Scene One. Evening: mere hours before the extravagant gala planned for the thirteenth birthday of Prince Claus. In the palace of the royal family of Nifland, an Elven realm in the very, very Far North, Ib, the no-nonsense leader of the palace staff, summons her staff: time to prepare the party! But only nervous Yab and rebellious Ob appear; various disasters have beset the other scheduled servants. Ib despairs—so much remains to be done—when Yan appears; more inquisitive than experienced, true, but eager to help. Ib explains that Queen Sophine, regent, sorceress, and mother of Claus, has been planning this event so obsessively that she hasn’t permitted Ib or her team a much-desired day off for over three years. When Yan asks the obvious questions: why is this so important? And where is the King, vanished years ago under mysterious circumstances?—Ib stonewalls, until she is interrupted by the entrance of Queen Sophine herself, who inquires after the Prince. None has seen him.
Alone, Queen Sophine tries to lure her recalcitrant son to the party; he balks until she reveals that his three treasured uncles (who happen to be Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the three kings of Christmas legend) have confirmed attending. Prince Claus joins the Queen in awaiting them, but uncle after uncle fails to show up, until at last a Donkey-Messenger arrives to read a letter explaining all three Kings’ absence; a star in the west has summoned them to attend the birth of a mysterious child, so to the Prince they have sent, instead, regrets and gifts. Claus, clearly stung, storms out. Yan, still full of questions, plies the Queen with Champagne until she explains the Prince’s current temperament. His father the King, like his uncles just now, had too often sent the boy presents as substitutes for the father’s presence, until the formerly open-hearted boy turned brittle and grasping; desperate to restore her family, the Queen decided to exile his father for three years, and did so by casting a spell which…did what? Yan doesn’t learn. Prince Claus returns, demanding to learn from the Kings’ letter what gifts his uncles have prepared for this mysterious child; when learning the gifts are symbolic medicines and ointments like myrrh and frankincense—hardly the stuff of a child’s dreams– Prince Claus proposes that the Elves devise, instead, a sleighful of the most spectacular toys ever made, and then he and the Elves will join his uncles at the Child’s crib to pay tribute their way. The Elves are skeptical: but, lured by the renewed promise of time off, agree.
Scene Two. Midmorning the next day: the Elves’ Toyshop, deep in the bowels of the royal palace. Prince Claus demands a review of the gifts each of the four Elves have drafted during the previous night: to his eye, none of them are special enough. “They need to be new!” he urges (threatens?) Back they go to work: the toys improve, but the time is slipping away. Ib warns the Prince that at their current pace, they will never finish the presents in time to reach the child by the predicted time of his birth; Claus brags that he can persuade his mother to use her magic to solve that problem, but Ib isn’t so sure. Prince Claus wheedles his mother to attend the unveiling of the now-completed toys, confident that their glamour will persuade her to step in. The Elves give the presentation their all, but the Queen remains unconvinced of the Prince’s good faith: she decides she won’t stand in his way, but she won’t help, either. Stung, but undeterred, the Prince sets off.
Scene Three. Twilight, half the world away: a stable outside of a small, poor town in the desert. Prince Claus and the Elves appear, a trove of wonders in tow. The Elves ask the drowsing Donkey they find (the messenger from the party) to announce the Prince’s arrival. But the Donkey informs them they’re too late: the child and his mother left three days ago. Yan asks them to tell them what happened when the Kings arrived at the manger. Moving as the Donkey’s response is, it doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with a sleigh full of these toys when there’s no one to give them to. The Prince’s solution changes everything.