The Night of the Meek

When one thinks of The Twilight Zone, words such as “strange,” “spooky,” and “science fiction” often come to mind–and rightly so.  But over the span of its five seasons and 156 episodes, Rod Serling’s masterpiece delved into many different subject matters and genres.  For all the scary or suspenseful Twilight Zone episodes, there were also quite a few that could be termed “touching,” “magical,” and “heartfelt.”

One such episode, a second-season story titled “The Night of the Meek,” starring the great Art Carney of Honeymooners fame, has long been one of my holiday favorites.

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The story begins in a department store at Christmastime.  Children are lined up, waiting to visit Santa Claus.  The trouble is, Santa is nowhere to be found.

As we soon discover, Santa is sitting at a bar down the road.  No other patrons are there–just Santa and the bartender, a grouchy, tough-looking guy named Bruce.  The man in the Santa Claus costume is Henry Corwin (played by Carney), a down-and-out sort who has a penchant for drinking too much liquor.

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Drunk, in a stupor, Corwin asks the bartender what time it is, realizing he’s late getting back to the department store.  Then he asks, “Why do you suppose there isn’t really a Santa Claus?”  But Bruce doesn’t want to talk.  He kicks Corwin out of the bar when he sees him reaching for a bottle without first offering to pay.

Stumbling around on the sidewalk, the night bright with falling snow, Corwin slumps against a lamppost.  Two children appear, one boy, one girl, attracted by his Santa costume.  Clearly they are poor, and they ask him for presents he of course cannot give.  The girl also asks for a “job for my daddy.”  Corwin puts his arms around them, cries, wishing he could help.

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Then Rod Serling appears on-screen, and offers the opening narration:

“This is Mr. Henry Corwin, normally unemployed, who once a year takes the lead role in the uniquely popular American institution, that of a department-store Santa Claus in a road company version of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’  But in just a moment, Mr. Henry Corwin, ersatz Santa Claus, will enter a strange kind of North Pole, which is one part the wondrous spirit of Christmas and one part the magic that can only be found in–The Twilight Zone.”

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When we next see Corwin, he is back at the department store, an hour late, and on the receiving end of a tirade from his boss, Mr. Dundee.

Trying to gather himself, though still drunk, Corwin sits in his chair and calls up the children, one by one, to ask him what they want for Christmas.  But then he falls out of the chair.

One boy exclaims, “Look, Ma!  Santa Claus is loaded!”

The mother is disgusted, telling Corwin he should be ashamed of himself.  He assures her that he is.  He tries to stop her, to explain himself further, but she barges out.

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Mr. Dundee, livid, fires him on the spot.  He calls him a loser, a drunk, and tells him never to set foot in his store again.

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Corwin pauses, tells his boss that his drinking on the job is inexcusable.  But then he goes on to explain, “I can either drink, or I can weep.  And drinking is so much more subtle. . . .  But as for my insubordination, I was not rude to that woman.  Someone should remind her that Christmas is more than barging up and down department-store aisles and pushing people out of the way.  Someone has to tell ‘er that Christmas is another thing, finer than that. Richer.  Finer.  Truer.  And it should come with patience and love.  Charity.  Compassion.  That’s what I would’ve told ‘er, if she’d have given me the chance.”

Mr. Dundee, desperate to get rid of Corwin, tells him again, in no uncertain terms, to leave.

Corwin continues, “All I know is, I’m an aging, purposeless relic of another time, and I live in a dirty rooming-house on a street filled with hungry kids and shabby people, where the only thing that comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve is more poverty!”

Dundee tells him to keep his voice down, he is causing a scene.  Parents and especially their children are watching, listening . . .

“You know another reason why I drink, Mr. Dundee?” Corwin says. “So that when I walk down the tenements, I can really think it’s the North Pole and the children are elves and that I’m really Santa Claus, bringing them a bag of wondrous gifts for all of them.  I just wish, Mr. Dundee, on one Christmas, only one, that I could see some of the hopeless ones, and the dreamless ones–just on one Christmas . . . I’d like to see the meek inherit the earth.”

Here the camera pans, showing the children’s faces, one by one.

“That’s why I drink, Mr. Dundee,” Corwin concludes.  “And that’s why I weep.”

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He leaves the store, the kids watching as he staggers out.

Later, walking down an empty, snow-filled alley, Corwin is startled when a stray cat jumps out of a sack perched atop a collection of trash cans.  The cat’s leap causes the sack to fall to Corwin’s feet.  Suddenly, in the distance, he hears the sound of sleigh bells.  And he discovers, as if by some wonderful brand of holiday magic, that the sack is stuffed full with wrapped presents.

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Excited, Corwin, still dressed as Santa, flings the sack over his shoulders, and races out of the alley, shouting, “Hey!  Hey, kids!  Hey, everybody!  Merry Christmas, everybody!”

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As Corwin soon learns, the sack offers up the perfect gift to everyone.  When he reaches into the sack to give a present, it is always the one item the receiver most desires.

Word spreads throughout the neighborhood.  And a police office arrives, taking Corwin with him to the station, where Mr. Dundee awaits, having been summoned by the police, who believe Corwin must have stolen merchandise from Dundee’s department store and then stashed it away in his Christmas sack.

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But when Dundee reaches into the sack, he pulls out garbage, not stolen goods, and another stray cat.

“It seems the essence of our problem is–we’re dealing with a most unusual bag,” Corwin jokes.  The officer tells him to get lost.

Back on the street, Corwin learns his sack has once again turned magical, producing gifts to every child he comes across.  Whatever they ask for, he is able to reach inside and hand it over.

Eventually, all the children leave, and the sack is empty.  Corwin looks at it, sits on a step.

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Burt, an old man Corwin had given a present to earlier that evening, comes out and sits with him.  He points out that, though Corwin’s given gifts away all night, he never received a gift of his own.

“Nothing for you,” the old man says.  “Nothin’ for yourself.  Not a thing.”

But Corwin assures him he’s had the nicest Christmas since “the beginning of time.”  Besides, “You know, I–I can’t think of anything I want.  I guess what I’ve really wanted is–to be the biggest gift-giver of all time.  And in a way, I think I had that tonight.  Although if I had my choice of any gift, any gift at all, I think I’d wish I could do this every year.”

Corwin leaves Burt, walks into the same alley where he’d discovered his Christmas sack.  And he sees . . . a sleigh, two reindeer, and an elf!

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The elf giggles, says, “We’ve been waiting for you quite a while, Santa Claus.  We’ve got a year of hard work ahead of us to get ready for next Christmas.”

The elf tells him to hop in the sleigh.  “Are you ready?” she says.  And they drive off, the reindeer galloping through the night and taking to the air.

In the closing narration, Rod Serling states in a voice-over:

“A word to the wise to all the children of the twentieth century, whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics, whether they crawl on hands and knees and wear diapers or walk with a cane and comb their beards.  There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas, and there’s a special power reserved for little people.  In short, there’s nothing mightier than the meek, and a merry Christmas to each and all.”

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One of the primary goals I had when I wrote the novel The Eye-Dancers was to bring the magic alive, to inspire the belief that all things are possible to those who keep the faith, and that, in the words of Ray Bradbury, “The stars are yours, if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

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My holiday wish for each of you is that you take a moment, pause, wander outside at night and look up, at the moon and the distant stars that sparkle like diamonds across the canvas of the sky.  Take it in.  Make a wish.

Believe.

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Thanks so much for reading, and happy holidays to all!

–Mike

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