“He’s not real.”
The words were clear — the dreaded words. But whose little voice had just uttered them? They came from below and to the right, about three feet away, and Holly glanced down to the sidewalk, past rows of boot-clad legs, and, moved to look upward —
Wasn’t that Christine’s boy? Jo-something, like a Bible character. All of Christine’s children had J-names from the Bible, so this one would be Joash or Joshua or Josiah or maybe Joshikia ben-Tammuz. The six- or seven-year-old was buried in his coat, of course, and too thin a coat, also, but the coat wasn’t what forced his little dark-haired head upward as he added to his pronouncement: “Santa Claus is a pay-gan figger!”
Even from half a foot taller than the boy, Nick stared down to him, as if he had never before heard this said. Beside him was Chelsea, already shivering, and now confused.
Of course they hadn’t! She’d tried so hard to prevent this, but some kids just had to …
Already Holly was moving closer. The high-school band was moving away, meaning she could be heard just as easily. Why did kids have to be this way? His mom — there she was, standing nearby, her black hair forced up into the coiled-tight bun. Evidently Christine hadn’t heard her own child, but she seemed distracted, watching the parade.
When had they arrived? Did she even let them enjoy holiday events like this?
Holly finally edged past two people, beside Nick, whose freckled nose had just wrinkled into a sniff. Cold, or disappointment? Holly turned down and put on her best maternal smile. “Well, we celebrate Santa at our house.” What was the little boy’s age? He was old enough to be bold enough to spoil things. “Santa is real for us.”
“Well …” Uncertainty. “It’s Jesus’ birthday. Santa is a distraction.”
“Holly? Hello.” That voice was on her level, and had just come nearer. Christine stopped and stood beside her little boy, and gave her own mild look. “Nice to see you again.”
Christine and her husband, and their pew-full of children, almost always sat up front. Holly had first read their last name from the church directory she’d helped put together. Or was it the offering counting? Or the Sunday-school volunteer collection? The last was not possible; Christine’s family didn’t do Sunday school, or children’s church. They barely attended those few awkward meals they had tried together, attempting to find common ground beyond Sunday and Wednesday services. But not even the children and their mutual love of parenting had seemed sufficient for that.
“Hi.” Holly increased the smile, ready to ask if they was well, what brought them here —
“He’s real,” cried Nick from below. “Last year he gave me a —” something — “and a —”
“Nick, hush, it’s okay. Every family is different. Santa skips over some families’ houses.”
“Mm-hmm. Well.” Christine’s dark eyes lowered. “We’re just here to pick up some film. We didn’t know a parade was today.”
Cheers rose — and now Holly saw it, coming down the street and beyond the raised hands, wool-capped heads, and bundled-up children on shoulders. Blaring soundtrack, — “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” of course — came from moving speakers on the float, which also bristled with glittered sides, candy-cane fences, and cotton for snow.
“Sannn-ta Claus is comin’ ta toww-wwn! Sannn-ta Claus is comin’ ta toww-wwn!”
Christine had bent over. She was trying to pull her boy away. Standing nearby and watching were several other children, two boys, three girls, all dressed like her.
“But Mom!” the first boy was protesting.
Had he ever seen a parade before?
“I can watch him, if you want,” Holly offered. “He’d like the parade. Your first time?”
Straightening, Christine had a tolerant you-know-how-children-are smile. “Well. We try to make sure to keep Christmas focused around Christ.”
Mm-hm. Of course she’d say that. “Well, in my view, it’s harmless fun. Just a fantasy.”
Christine shooed Josiah/Joash/Joshua back to the herd of other children, and took a step back, with white tennis shoes just poking out from just under her loose jean legs.
“Well, Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. Santa is a distraction.”
Holly raised her voice: “Well, do you want your kids to grow up without imagination?”
“Well —” Christine barely raised hers — “do you want to tell them something that isn’t true, and have them later question whether God and our Savior also aren’t real?”
“My children can know the difference.” That came out too harsh. Holly had forgotten her well. A well-placed well would soften any sentence. “It seems that if we’re to give our children a sense of magic and imagination, there’s nothing wrong with Santa, or gifts!”
“Little tin horns, little toy drums! Rudy-toot-toots and rummy-tum-tums!”
“Well, sounds like materialism.” Christine’s face sweetened even more sickly. “More of what our culture and the world offers. We’re to focus on the reason for the season.”
“He’s making a list! And checking it twice!”
“Your children are going to grow up without magic, imagination, fantasy and joy —”
A blast of a horn, blaring at first from the speakers, then even louder than that …
“Yours will be taught that things matter more than truth, and that Santa is like God —”
Then Christine’s face snapped upward, and her eyes widened. Suddenly no crowds were nearby, between the barricade between sidewalk and street. Instead, only a tall figure. Broad and bulky, his hands on his hips, but even with a dazzling light silhouetted around him, he was clearly looking at them both. Between plump cheeks, and under a plumper beard, he was grinning so widely that his cheeks had glistened with faint red.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” he rumbled. That voice … just on the edge of a joyous chuckle …
Behind him the light was growing. Him in the center, like an angel. How was it? Holly wouldn’t look away, though the light brightened even more, any moment forcing her to turn from it. Then the horn blared again, and so hard her very forehead trembled.
The tall, broad man, dressed as Santa, took one look behind, let out a terrific cry, and launched himself forward. His huge bulk slammed into Holly, and she was tumbling backward, into black —
Potpourri, that’s what it must be: the scent of cinnamon sticks, hot cider, hot and soothing. But something was wrong. There was too much of it.
The scent came from right underneath her face. Holly lifted her head, and found nothing but dark brown underneath. Brown with streaks, no, a grain. It was wood, in fact, several boards of wood, and from it came the succulent but overwhelming smell.
A groan came from nearby, and she lifted her head. Warm orange light fell on her hair that must now be strewn about crazily. Where had her hood gone? What of the cold?
And she was there, just rising from the floor, still in that dull gray sweater, over the old, baggy jeans. As for the six children she’d had with her moments ago? Nowhere. They were both alone. But as Christine propped herself on one elbow, she seemed all right.
The air prickled as if from static. Somehow Holly felt no fear, not even after what had just happened. Instead, she tried to take in their surroundings.
A high roof, with vast wooden beams, rose to a peak in the middle, stained with multi-colored lights. They came from flickering torches on enormous chandeliers, like cast-iron, carved into intricate curving and pointing patterns. Nearby, the angled ceiling met a vast wall, also of dark wood, which dropped at least 30 feet down to a raised platform.
On that wooden platform stood a man. He was large, and dark, and covered in crimson.
Just as before?
Now that man stepped forward and the wooden floor rumbled under herself. Dressed in shining red fabric like satin that also caught the light, his two thick arms led to broad shoulders, a wide collar that covered his neck, and a pure white beard over plump face, sparkling eyes, and a nearly bald head.
Where was the hat? What hat? You know, the little red thing you’re supposed to wear.
They had both landed in a mall shop? Of wood? Taken captive by him?
“Christine. Holly. I’m glad you’re all right.” His voice sounded like it should, and it made Holly smile. This shouldn’t be surprising. Not this time of year, anyway. Not with all the stories, the specials, the children’s books. And oh, wouldn’t Christine be shocked?
Santa had moved closer, and Holly watched those great boots thump across, then stop, before Santa knelt. His boots, or his limbs, creaked, and he reached down to Christine.
On her face: just the right kind of alarm. Wouldn’t this be something to tell the kids!
Now Santa was sitting on the steps, putting countless creases into his shiny red — robe? Still he wore no pointed cap. As for the broad red coat, with the shining golden buttons — just a moment ago he had removed it, with a contented sigh, and hung it on a nearby coatrack. That device stood near the stage, with multiple wooden points, like antlers.
Santa gave a shrug, and extended a hand. It was bare, with no glove. “Such things can happen in the middle of a magical — or, if you prefer, miraculous — transport to another place. The system gets things mixed up. Here I wanted a simple portal, and …”
Another blast from a horn, though fainter. Holly glanced behind her. The wall back there and just a few feet away seemed to close in upon itself, fading like a fog and filling in with the same wood-grain colors and textures. But just beyond it was the sight of a speeding silver surface, several of them. They were enormous train cars, filled with windows, out of which poked the excited faces of small children in pajamas, so filled with the Christmas spirit that they stared in childlike wonder, outward, with vacant expressions and strangely, disconcertingly hollow eyes.
Then finally the Polar Express was gone, and Santa had settled back on the wood stair.
Christine was gazing, her mouth closed, with no hint of awe.
Santa’s cheeks rose; he had to be grinning again, under that bushy mustache.
“Magical journeys always have a reason,” he said. “Or they should, anyway.”
“You’re not real … you can’t be,” Christine said quietly.
“Maybe not.” Santa answered briskly, but with no annoyance. Instead, he gave a wink. “Possibly a dream, remember? And let me assure you: I also completely agree that Christmas is about Christ, not myself. If I were real, I would be glorifying Him. How, though, would I do that? That’s what I’m here to discuss. Let’s consider together, what you were saying earlier, when you thought I didn’t happen to see — that I could distract from Christmas, or that I’m a harmless fantasy. Where would you like to begin?”
(To be continued, next week …)