by Jason Sprinkhuysen
Christmas music poured out joyously from the kitchen, a sure sign that Molly didn’t expect me home yet. Up the stairs and past Shu’s room I tiptoed my way steadily towards the bonus room, unlocked the door and flung myself and the enormous crinkly bags I was carrying inside. Safe.
On any other Christmas Eve, I would not have felt so safe in the surroundings I found myself in. Hardly a space of wall, ceiling or floor showed from behind the heavy coating of tinsel, lights, wreaths, stockings, bulbs, candy canes and fake snow. An enormous Christmas tree dominated the centre (I had snuck it up the Saturday before when Molly had taken Shu out grocery shopping). From the fan above it dangled a flying troupe of miniature reindeer, tugging along a matching sleigh. Around the room, through tunnels and past stations filled with stiff plastic Christmas shoppers, a model Christmas Express choo-chooed along, merrily puffing smoke as it went. This was just how the room had looked when I was a kid. No, it was better. On the windowsill sat a chorus of carolling snowmen, on the bookshelf an army of toy elves, and in the far corner a big arm chair for “Santa” into which I collapsed to appreciate my work.
I had never told Molly I would do it. If Shu knew, he didn’t let on. In fact, if it weren’t for his soggy wet boots left in the doorway for me to trip on as I came in after work each day, I might have thought that he didn’t even live here anymore, so little had I seen of him since the Christmas party. He was still angry at me. I was angry that he was angry. And Molly was angry with me for being angry with Shu. So with the passion for detail that only anger can bring, I had set about to make this Christmas the most Christmassy that I could, and here was the product. Two weeks of stress and fuming had worked together to form this Christmas paradise, fit to rival Santa’s workshop. If this didn’t satisfy Shu’s longing for Christmas, nothing would.
After spreading the gifts out under the tree and lingering a few moments more to admire my masterpiece, I gently locked the door again and went to the kitchen where Molly was just getting ready to serve dinner. The Christmas carols were off now, the table was set, the chicken and beans ready, and no sign of Christmas or of Shu were to be seen in the dining room. Molly and I sat down to a quiet little meal, and when Shu refused to come down to eat, I excused myself early, eager to put the finishing touches on my Christmas workshop. Molly followed me upstairs with a plate of food for Shu.
Nothing had changed since I left the room, and there really was nothing left to be done. I threw myself back into the armchair again, feeling heavy and beat. Santa wasn’t coming. There would be no magical gifts from the North Pole. Shu would wake up tomorrow thinking it was going to be like any other day, find all the presents I had bought him, have a bit of fun, and then, the next day, wake up again to another normal day. He would be the same. Molly would be the same. I would be the same, if only a few hundred dollars poorer. So why had I done it? I had always wished Shu could have learnt to see things the way I did.
Snowflakes were flecking the window outside, and in the distance, muffled slightly by the snowfall, some carolers sang away in the dark accompanied by the church bells tolling midnight. As I sat contemplating the tree, my eyes began to grow heavy.
There was a creak from the door, and I listened hard for footsteps but heard nothing else. A shiver slid down my back. I wasn’t sure why I was afraid. “Molly?” I heard myself say, “Is that you? You’re not mad at me, are you?”
There came no answer but the silent tinkling of snow on the window. My heart beat fast. I leapt up from the chair, hardly knowing what I was doing. From under the tree, I snatched up a new, freshly wrapped bat. But at the door I found nothing. Just a dark hallway. Confused, I turned away then almost jumped right out of my skin. There, on the other side of the tree, in front of the bookshelf, with his back facing me, was a big man dressed in red.
“Joe, Joe, Joe,” he said in a rumbling voice, still without making any move to acknowledge me, “here I had thought that you had forgotten all about me, but would you look at this room. Isn’t it a wonder? Ho, ho, ho!”
He began to shake as his chuckle developed into a laugh and his laugh into a jolly old roar. He had to grab his rippling sides to keep himself from falling over as he swayed down and up. When he finally stopped and the last sputters of laughter died out, we were face to face, he smiling and I frowning the darkest frown I could muster.
“Forget about you? Ha! You don’t even exist, Santa,” I sneered.
“Oh, is that true?” Santa patted his beard and copious belly, as if unsure of his own existence for a second. “But never mind that, Joe. If you think this is about me, you’ve got it all wrong. You’re forgetting someone. Someone important. Maybe you’d like to take a guess.”
“Mrs. Claus?” It was hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.
Santa said nothing. He just turned back around to the bookshelf and snatched up a book that had been collecting dust there since Mother had passed away. It was a big, leather-bound volume.
“Your father gave you a gift many years ago. I think it’s time you opened it.”
A gift from Dad? With outstretched hands, I reached up for the book, but as my hands brushed its dusty cover, I woke with a start, and found myself back in the armchair, slumped over and groggy. I sprang up quickly and ran back to the door. The hallway was beginning to glow with the first light of dawn, but it was empty. There were no signs of my nocturnal visitor. I stopped and shook my head. What to do, what to do? I remembered the book and began scanning the shelves, hoping the book, that little trace of my father, wasn’t just a phantom as well.
I ran my finger down the lines of dusty volumes. There were more of them than I remembered. Finally I found it, just as I had seen it, big and black and covered in years. My hands shook with excitement as I carefully opened the cover. But instead of finding a title page, a little letter slid out and fell to the floor. I bent to pick it up and recognised the writing as my father’s.
Last Christmas, I remember how upset you were that you didn’t find Santa Claus. Maybe you will find this book interesting. It isn’t about Santa, but it is a story about Christmas. The real story. I wish I could be home with you to celebrate. Merry Christmas, Joey!
Dad hadn’t been able to get off work that Christmas, as most days of the year, but that year, he never made it home. On the way back from work, he got in an accident and died before he could make it to the hospital. When Mother told me, I threw a fit. I smashed the new toys I had just gotten, crushing them to a million pieces. They just didn’t mean anything for me anymore. I never read the book, and here it had ended up, on the shelf. But I had forgotten that all that had happened on Christmas. I had tried to forget as much as possible.
A ribbon trailed out from between the pages, and unable to check my curiosity I flung the page open and found printed at the beginning of the chapter a picture of the Flintstones. Not the ornaments that had decorated our lawn all those years ago and now sat in our basement, but this time real people in a real cave. Santa’s words echoed back, “You’re forgetting someone…” Dad had told me their story once. Mom seemed to think it was just a nice little tale, and I hadn’t thought much of it either. But Dad really believed it. Only disjointed parts of the story came to mind—a grumpy inn-keeper, a long journey, a crummy birthday—but it was enough to remember how much Dad got into it. I would have to read it again. All of us would have to read it. Someone important, more important than Santa…
“Molly! Josh! Get up! Come quickly, it’s Christmas!” I shouted, jumping up and down like a little kid eager to get his mom’s attention.
Into Shu’s room I raced, snatching him right up from his bed before he knew what happened and swinging him down by the tree. I poked my head into the hallway and saw Molly, groggy-eyed and rumpled, shuffling out of the bedroom.
“Dear, what has gotten a hold of you?” she demanded, “I thought Christmas was just a waste of money. Look at…”
She was cut off by Shu, who flew past her screaming with glee, finally having realised what was going on.
He woke up the neighbours, I’m sure, but his piercing screaming also burst the flood gate in my heart. It had been weeks since I had seen Shu smile. It was contagious, and I laughed as I turned to catch him in a hug. Molly crossed her arms, trying to frown although a smile was beginning to tug at her mouth.
“What happened to ‘Presents are for birthdays,’ huh?”
I hauled Shu, who was still clinging to me, over to where Molly stood, and pulled her into the hug. A look somewhere between a frown and a smirk still hung on her face. I kissed her on the cheek and pulled her and Shu in tighter. In front of us, I opened my father’s old book, feeling his hug around us.
“Today is someone’s birthday,” I said and sat us all down in the armchair, “Let me read you the story.”
Photo Credit: un_owen