Santa’s Little Lua Scripts

A Christmas story about using HsLua to make Haskell application extendable.

Albert Krewinkel


December 6, 2020

Santa sighted deeply as worry and uncertainty gave way, leaving a feeling of relieve and accomplishment. The year was one of the worst he’d seen so far. Large numbers of his helpers were moving from the North Pole to Antarctica to satisfy their ambient temperature preferences. There would be many telecommuting Elves this year, and each helper enjoyed additional autonomy. Tying everything together was a challenge. But he had succeeded: the wishes processing program was finished, and the elves would be able to help Santa from the comfort of their new homes.


The part of the wishes system that Santa had been working on was focused on classic toys: wooden bricks, dolls, and train sets.

data Toy = Bricks | TrainSet | Doll deriving Show

The system also kept track of basic data about the children:

data Behavior = Nice | Naughty deriving (Eq, Show)

data Child = Child
  { childName     :: Text
  , childBehavior :: Behavior
  } deriving (Show)

Children and toys were tied together in a wish.

data Wish = Wish
  { wishingChild :: Child
  , wishedToy    :: Toy
  } deriving (Show)

It was most elegant. The problem for Santa was that the Elves, being independent and autonomous workers, needed to access and process the data in very custom ways. Unfortunately for him, very few Elves had a Haskell build environment installed, so he had to distribute the binary. Writing a completely custom processing language seemed like an enormous rabbit hole.


Fortunately, Santa had a better idea: Lua, an embeddable scripting language. He had been using it for some projects1 and also made use of it in pandoc, which he used to answer his mails. Santa would just need to expose the relevant parts of the Haskell system, so the Elves could access and script it as their hearts desired. He looked for a library, found HsLua, and got to work.

Exposing data

Lua has a simple, yet powerful, stack-based API. The first step towards exposing Haskell data was to push them to the Lua stack. Keeping things simple, Santa chose strings to represent toys:

pushToy :: Toy -> Lua ()
pushToy = pushString . show

Lua offers only a single construct to structure data: tables. So that’s what Child and Wish were represented with.

pushChild :: Child -> Lua ()
pushChild (Child name behavior) = do
  -- create new Lua table on the stack
  -- push string to stack
  pushText name
  -- table now in position 2; assign string to field in table
  setfield (nth 2) "name"

  -- push boolean to stack
  pushBool (behavior == Nice)
  setfield (nth 2) "nice"

pushWish :: Wish -> Lua ()
pushWish (Wish child toy) = do
  pushChild child
  setfield (nth 2) "child"
  pushToy toy
  setfield (nth 2) "toy"

Running scripts

Santa’s goal for now was to allow his Elves to filter the list of wishes so each finds the ones relevant to them. For example, if an Elf only cares about wishes for train sets from children who were nice, then they should be able to use a script to filter those wishes out.

return function (wish)
  return wish.child.nice and
    wish.toy == 'TrainSet'

The script returns a (lambda) function that serves as a predicate for wishes. The function can be thought of having the type Wish -> IO Bool. Santa needed to turn the Lua lambda function into an actual Haskell function runPredicate :: Wish -> Lua Bool. If Santa assumed that the lambda function was at the top of the Lua stack, then he could push a Wish value to the Lua stack, call the function, and retrieve the result value from the stack.

runPredicate :: Wish -> Lua Bool
runPredicate wish = do
  -- Assume filter function is at the top of the stack;
  -- create a copy so we can re-use it.
  pushvalue top
  pushWish wish
  -- Call the function. There is one argument on the stack,
  -- and we expect one result to be returned.
  call (NumArgs 1) (NumResults 1)
  toboolean top <* pop 1

What remained was loading the Elves’ script files. Santa did this with dofile of type FilePath -> Lua Status. The predicate then ends up on the top of the Lua stack, and can be called through runPredicate, e.g. to select a subset of wishes via filterM.

main :: IO ()
main = do
  filterFile <- fmap (!! 0) getArgs -- get first argument
  result <- run $ do
    _status <- dofile filterFile
    filterM runPredicate wishes
  print result

Santa tested his creation on a short list of wishes

wishes :: [Wish]
wishes =
  [ Wish (Child "Theodor" Nice) Bricks
  , Wish (Child "Philine" Nice) TrainSet
  , Wish (Child "Steve" Naughty) Doll

by running runhaskell wish-filter predicate.lua. To his uttermost satisfaction, the terminal echoed the right information back to him.

[Wish {wishingChild = Child {childName = "Philine", childBehavior = Nice}, wishedToy = TrainSet}]

He reclined in his chair, shut down his device, and enjoyed a double chocolate chip cookie of which he felt very deserving now.

Santa’s full code, as presented here, is available as part of the examples at


  1. Santa learned about Lua from his game-devs. Now he uses it to keep his security teams on their toes with nmap and Wireshark; many of the North Pole’s servers contain custom Lua scripts, too (redis, nginx/OpenResty, HAProxy, PowerDNS).↩︎