Once upon a time, many many Christmases ago, there was a year when no snow fell in the North Woods.
Grownups were happy because driving was safe, they didn’t have to shovel, their cars didn’t get gunked up with road salt, and their kids couldn’t track snow all over the floors.
But the children were sad because they knew that Santa needs snow to land his sleigh. And the children also knew that North Woods snow is the most special snow in the world. Snow from Lake Superior December squalls has magical properties. It’s so cold, and sticks so well, that if Santa dusts his sleigh runners with it, it lasts all through his trip, so he can land in southern cities where snow never falls. Children throughout much of the United States and Mexico depend on this magical snow. What would happen without it?
Two days before Christmas Santa listened to his weather radio and sighed. It was 50 degrees in Duluth, and the next day, Christmas Eve, was supposed to be even warmer! How could he get his presents to all the good little children who believed in him?
Just then there came a rapping, came a tapping at his chamber door, and in walked an enormous Raven. Santa was startled, but the Raven said, “If you can’t ride in your sleigh this year, why don’t you ride on my back?” Santa climbed on, and sure enough, the Raven took off and flew with him high over the North Pole. They circled twice and landed easy as pie. Santa was delighted!
Then they tried it with Santa’s pack on his back, but that was just too heavy for the Raven to manage. Santa asked, “Do you think your raven friends could help carry the presents?” But the Raven sadly shook her head. “Most ravens think they’re too grown up for Santa Claus. And I’m afraid hawks and eagles are the same way.”
Then she had an idea. “Maybe our little brothers the crows can help!” She flew off and brought back a team of twelve glossy crows, all cawing with excitement. They each picked up a bundle of toys in their beaks and took off on a practice flight in a wide circle over the pole. But one of them spied a Snowy Owl sitting on a snow bank, and instantly dropped to the ground to scold it. Soon all the crows were down, every one of them yelling his head off at the owl instead of carrying presents. The Raven shrugged. “I guess crows can’t do the job. They’re bound to see an owl somewhere on Christmas Eve, and they won’t be able to stop themselves from mobbing it.”
Santa and the Raven tried Blue Jays next. They were small, but tough and wiry, and managed to carry big sacks of presents in their beaks. They were all so proud to be helping Santa that they shouted with glee. But the moment they opened their beaks, the packages fell to the ground. They tried again and again, but no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t keep their mouths shut, and Santa was worried that some of the fragile presents would break if they kept on dropping them.
Then they tried pelicans. But pelicans need a lot of food, and every time they got hungry they forgot that their pouches were filled with presents, not fish, and they swallowed them!
Snowbirds wanted to help, but they were too little.
Next the Raven asked some Willow Ptarmigans, Arctic cousins of our own Ruffed Grouse, but their wings only work well for short distances.
Santa was starting to believe this really would be a Christmas without presents when the Raven suddenly noticed a Tundra Swan watching them from the snow. She shyly offered the services of herself and her family.
And that is how it came to be that one Christmas long, long ago, children peeking out of their windows at midnight spotted Santa Claus riding on the back of a beautiful and kind Raven, followed by eight graceful swans in a V, each with a sack full of presents tied around its neck for all the good little children who really believed in the spirit of giving.