(Author’s note: little of the below will make sense, if you haven’t yet read part 1.)
“Wait. First, I think you both would like something hot to drink.”
Just like that, Santa has risen from his seat on the wooden steps. Again his shining black boots thumped across the floor, as he crossed to a nearby counter. Two wooden cabinet doors softly creaked as he opened them. Inside — a hint of metal? Holly tried to see.
Any moment it would happen. Any moment she would need to rise from the chair, get ready to do whatever was necessary. But what had he just asked? “Oh … no thanks …”
Holly tried, “I’m warm enough.”
“Of course.” Santa chuckled. “But I wasn’t offering because of its warmth. Christine?”
“I don’t need any.” Christine barely looked up.
“Aww, you two …” Now Santa’s chuckle was louder. “It’s my pleasure to serve. I mean that. Besides, Holly, I have peppermint.” Holly glanced up. Was she already smelling it? “Christine? Christine. I have peppermint.”
The other woman had slowly looked up. Her eyes were wide. Not so much fear, as …
Santa’s pouring took only seconds. Then he had returned to them, with two hot mugs.
She couldn’t accept it, not yet. Instead Holly stood, and her head came nearly up to his beard. “What do you need?” Thrill pounded in her heart — but she nearly dreaded his answer — still, she had to already know something about it! “Why’d you bring us?”
“Oh? I thought I said …”
“Oh, there has to be a real reason.” Holly found her own laugh. “Something’s gone wrong. It happens every time, at the North Pole, your worship, so busy, with the magic elves, and all that — I’ve seen it. So for help, you extend your magic, and you have —”
His broad form had leaned back, his eyes shut, cheeks bulging even more than before. Up and down his body heaved, shaking the red fabric of his long robes. Holly wanted to stare, aghast, but she wouldn’t ask what in the world was so amusing.
When finally he stopped, those bright eyes opened, and Santa silently handed a mug down to Christine, then to Holly.
“First, the North Pole is quite safe. I have no need of saving it, or of saving Christmas — which, despite rumors, could get along quite fine in the unlikely event of an emergency!
“Second, no one needs you to fulfill any sort of destiny. There are no prophecies among the elves of Santa’s workshop, no long-awaited deliverer, no evil villain to vanquish at the end of a climactic battle. No one needs any magic weapon, or wise, sagelike mentor.
“Third, it’s not my goal to be the wise, sagelike mentor myself. This could be a dream. You, Holly, or you, Christine, may have simply fallen asleep and never actually left your house. It could be Christmas Eve, the perfect time for any magical overnight journey in a dream, if I do say so myself. Or one or both of you could have simply fallen during the holiday parade. An errantly thrown chunk of candy, perhaps? Either way, this won’t be long. Your children are safe, and so are you. As for my own safety?” He paused. “Well …”
Santa turned again. From behind his back, some unseen space, he retrieved something. Another bunch of fabric, like his robes, but bulkier. He was reaching inside an opening.
Oh, of course …
Then he had approached, even as he withdrew two objects from the sack. He gave one to Holly, the other to Christine. Both of them were packages, wrapped in shining paper.
“Go on, take it.” Softly his laughter rumbled. “Shake it, poke at it. It’s my joy to give!”
This gift was smaller. Wait, Holly should not notice that? Size or weight didn’t matter. But why had he given it? Still she noticed Christine’s package, square-shaped like her own box, but flatter. Its paper was tan and denim-blue, covered with patterned smiling baby drawings, each in a Santa suit, each smiling underneath a bright red Santa cap.
As for Holly’s gift, its wrapping was in silvers and golds, underneath a sprinkled pattern of blocks and dolls and cars and other toys. Each also bore a crimson pointed Santa cap.
She must set this down. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t know him, and hadn’t even brought anything to give back. Just tell him: thank you, but really it’s no trouble, she ought to be going. Maybe come back later, after learning what he would want, and —
“So what do you need?” Christine blurted. Had she ever spoken so quickly or sharply?
“Need? Nothing. Nothing at all. I brought you here for my own enjoyment, and yours. Would you deny me that?” Santa was easing backward, and with a loud, contended sigh, he nearly fell back onto the step, with knees and boots protruding forward.
“Oh, but I must say, I believe this mysterious, magical visit will benefit you. Both of you.
“Earlier, I asked where you would like to begin. Holly, you rightly believe children need imagination and joy at Christmas, and that it harms no one to encourage belief in Santa Claus. Christine, you rightly believe Christmas is about Christ, so if we celebrate it at all, it should always be centered on Him, leaving no place for me, or even other things.”
For a second Christine had looked away. But no offense had been in his voice.
“I give no judgment yet,” Santa added quietly. “Only a question. The same one, to both of you. What do each of you enjoy about Christmas? What do you love?”
Good, he had beckoned to Holly first. So many things … where could she start?
First for a sip of this peppermint-flavored coffee. Its delicious taste stirred so many memories. “Going out and battling the crowds.” Holly halted to allow a grin, and she was sure it was the truth — she did love it. “Finding the deals. Knowing what our children want and how to find it … staying under budget … doing whatever we can to make Christmas magical.” Reading them both Christmas stories, she went on, from Luke 2, and from Clement C. Moore. Putting the kids to bed early. Then, getting to work with her husband, sometimes for hours, all so rewarding, the next morning …
Just as soon as she ran out of words, Santa held up a hand. “Mm-hmm, I can understand! Now, if you would, enjoy more of your coffee, while Christine shares with us both.”
He leaned in close, smiling to Christine. His lips formed a barely audible, It’s okay.
“We … aren’t sure about the gifts,” Christine said. “We don’t want to take away from our Savior. But anyway, with Ben’s hours down … it’s been difficult anyway.” One corner of her lip tugged upward. “Kind of makes the issue moot. But … we do love the truth, and the … the miracle of it. Telling the children about Christ our King, come to dwell among us, to save them from their sins. This year we might go to Ben’s parents’ place.” Then directly to Holly, she looked. “It has nothing to do with leaving out imagination.”
Before Holly could react, Santa had smiled, lowered his head, and raised both hands.
“Hmm. I’m not sure you’ve fully answered my questions, though. Either of you. I asked, what do each of you enjoy and love about Christmas? You’ve answered, truthfully, what your children enjoy, and how you both love to give to them. That, in turn, brings you joy.
So this is a partial answer I cannot fault!
“But what about our Savior, or imagination, or disallowing Santa stories, or endorsing them? What about Christmas, and not only the work for others, brings you joy?”
Holly’s head turned slowly right, and met Christine’s gaze partway. The other woman’s plain face showed uncertainty that had to match her own.
“Both of you seem to be arranging your Christmases around doing things for someone else,” Santa added quietly. “You want to take joy in the joy of others. In some ways, I think, you would accidentally deny yielding that same right to your Savior.”
A soft clunk — Christine had set her mug on the wooden armrest. “That’s not true. All I do is intended to honor God. Ben and I both … we want to honor him for our children.”
Holly hated to agree, but — “Same for me. I try to keep Christ in mind.”
“I’m sure you wish to! How, then, do you rest? Accepting His gifts for you, to quiet your minds, still your hearts, and humbly receive what He has, and not only work for Him?” At no time did his kindly tone waver. “It’s as if you gladly receive His first gift, of Himself as babe in the manger and then Savior of His people, then try to repay Him for it.
“That seems the true source of your differences, or rather, if I may say, what you have both assumed are your differences. Christine, you believe imagination can have little place in the Christian life. Holly, you believe Christians should enjoy their imaginations.”
Now he was waiting, and Holly gave a nod. Christine must have done the same.
“But imagination is of no more benefit to anyone if it’s being used wrongly than if it’s being completely ignored,” Santa said. “I would have to say, though, that at least you are more consistent, Christine. If God has little to no place for imagination, for children or for we grown-ups, then why even discuss it?
“Yet imagination and a sense of magic — or miracles! — is indeed another gift of the greatest Giver.” He must be looking at Christine. But now his gaze turned to Holly also. “From what I’ve seen, you both must strive to see this gift in Him, a gift that one should use to make Him happy, in ways that He says in His Word that He wants to be glorified.”
“Speaking of gifts, I’ve gone and forgotten yours! Who would like to open hers first?”
Finally! And that was more obvious. Holly raised her hand, and beckoned to Christine.
“Then tear in, Holly,” Santa cried out, and actually clapped his hands. “What’s inside?”
Wait, no. She had not meant … but he had thought … now, great. She would look selfish, greedy, and Christine would think even less of her. Nevertheless, Santa was watching.
After trying to find the seams, Holly began unwrapping. Away came the shining gold and silver paper, with oddly straight rips, and as she peeled off the layers she felt more distracted … for the paper was not white underneath. Its same colors were there, on both sides. Finally she was done, revealing a small box that felt like cardboard, its surface printed with navy blue, browns, a photo in a green ellipse of what was inside …
Oh. One of those ornaments. It held a tiny carved little plastic stable, with hay on its roof and floor, and a wood manger in the middle containing the Christ-child. On his knees before the manger, bald head bent, hands raised to clasp together, was Santa Claus.
“Um …” Holly should not have made that sound aloud. A nice thought. Kind of religious, though. The same impulse that led well-meaning relatives to wrap up and bring what came to a total of three Purpose-Driven Life books one year, and even more copies, five, of The Prayer of Jabez another year — when the family already had one copy of each.
What had Christine received? Santa was watching her finish unwrapping, and finally the other woman had revealed the second gift. Rich brown, like leather, shaped like a book.
Oh. Now it seemed silly for Holly to complain even slightly about her own religious gift.
“Thank you …” Christine must have ended that with a question. Or was she surprised?
Santa had moved before her now, looking down, watching to see her reaction.
Laying the wrapping aside, Christine had parted the pages. To her face came a smile — very pretty, come to think of it. Then she was frowning, but she didn’t seem upset as she turned back to Santa. “The … the printing here is different. Some words are in red. But … they’re not the words of Christ. Others are in green. I don’t understand.”
“It’s a special ‘translation,’” Santa told her. “But I have not gone all Jesus Seminar on you — cutting out the parts I don’t like. Here! I’ll show you one of the best examples.”
With her permission, he flipped through the Bible. Holly stood and moved closer.
For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
Romans 11: 34-35; 12: 1-2
Santa had glanced to Holly, his white brows raised. “Do you see a difference? Mind you, I don’t say we must print more Bibles like this. After all, this is a unique, magical journey.”
“I don’t see — any difference between red and green.” Holly permitted a sheepish look.
“I think …” So Christine did have something. Her slender finger pointed to the page, and to herself she whispered, “No, not words of Christ …”
“Yes, they’re in red,” Santa interjected. “And then in green. These are all Christ’s words.”
“Then I’m not sure about a difference.” Christine looked past him, to Holly, and almost imitated the same sheepish look. Holly might laugh. They at least shared a confusion!
“Ah, but look!” Santa took the Bible, and his much larger finger pointed. “The first part is all about God Himself: His mercies, His nature, what He has done. In red. Next are the words in green: all our responses to His mercies, His nature, what He’s done and doing.
“If I may quote from another version, chapter thirteen, verse thirty-five: ‘Or who has given a gift to him —’ God — ‘that he might be repaid?’ That’s our position. And one can’t skip to the ‘green’ verses without the ‘red’ verses. Before we can do a thing, before we can give anyone anything, especially give a thing to Him, we must humble ourselves to receive. To delight in Him personally. To become, ourselves, as little children.
“Christine, what may that mean for you? For how you show Christmas to your children? For how you consider imagination’s place, and the place of gifts, decorations, traditions?
“Now, Holly. You seemed to think my gift to you was meant for someone else.”
She might be wary of admitting it, but … “Yes. It’s not … really my style.”
“Kitschy? A churchey evangelical cliché? A thing more meant for your grandmother?”
“Something like that …”
“And yet … such a powerful meaning.” From her hand Santa took the box, quickly undid a flap, then retrieved the ornament from the packing inside and held it up. On the little kneeling Santa’s face, the eyes were closed, the tiny red mouth in a smile of absolute devotion. “I love this,” he said. “Myself, in my place. Thanks to an artist who asked what if. What if Santa were real? How would he respond, what would be his relationship, to the newborn King? With a right use of imagination, Holly, only this could be the result.”
Her eyes rolled, but she knew she was about to admit it … or admit something.
“Ah, well …” Santa handed her the ornament. “We can’t work through everything in one magical, mysterious Christmas journey! I knew from the start, that this would only be a start. Change may have happened literally overnight in one special case with Scrooge.”
“Have some coffee, Holly, while you think about that. Don’t let it get cold. Oh, bless me, no. It’s a magical — or miraculous — coffee mug. It will stay hot. Christine, you too!”
Again their eyes met. In Christine’s expression … was that humor? The same absurd amusement Holly couldn’t resist? Together they drank, and first the other woman’s eyes closed as she breathed in, lowering her mug, still savoring its scent.
She acted as if she never got a break from all those children. Maybe she truly didn’t.
“Now, Holly.” Santa moved back, and sat before them. “Any questions — ask away.”
“How … how would all that work practically?” Holly could stand, but she wouldn’t, not to stand over him. “What about you? Putting imagination on its knees before Jesus, okay, great. But what about harmless fun? Gifts and lights and legends, all that children like?”
“There is no ‘harmless fun.’ Only God-honoring joy, in degrees. Or else, distraction.”
“Okay … but practically …”
“Skipping to the ‘green’ verses, without the ‘red’?” Santa gave a grin, then a shrug. “The specifics are yours to determine, I think. For example, the ‘deception’ question. What about telling your children Santa is real? First, you must know the Source of true joy, and some about how we must reflect that, first to ourselves, then to those in our care.
“You also know best your children. Each individual child. Would he or she understand the difference between ‘real’ that is actually make-believe? Like a hand-puppet behind a stage? Everyone may merely pretend it is real, but some kids would go further — losing track of the boundary between fantasy and reality. Not all, as some would guess, but some would. Also, I’d question the wisdom of saying absolutely yes, if a child were to ask, point-blank, if Santa were real. Although in my experience — no child would really ask that, if he or she were not already so old that the rules of the game should change.”
“Change from what?” The question came from Christine.
“Change from ‘Santa is real, only parents work behind the scenes and enjoy,’ to ‘Let’s all get behind the stage and have fun pretending together, for the joy of the greatest Giver.’
“Speaking of which, I think you ladies might want to check your gift wrappings again.”
They glanced to each other. But it was Christine who stood and went for them first.
Holly bent over, pulled the double-sided glossy paper from the floor. Even as she lifted it, though, the shape changed, formed itself together, suddenly with solid weight. It had become another box, with folded-together wrapped corners. Excitedly she again began unwrapping, to reveal another box inside, this one velvet-red, smaller than the last.
The paper fell away, and the box flap was already open. From inside she pulled another tree ornament. This one was flatter, with cartoonish figures painted on, all in a row, walking somewhere. Walking to the silhouette of a stable. In the very back was a tall man, just behind a woman, and ahead of them both, two children; and ahead of all of them was Santa, carrying his red pack. His face, though, was the only one showing. All four of the others, for the family, were blank. Little slots were atop the ornament …
Oh, so someone was meant insert her own photos, into those spaces.
Yet again, Santa had been watching her. His own face was filled with glee. Like a child. She’d never before thought of Santa Claus himself, at Christmas, being an excited child.
“And what do you have, Christine?”
“It’s … evangelistic tracts?” Christine laughed. In her own way, it was a lovely sound. And indeed she held up an unboxed stack of papers, bound by a plain rubber band. It was green. “With Santa on them. Like dollar bills. And …” Holly got up to see; Christine turned, holding them to the light. “Fake ‘one million dollars.’ With Santa on them.”
“Turn it around; I think there’s more on the back,” Holly suggested.
But Christine had hesitated. “I … I really never liked the naughty-or-nice list part.”
“How come?” Santa asked.
“Because … um, it’s …”
“… Legalistic.” Holly and Christine had chorused it.
But while Christine’s head lifted, Holly glanced to the thick floorboards. Had she ever really liked that part about Santa either? Definitely not practiced it that way. Was any child ever on the supposed naughty list? Even holiday movies came up with other explanations for why no child really got a stocking full of coal on Christmas morning.
“Legalism.” Santa had sniffed, but then chuckled. “Oddly enough, one of the terms most used, against others, to advocate actual legalism … judged by appearance, mostly.
“But anyway, I agree! I’ve always hated that part. And so immortalized in song. But why let that ruin the whole Santa ride? Take it back. Who says a story belongs only to those who sung the songs or wrote the first rhetoric? Use imagination. Change the story. Use it for your joy in the greatest Giver. Oh — and then take that beautiful truth to others.”
Gently moving his hand near to Christine’s, Santa flipped the stack over. On the back of the dollar bill-shaped tracts was another illustration, showing that the drawn Santa was holding something behind his back. A small scroll — the infamous naughty-and-nice list.
Both women peered closer. The left column, titled Naughty, was longer. John, Mary, Billl, Allen, Sharon, names ending in –enny and –athy, covered by Santa’s thumb, then Larry …
In the right column, titled Nice, only one name: Jesus.
Everyone else is “naughty.” Only Jesus was “nice.” In the tiny text, Law and Gospel stuff.
“Preachy, clever, creative, imaginative art, for a purpose.” Santa stepped back. “I love it. We need more of it. And I don’t mind being an icon like that, for the right reason.”
“But you’re … real.” As soon as Holly had said it, she felt silly …
“Maybe. Or maybe some of those cheesier Christmas movies that do well, repeating Santa legends, while also laying the foundation for post-Santa-belief practices, are right. In some sense, it doesn’t matter if I am real as a person. But the ideal … of a Christian saint who did good, based solely on the grace of Christ, who became a legend, then became pop-culture myth … also wrongly turned into an icon of commercialism and even legalism … well … that is an ideal worth recovering. And, practicing. For Godly imagination used for the right purpose — receiving the Savior, exulting in His joy.”
He had lowered his gaze, his mustache-concealed mouth very serious, at Christine.
Soon they might leave. Holly sensed it … a change in the air, a coolness, and the memory or perhaps sounds of that blaring Christmas parade. Her children were waiting, and somehow kept safe, as Santa had promised. No, all of their children were. …
Then Santa turned to Holly, his expression the same. His twinkling eyes glanced down.
The package? Hadn’t the ornament been all? No, there must be more. And Santa, as if to change the subject too quickly, was again encouraging Christine to enjoy her coffee. Something he’d just asked was about one of her many children, and her husband.
Christine also had something else. One last gift, grasped tightly. And she was smiling.
Holly retrieved the wrappings. Another shape was here. The same size as the tracts? But it was thinner. The last of its paper fell away, revealing a small leather surface, of green.
Within the leather flap was her own checkbook.
… And a small envelope, holding a shining red gift card with a great amount.