I am so sorry for the delay. I had every intention of finishing this and posting it on Christmas Eve, but life interfered, repeatedly. Also, as per usual the story got a bit longer than originally intended. For someone who has been a professional short-story writer for most of her career I certainly have trouble keeping the word count down lately.
Anyway since it’s longer than I planned I’m breaking it into two pieces to post, but don’t worry I won’t make you wait long for the second half. I’ll set it up to post tomorrow. And I do hope you all had a happy holiday, if you celebrate one!
Santa’s Gift (part one)
“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…” Amanda scowled and tossed the illustrated book to the floor, as she stretched her long legs over the arm of the chair, grumbling. “It’s not fair that Santa only brings presents for kids,” she muttered. She’d been in a bad mood since she’d gotten home for Christmas and all the cheer and festivities just made her want to “Bah humbug!” at everyone and go to her room.
Her father snorted, looking up from the mounds of wrapping paper, bows and ribbons. “’Manda, you’re twenty-three. Don’t you think it’s time to grow up a little?” he asked, one eyebrow going up.
She sulked and threw her head back as she sprawled across the chair. She might have been twenty-three, but emotionally she tended to act a lot younger and she still missed all the extra care and effort her parents put into making sure the kids had an amazing and magical Christmas morning while they still believed in Santa. It wasn’t nearly as much fun from the adult side of things.
Part of what she missed was the extra gifts from Santa—and they weren’t just regular gifts either—somehow her parents always managed to find the perfect presents to put under the tree with the tag signed ‘Love Santa’ on them. Often they were special things that the kids hadn’t even mentioned or thought to ask for.
The stockings filled with candy, little surprises and money had always been great too. At times the cost of filling the kids’ stockings had to have added up to even more than the what they spent on the other presents, and it was always fun to empty them out and count the cash and treats inside. Supposedly the amounts in the stocking were entirely based on good behavior points and the better you were the more Santa left you, at least that was her older brother’s theory.
All she knew is that she’d always done her best to be an angel for the two or three months leading up to Christmas because the holiday usually sucked up all her savings and she needed the money refill from her stocking. The small gifts in there were usually pretty cool too. Her first make-up had come from her bulging stocking when she was twelve.
It wasn’t all about stockings and gifts, of course. She wasn’t really that mercenary; she just missed the experience. The wide-eyed wonder of waking up to realize Santa had been there. The whole mystique and adventure of trying to guess what he’d brought them as they pushed and shoved to get down the stairs first. Writing the letters and seeing him at the mall had been yearly rituals, as they were for most, but she’d been such a fangirl growing up, that she wrote him way more often than the once a year request for presents that most kids managed.
Her family was into the holiday big time. They were the most Christmas-loving family she’d ever seen. The did the whole routine, from decorating the house inside and out, to baking cookies together. They even went caroling some years.
But the family had a rule—once you got your driver’s license Santa stopped bringing you things, which meant no more special Santa gifts or stockings. Sure, they still got lots of regular gifts from their parents and each other, but it wasn’t the same at all. And yeah, in other families, kids stopped believing way earlier, pretended a few years longer, and then finally admitted that they knew he wasn’t real, but in her family the kids held out as long as they could—until the cut-off date forced the issue.
She wasn’t entirely sure why the rule had been made, sixteen seemed kind of arbitrary to her, but her mother said she’d grown up with the same rule. Amanda suspected it was to discourage the kids from rushing out to get their license as soon as they were old enough. Not that it had worked that well for most of the kids in their large family, but Amanda’s birthday was in November, so waiting until January to take her road test hadn’t been that arduous, not when it meant one more year of Santa.
She was the middle child, of six, and she had two sisters and a brother younger than her. Two of them were still eligible for Santa, though her brother was already sixteen. He just hadn’t bothered to get his license yet. She envied them these last visits from Ole Kringle.
“You’re never too old to believe in the spirit of Christmas,” she informed her dad, with a haughty sniff. “In most houses he keeps coming as long as you believe, you know?” There was more than a hint of a whine there and her father rolled his eyes. It was a complaint she’d made often since she’d turned sixteen.
“Yeah, well, pretending to believe just to get presents isn’t the same thing as actually believing. By the time you guys are old enough to drive you’ve grown past that and are just faking it anyway. I think most of you lost faith in Santa around seven or eight, and just went along with it for as long as you could. Besides, if Santa was visiting you this year, you’d probably end up with coal and switches because of all the sulking and pouting,” he pointed out. “Now, are you going to help me wrap, or not? You’ve done nothing but complain since you got home, and we have a lot to do.”
She growled, but got up from her comfy seat, grumbling all the way across the room to flop down on the carpet next to him. With eight people in the family there had always been a lot to wrap, and both of her older siblings now had spouses and kids making it a grand total of thirteen people worth of presents. As usual everyone in the family had drawn lots from the holiday chore hat (It was a top hat meant to look like the famous Snowman’s.) and now some were helping with the cooking, some were shoveling snow, and lucky her… she got to wrap five million presents with her dad.
They weren’t just gifts from her parents to everyone either, oh no that would be too easy. The deal was that all of her siblings could slap post-its on their presents, saying who they were from and who they were for and then dump their bags of gifts off to be wrapped while they went off to do their own chores. It meant this particular job was extremely time-consuming and undesirable.
It didn’t mean she got to look at her own gifts either, whoever got stuck with the chore had their presents removed first. So that took away the one possible perk, leaving just a lot of paper cuts as the pile of unwrapped presents slowly dwindled. It did occur to her that she could at least see what the special gifts this year would be. “Hey, Dad, where’s all the Santa presents?” she asked, pitching her voice low so her niece and nephews wouldn’t happen to overhear.
He shrugged, “Santa hasn’t brought them yet. I’m sure he’ll be around later after everyone’s asleep,” he said, unconcerned.
She scowled and rolled her eyes. “Oh, first it’s ‘Grow up; you’re too old for Santa. He’s not real.’ And now you’re telling me he’ll pop around later to drop off the gifts? Way to be consistent, Dad,” she said.
He gave her a look, shaking his head. “That wasn’t what I meant when I said to grow up, and I never said he wasn’t real. I just said you guys stop believing and are just pretending by the time you can drive,” he corrected her.
“Same thing,” she said. She flicked a sparkly gold bow at him and he batted it away with a laugh.
“It’s not the same thing, and you know, Amanda, just because he doesn’t bring gifts anymore doesn’t mean he won’t take note of your attitude. It’s never a good idea to be a brat on Christmas Eve,” her dad said. His tone made it sound like he was teasing, but there was a hint of warning there.
She paused in her wrapping to give him a look. “Modern Santa doesn’t bring switches anymore, and the coal is candy now anyway,” she pointed out. The words were practically dripping with sarcasm and her father just shook his head.
“If you say so, Amanda, but I’d be careful if I were you,” he warned. He passed her the next bag of presents to wrap and before she could say anything else her big sister came in with a tray of hot chocolate. The conversation shifted to how much snow they were getting and whether they should bring in some more firewood before the whole cord was buried.
By the time they finished wrapping the humongous pile of gifts, which took hours, Amanda was ready for bed. She’d been up early with the noisy household, and it had been a very busy day, even before all the cutting and taping. She was wiped out and all the hot chocolate in the world couldn’t keep her up. She curled up in her old bed, in her old bedroom, which she still had to share with her younger sisters and went to sleep.
She tended to be a deep sleeper, habit from always sharing a room, so when she was woken suddenly in the middle of the night she was confused. She sat up wondering what had disturbed her. She could hear her sisters snoring softly in the darkness of the room, so it wasn’t them. The rest of the house seemed quiet too. The ‘adults’ had long since finished preparations and had gone to sleep leaving the house peaceful.
She stiffened as she heard the sound of bells rustling and a soft thump above her head. It sounded like it was coming from the roof but that didn’t make any sense. She frowned; her first thought was Santa, of course since it was Christmas Eve, but then she remembered she was an adult and no longer believed, so the next thought was that someone was trying to break in. She heard another thump and some scraping. She slid out of bed, cocking her head to listen.
The next sound came from the direction of the living room downstairs. The living room where all the presents were! She padded out of the bedroom, moving through the large farmhouse quickly. Luckily, she knew where all the creaky boards on the stairs were and was able to avoid making a sound as she went to investigate. She thought about calling for her parents, or maybe 9-1-1 but if it was nothing, she’d just wake up the whole house for no reason—she wanted to be sure before she raised the alarm.
The fire in the fireplace had been banked down to a dull, ruby glow and the Christmas tree lights blinked, sending fragments of color around the room. She saw, there by the hearth, a large man dressed in red. She blinked, and then rubbed her eyes and looked again as he began to take things from the large sack at his feet, filling the five stockings that hung there. One for her brother and sister who didn’t have their driver’s licenses yet, one for her niece, and two for her nephews.
She couldn’t believe her eyes. It couldn’t be… Santa wasn’t real but then…what else could explain what she was seeing. Common sense, disbelief, and facts all warred in her head as she watched in silence. He filled each stocking to the brim and then hefted the sack and brought it to the tree. One special gift for each of the five children came out of his bag and was placed carefully with the others before he straightened and hefted the sack, as if to go.
He paused and then slowly turned to pierce her with his twinkling blue eyes. A disappointed look crossed his face and made him look slightly less jolly. “I thought you might wake up when I arrived, Amanda,” he said. His voice was deep and pleasant, exactly like she’d expect Santa to sound. “You know you’re supposed to be asleep when I deliver the gifts.”
“I—I heard a sound on the roof,” she explained. Her hands curled in the hem of her pajama top nervously, though she couldn’t even have said why she was nervous. It wasn’t like he could take away her gift, since he hadn’t brought one for her. She frowned, “Anyway, that’s just supposed to be for kids. If I’m old enough not to get presents from you anymore than I’m old enough to stay up,” she said with a hint of attitude.
“Ah—but only the naughty ones wake up when I visit, Amanda. That’s part of the magic. The good and well-behaved sleep soundly until I’m gone,” he told her. His tone was firm, and he set his big bag down on the floor so he could cross his arms over his chest. “You haven’t been a very good girl this Christmas, have you Amanda?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve been good!” She was going to pretend like she hadn’t been pouting, and sulking, and in general being a brat since she’d come home. “What difference does it make anyway? I’m not young enough to have a stocking or a present from you so that means I don’t have to be good,” she retorted.
He shook his head. “That’s not how it works, young lady! Everyone has to be good at Christmas no matter how old they are. Whatever holiday or festival they celebrate, there is still a focus on being good. This time of year isn’t about getting presents; it’s about love and kindness, about connecting with people and spending time with family. The positive feelings that people build up throughout this month carry the world into a hopeful new year. Without that magic the world would be in an even sorrier state than it is now,” he said. His eyes seemed to lose their twinkle as they took on a certain sternness that had her squirming in her fluffy unicorn slippers.
“But—But I didn’t think you were actually real,” she protested.
“Didn’t you?” He tilted his head and the fuzzy ball at the end of his hat rolled over his shoulder, catching her attention for a second. “Even if you don’t believe in Santa as a real person, you still believe in the spirit of Christmas,” he said firmly. There was solid certainty there, no question.
“I guess…I mean it’s a nice time of year,” she admitted. She definitely loved coming home and spending time with her family, and that wasn’t just about presents. Christmas had just always been the most wonderful time of year for her. At least it had been until she’d turned sixteen, since then it had slowly begun to lose the sparkle for her.
“Santa, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas… it doesn’t matter who you believe I am, or if you think I’m going to bring you gifts. The important thing is to keep the love and positive feelings growing throughout the month—and negative attitudes, young lady, have no place at this time of year!” He shook a finger at her. “Now, would you like to explain why your name is currently on my naughty list?”
To be continued… tomorrow!