed. There would be saddles for everyone.

Santa had their measure well and truly. He knew precisely why they had all been so keen to make cost savings - so they could line their own pockets.

The board meeting broke up with Santa victorious, but it was only the beginning. Within weeks, every single director of Christmas Inc had resigned. Some were arrested for fraud; others fled never to be seen again.

When it came to a new-look board, Santa was left in no doubt as to what he should do.

The new board convened two months later and Santa surveyed the faces of the 12 who would work to ensure that Christmas was everything it should be for children around the globe.

Sitting around the table were children as young as six, ranging in age up to 12.

"I'm delighted to have you all here," declared Santa. "I believe you all understand the true spirit of Christmas. I think we're going to make a great team."

And there was another pleasant surprise. Unlike the old board which had pocketed millions in salaries and bonuses, the children were happy to do it for free.

The first meeting covered a lot of business. What were the best toys? Should Christmas Inc move to eco-friendly wrapping paper? Should it look at becoming a carbon-neutral enterprise? Could the recycling programme be beefed up?

It was the most productive board meeting that Santa could remember.

And the Pony Division came up for a long discussion, too.

The new board decided to double its budget.