Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the eighteenth official installment of “Another Christmas Story“!
This week listener, McLean Sloughter, will read to all of you Chapter Seventeen of our tale, entitled “(It Must’ve Been ‘Ol) Santa Claus”. Within this chapter, we switch back to the perspective of Aaron Rankin as he meets the Santa Claus at Macy’s Herald Square!
We hope you like it! If you do, make sure to share this episode and our website, upon which the text of this installment is posted, to get it in front of as many eyes as possible! Make sure to check your podcast feeds for your regular weekly episode on Monday, in which the elves cover the 1990 film, “Die Hard 2”, and next Thursday for the eighteenth official chapter of this story – “Chapter Eighteen: You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, which Charlyn Lewis of “Fashion Speaks”, will be reading to you! In it, we switch back to the points of view of Elizabeth Meyer and Noah Clarke!
Chapter Seventeen: (It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus
December 24th – 11:00 a.m. EST
Upon disembarking their charter bus in front of Macy’s Herald Square, Aaron and his peers found a crowd of people that rivaled, though didn’t quite exceed, the throng of tourists at the base of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree that morning. The only difference being, the masses were jostling for position in front of the department store’s world-famous window display. Hurrying by them in both directions, both behind and in front, were last minute Christmas Eve shoppers, clutching bags and boxes close to their chests as they moved as fast as they could along the icy sidewalk. An enormous, inflatable, Snoopy balloon, clutching Woodstock in his paws and wearing a Santa Claus hat atop his head, was tethered above the main entrance to the store, swaying back and forth precariously in the snowy wind, overlooking the swarms below without truly seeing them. “Stick together, class!” Ms. Warren advised loudly, as her students made their way toward the first window in the display, their chaperones sticking close to them.
Aaron was sure that they’d practically have to push their way through the legs of the adults in the crowd in order to even catch a glimpse of the window display – and was even more certain that they’d be forced to the back of the line when they tried – but apparently being a small child carried some currency, even in New York City, a place he had always heard could be quite rude and cold. As the students approached, the adults nearest that didn’t have any kids parted like the Red Sea to let them pass, and the kids from Tampa Palms Elementary School got their first glimpse at the animatronic displays within the windows stretching the entire block. Each of the windows depicted scenes from a different Rankin/Bass Christmas special, and Aaron was immediately drawn to the one depicting classic moments from Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.
This specific Christmas special had always been Aaron’s favorite, but as he and his classmates admired the beautifully animated display, featuring Kris Kringle, the Winter Warlock, and Topper the penguin skipping through a snowy wood, he felt his stomach sink. Given everything he had been feeling the past few days, he just couldn’t find the magic in seeing the iconic moment brought to life before his very eyes; it just didn’t bring him any joy. Determined not to bring Keven, nor anyone else in his class, down along with him, however, he shoved a smile onto his face like a good soldier and began to “ooh” and “ah” with the rest of them, as they slowly made their way along the storefront, moving window to window.
Turning to stare up at the Snoopy balloon, high above their heads, Aaron wondered if it was natural to feel increasingly like Charlie Brown around the holidays as you grew up. Were older kids and adults supposed to doubt what the season was about? Because between wishing he could be with his mother and siblings for the holiday, and his doubts about Santa Claus, Aaron truly had no idea anymore what the point of Christmas was anymore, nor why he should be excited about it.
After coming to the last window in the display, which featured Santa Claus being waved off by other iconic Rankin/Bass characters as he flew away from the north pole, Principal Rodriguez’s voice sounded loudly from behind Aaron. “Alright, students! Please, follow me inside! It’s time to go and meet Santa Claus!”
To the dismay of the principal, the words were barely out of his mouth before his cheering and whooping students scattered in excitement, darting between legs and pushing past adults in an effort to make their way toward the main entrance of the store. “Sorry.” Rodriguez blushed as more than a few native New Yorkers threw annoyed glances his way.
As Aaron and Kevin obediently followed Ms. Warren, falling directly into step behind Holly and Margot, someone shoulder-checked Aaron hard as they rushed past him. “Ow!” he exclaimed, grabbing his shoulder. The culprits – Daniel and Chris – however, were already too far ahead now to be confronted, laughing hysterically without so much as a backward glance at him as they disappeared into a sea of people. Holly rolled her eyes before glancing over her shoulder and smiling wide at Aaron, who turned a shade of deep crimson in return.
The inside of Macy’s was cavernous, and it was stunning just how much it looked like a true Christmas Wonderland. Christmas lights and garland wrapped around and intersected across the high ceiling, in the center of which hung a massive, crystal chandelier, around which a motorized Santa Claus was flying around in his sleigh, accompanied by his eight reindeer. There were enormous toy displays, complete with motorized trains and massive teddy bears, set up on the floor – amongst the adult clothes, jewelry, and makeup exhibits – and peppered wherever they could fit were other pieces of Christmas iconography: trees of various sizes, motorized reindeer, snowmen, angels, and red, old-fashioned mailboxes that visiting children were supposed to put their letters to Santa Claus in. And as if to shatter any illusion that one might have had as to how crowded the outside of the store was, the inside of the store was even more crowded – there was barely any room to turn around or squeeze by anybody, so most of the browsing shoppers merely allowed themselves to be swept along in the moving tide of fellow human beings.
“Children! Children!” Ms. Warren raised her voice and waved her hand through the air, trying to reign her chattering students in and establish order before they dived into the fray of people and got lost. “Please form a single file line and stick together; we don’t want to get separated.”
As the kids hustled to comply, shoving and bumping into one another, Aaron somehow found himself at the very front of the line with Kevin directly behind him, and Chris and Daniel directly behind him. Though the two bullies didn’t say a word to either of them, they smirked maliciously at Aaron as Ms. Warren and Principal Rodriguez walked the length of the line twice, counting off the kids under their breath as they did so and positioning chaperones on either side of it every few feet. When both school officials were satisfied that everybody was accounted for, Ms. Warren took her place at the front of the line as the principal took his place at the back. “Onward!” she exclaimed cheerfully before leading them into the fray of shoppers.
As large as Macy’s ground floor was, it turned out it was barely a fraction of the department store’s overall size; the entire structure was actually much more massive than it appeared from the outside. The pretty, young, third-grade teacher led her class up escalator after escalator, leading them higher into the building through various, far less decorated departments. Reaching the sixth floor was like stepping backwards into time, for the subsequent, ascending escalators became wooden, old-fashioned, and much ricketier. As they rose toward the seventh floor, Patricia Warren glanced over her shoulder to check on her students and immediately found Aaron staring down at his feet, lost in thought. At the sight of his melancholy face, the woman’s heart broke for the boy she knew was having a tough time, noting that his frequent bullies were only a few feet behind him. “Is everything alright, Aaron?” she asked kindly, causing the boy to blink in surprise at being addressed. “You seem distracted,” she answered his unasked question.
Plastering a fake smile onto his face, Aaron replied, “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Ms. Warren asked, as they stepped off the escalator onto the seventh floor landing before immediately stepping onto the one rising to the eighth floor. “It’s okay not to be sometimes, you know.”
“I’m just thinking about the performance later,” Aaron replied.
“Ah.” The teacher nodded. “Well, I have no doubt that you’ll do great. All of you will. Try not to worry about it.”
“Okay. I’ll try.”
Realizing that was the best she’d be able to do in extracting information from her student, the teacher faced forward again. The moment her back was turned on Aaron, he let his face fall again. How could he have told his teacher about everything that was truly bothering him? Honestly, the performance was the least of his worries; at least at the minute. He didn’t have much time to dwell on it though, for Chris leaned past Daniel and Kevin at that moment in order to hiss at him. “Teacher’s pet!”
“A teacher’s pet and a mama’s boy,” Daniel corrected in a low voice, causing his friend to chuckle.
“Would you leave him alone?” Holly asked, making Aaron realize for the first time that she and Margot were positioned in line just behind his two tormentors.
“Why do you keep sticking up for him?” Daniel demanded. “Do you love him?”
Holly turned red at the words, which made Aaron turn pink in turn as they stared past the bullies and locked eyes with one another. Margot, however, was having none of it. “Do you two really want to be jerks right before we’re about to meet Santa Claus?”
“Could you all shut up?” Kevin snapped before anyone else could speak up. “I’m trying to think! I need to figure out what I’m going to say to Santa!”
His five peers fell silent immediately, taken aback by their normally quiet friend’s annoyed demeanor. He had even been loud enough to draw the attention of Ms. Warren, who was about to turn around to find out what was going on when the escalator ride suddenly came to an end and she was forced to face front again in order to step off of it. Her heart sank at the twisting line of people before her, snaking around the floor that had been transformed into an impressive, magical looking north pole, complete with employees dressed as elves, animatronic woodland creatures, an abundance of toys, and a train chugging along the perimeter.
As they stepped off of the escalator behind their teacher, the students stared around in wonder and excitement at what very well could have been Santa’s actual workshop at the actual north pole. They didn’t seem to notice, nor care, how long the line was, at the very back of which stood a disgruntled looking employee, a crooked elf hat atop his head, directing people where to go. As Ms. Warren began to herd the kids toward the queue, both she and Aaron were taken aback by how quickly a young man, no older than thirty, and his pregnant wife cut them off in order to get in line before them; they came so close to mowing the teacher and her pupil down, in fact, that they had to stumble backwards in order to avoid being hit. “Rude,” Ms. Warren mumbled under her breath, as Aaron smiled to himself, noticing how happy the couple had looked; he figured they must have been extraordinarily excited to welcome their baby into the world, and wondered if he himself would be lucky enough to have a wife and a family of his own in another twenty-odd-years.
As the third-grade students took their place in line behind the couple, Aaron stared around at the Christmas decorations surrounding them. His eyes immediately settled on a huge sign that read “Believe” directly opposite them, written in red-lettered cursive upon the wall. He couldn’t focus on it for too long, however, because he quickly became distracted by Kevin counting on his fingers beside him, his face screwed up in extreme concentration. “What are you doing?” Aaron asked curiously.
Kevin stared up at his best friend. “Trying to remember everything I asked Santa for in my letter to him earlier this year! What did you ask him for?”
“A new marching snare drum…” Aaron’s voice trailed off, as he remembered his mother’s warning to keep his expectations in check regarding what gifts Santa may be leaving under the tree for him. She had specifically said that a new drum would be expensive, even for Santa, and yet he knew for a fact that Kevin had received a new iPad, video game console, and dirt bike last Christmas; surely those three things put together would cost more than one drum? “I guess I’ll know Santa’s real based on whether or not he leaves one for me under the Christmas tree.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “Dude, you’ll know whether or not he’s real when you talk to him yourself in five-minutes! Trust me, have I ever led you wrong before?”
Aaron smirked grimly. “We still have our entire lives for that to happen.”
“Yes, but it hasn’t happened yet.” Kevin winked at his friend.
“Good point,” Aaron admitted before sighing deeply. “I don’t know, Kevin. I hope you’re right. My brother–”
“–was just messing with you, like he always does.”
“I know,” Aaron replied defensively, his cheeks burning red. “But the more I think about Santa, the more I have questions! Like how come he brings more toys to certain kids and less to others? How come Daniel and Chris both get any toys at all? You’d think they’d be on the naughty list!”
“What did you just say?” Daniel asked from behind them, clearly annoyed. He had been deep in the middle of a private conversation with Chris, but was obviously distracted by the sound of his name coming out of Aaron’s mouth. Before Aaron could reply, Chris placed a calming hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Leave it,” he muttered. “Warren.” He nodded his head at their teacher, who was leaning against the wall absorbed in her phone, though she had glanced up briefly at the sound of Daniel’s accusatory voice. Wisely, Daniel narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he stared at Aaron, but didn’t say another word to him before he slowly turned back to Chris in order to resume their conversation.
“I think you’re overthinking it,” Kevin told Aaron, as the line inched forward. “Santa works in mysterious ways! Have a little faith!”
Aaron mulled the word faith over in his mind as he glanced once again at the word “Believe” painted on the wall; it was Macy’s de facto, Christmas, rallying cry. “I don’t know, Kevin. Don’t you ever feel like there’s something more to Christmas than getting gifts from Santa Claus?”
Kevin furrowed his eyebrows. “Like what?”
“Like faith?” Aaron laughed. “Shouldn’t there be more focus on, I don’t know, Jesus or something? Jesus is the reason for the season, after all. But I feel like he always gets pushed aside in favor of Santa! And what about peace on earth and good will toward men? Isn’t that a big part of the holiday season as well? A more important part than Santa and gift giving?”
“Well,” Kevin began, after pondering his friend’s questions over in his head. “Yes, faith is a part of it. But having faith is another way of saying you believe in something; whether that’s Santa Claus, or the message God sent down to earth along with his son, or the fact that people really are capable of one day achieving peace on earth and good will toward men.”
Aaron stared at his friend as though he had never truly seen him before, surprised by the words that had come out of his mouth. As he thought them over silently, he glanced past his teacher, who was now talking to a blonde elf that had been walking the length of the line, toward the young, expectant couple just in front of her, admiring the looks of love and happiness that were written all over their faces. Then, before he could stop the words from pouring from his mouth, he confessed quietly, “I just miss my mom.” He turned back to look at Kevin. “Jake and Amy too. I just feel like Christmas should be spent with family, you know?”
Kevin nodded sympathetically, but before he could say another word, Daniel leaned forward. “Aw, the little mama’s boy misses his family.” He frowned in an exaggerated, mocking manner as Chris laughed beside him. “I guess mommy doesn’t care about you as much as you care about her, otherwise, why didn’t she fly into town to see you perform on stage tonight?”
Aaron felt his face turn red-hot in a mixture of anger and embarrassment. “Be quiet, Daniel.”
“He’s right though!” Chris chimed in, a malicious smile on his face. “Why else wouldn’t mommy fly in to watch you play the drum on stage with the Rockettes? You have a featured part! She must really hate you!”
Aaron curled his hands into fists at his side, doing his best to keep breathing deeply in order to quell his furiously shaking body. Before he could reply, however, Holly spoke up from behind them. “Would you two stop?”
Chris spun around to face the girl, laughing in disbelief. “Would you stop defending him? Seriously, just admit you like him!”
Holly straightened her posture defiantly, despite going pink in the face once again. “It’s none of your business either way,” she replied in a dignified manner.
“You do!” Daniel laughed, as he stared between the girl and Aaron. “Why don’t you go find some mistletoe to kiss under?”
Margot rolled her eyes, as they all continued to shuffle forward in tiny increments. “Give it a break already.”
“Why?” Daniel demanded. “We were just pointing out to Aaron how sad it is that his mother doesn’t love him enough to fly into New York and see him perform!”
“Aaron’s mother didn’t fly into New York because she’s poor, not because she doesn’t love him!” Margot rolled her eyes again, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. “Right, Aaron?”
Aaron, whose embarrassment deepened at the girl’s well-meaning defense – which caused Daniel and Chris to break out into another round of raucous laughter – replied through gritted teeth, “I don’t know, Margot!”
Margot blinked in confusion before turning to glance at Holly, as the group rounded the corner along with the rest of the line. “Was it something I said?”
Holly sighed before flashing Aaron a weary, apologetic smile. Before Aaron could say anything to her, however, Daniel pointed out, “In all seriousness, Aaron, it does suck that your mom can’t be here to see you on stage with the Rockettes. It means that she won’t get to see you one last time before Krampus comes in the middle of the night to snatch you and take you away!”
“Shut up!” Kevin demanded, annoyed and exasperated.
“Took you long enough to pipe in,” Aaron pointed out bitterly.
“Give me one good reason I should shut up, loser?” Daniel demanded.
Kevin motioned pointed past their teacher – still texting on her phone, oblivious to the world around her – at the big man himself, who had finally come into view, sitting on a magnificent golden throne. All six children, along with the rest of their classmates behind them, felt their mouths drop open at the sight of the man. Aaron, like the rest of his classmates and many other people in the country and around the world, had always heard that the Macy’s Santa Claus was the real Santa Claus, and judging from looks alone, he thought there might actually be a chance that was true. The man sitting before them, who was being joined by the young couple that had been just in front of them in line, was not only legitimately old had a legitimately white beard, but was also wearing the most fantastically beautiful looking Santa outfit that Aaron could ever imagine. It looked absolutely ancient, as though it had been around for centuries.
Aaron stared so long at Santa, watching as he talked to the young pregnant woman and her husband, that it took him a moment to realize that Kevin had turned to face him with a huge smirk on his face. “Well…?”
Aaron shook his head and gave a small shrug, unsure of what else to say except, “Wow.”
Kevin clapped a hand onto his shoulder with a laugh. “I told you that Santa existed, buddy.” Then, throwing a smug look back at Daniel and Chris, he added pointedly, “I guess you don’t have to worry about Krampus visiting you tonight after all!”
Daniel and Chris both stuck their tongues out at Kevin, annoyed by the words, while Aaron smirked. Kevin wasn’t the bravest person in the world, nor the most confrontational, but when push came to shove, he knew that he could always count on his best friend when it mattered the most. Clapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder in return, the two boys turned back to face Santa again just in time to see the pregnant woman visiting with him, her arms wrapped around his neck, kiss him full on the lips in front of her husband at the exact moment that a camera flash went off. The action elicited gasps from the employees dressed as elves, and howls of laughter from all of the children in line behind them. While Santa looked truly embarrassed by what happened, the adults waiting in line with their kids looked none too pleased. Indeed, Ms. Warren was so taken aback by the action that she had gone pink in the face herself, and called over to an employee standing nearby in order to complain about the store’s inability to maintain a family-friendly environment – though not until the young couple had already paid for their pictures and hurried away.
“I guess mommy really did kiss Santa Claus,” Holly intimated to Margot somewhere behind Aaron, eliciting a laugh from her friend. Before Aaron could fully process the shock of what he had just witnessed, however, the elf at the front of the line called, “Next!” and Kevin shoved Aaron forward. “That’s you! Go on!”
Aaron stumbled forward, blinking in surprise, as he made his way toward Santa Claus. Though the man only sat a few feet away, the boy felt like it took hours to cross the floor to meet him. The entire time, Santa smiled warmly in his direction, and when he finally reached the living legend, he stood meekly in front of him, unsure of what to do, noting how much taller and stronger he looked up close, despite having a round belly. Patting his knee, Santa asked kindly, “Aren’t you going to sit down?”
“Oh, yeah. Right.” Aaron blushed as he awkwardly climbed onto Santa’s knee, doing his best to ignore the watchful eyes of his classmates.
Santa adjusted Aaron atop of him so he could sit more comfortably. “That’s better! Now, what’s your name?”
“Aaron,” Santa repeated, his blue eyes twinkling behind his half-moon spectacles. “That’s a nice name. One of my elves is named Aaron.” The boy laughed. “And what do you want for Christmas, Aaron?”
Aaron opened his mouth to reply before pausing hesitantly, glancing from his teacher still ranting about the inappropriate display of affection her class had just witnessed, to his friends who were staring intently in his direction. Meeting Holly’s eyes, she made a motion with her hands as though to encourage him to speak. Turning back to stare up into Santa’s face, Aaron admitted guiltily, “I’m not sure if I should tell you.”
Santa furrowed his eyebrows. “Why not?”
“Well…” Aaron hesitated. “How do I know you’re the real Santa Claus?”
“Why would you think I’m not?”
“It’s just – wouldn’t the real Santa Claus know my name without having to ask?” Aaron asked, his voice sheepish. “And wouldn’t he already know what I want for Christmas? It is Christmas Eve, after all.”
Santa chuckled in response to the questions, and Aaron was taken aback by how natural the “Ho, ho, ho!” sounded coming out of his mouth; it was clearly part of his real laugh, not part of an act he was putting on. “Both fair points,” he admitted. “But I assure you, I’m the real deal.”
“But how am I supposed to know that?” Aaron asked, a hint of desperation in his voice now.
Without hesitation, Santa replied. “Feliz Navidad. Je suis le pere Noel. So quanto sia difficile credere in me mentre crsci, aber ich versichere dir, ich hore nie auf, an irgendjemanden von dir zu glauben. Я также не верю в доброту человечества. जब तक लोग ऐसे लोग हैं जो क्रिसमस के जादू में विश्वास करते हैं, मैं हमेशा मौजूद रहूंगा. 我每年都會通過傳播聖誕節的歡呼來努力，使這個世界變得更快樂. 私はあなたに約束する.”
Aaron stared blankly at the man, his mouth agape. “Uh…what?”
Santa laughed. “I know every language, so I can communicate with children all over the world. I even know sign language,” he added, moving his hands through the air, effortlessly signing the words as he spoke.
“What did you just say?” Aaron asked.
“Does it matter?”
“It does to me.”
“Why? Doesn’t the fact that I know all of these different languages prove that I’m the real Santa Claus?” When Aaron merely continued to stare at him with a look of uncertainty on his face, the man’s smile widened and he replied, signing the words as he answered. “I said: Merry Christmas. I am Santa Claus. I know how hard it is to believe in me as you get older, but I assure you, I never stop believing in any of you. Nor do I stop believing in the goodness of mankind. As long as there are people who believe in the magic of Christmas, I will always exist. And I will always strive to make this world a little bit of a happier place by spreading Christmas cheer every year. That I promise you.”
“Wow,” Aaron breathed, amazed. “What languages–”
“Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Hindi, Chinese, and Japanese, in that order.” Santa winked before pointing out, “You still look unsure. Do you want to pull on my beard? I assure you, it’s authentic.” And to prove his point, the old man tugged hard on his whiskers, wincing in pain.
Aaron shook his head before admitting with a smile, “I can tell it’s real.”
“Then why are you still doubting who I am?”
“I guess I just doubt that Santa Claus exists at all,” Aaron admitted guiltily, causing the old man’s eyes to widen in surprise, clearly hurt. “Sorry.”
Before Santa could reply, one of the elf employees hurried over to them. “Alright, ready for a picture?”
“Not yet,” Santa replied in a polite, yet firm, voice. “We’re in the middle of a conversation.”
“But Santa, we have a line of kids–”
“And I promise I’ll get to each and every one of them,” Santa assured the Macy’s employee before shooing him away. Glancing back at the waiting line, Aaron saw many annoyed and impatient faces staring back at him, many of them belonging to his own classmates. When Santa spoke again, however, he turned to face him once more. “Why don’t you believe in me anymore?”
“I just find it hard to believe that you do what you do in one night.”
“It’s called magic, my boy!”
“My brother, Jake, told me that Santa doesn’t exist and that I should grow up,” Aaron informed him. “And then my mom told me that parents help you with the gifts on Christmas Eve–”
“Parents are integral to my operation, yes,” Santa conceded with a smile. “Let me ask you, Aaron – have you ever heard of a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon?” Aaron shook his head. “Well, back in the late 1800s she had her doubts about me too. When she asked her father if I was real, he told her to write in to the local newspaper – The Sun – and ask the editor, rationalizing that if she saw an answer in print, it must be true. So one of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, wrote an editorial addressing the question. He proclaimed: ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’.
“The full response is too long for me to quote in its entirety,” he chuckled. “But he basically reasoned that an age of skepticism had, sadly, eradicated the ability of many people to believe in that which they do not see. You see, Aaron, seeing isn’t believing, rather, believing is seeing. Only ‘faith, fancy, poetry, love, and romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond’. There is nothing more real to any of us than that in which we believe in, whether we can see it or not; whether that be God, fairies, Santa Claus, or something more verifiable, like the goodness in humanity.
“So although you may not believe in me, Aaron,” he continued, a little more somber now. “Don’t let your belief in anything else slip away completely. Belief is so important. It’s why Macy’s has these signs hanging up everywhere you turn.” He motioned at an enormous “Believe” sign painted on the wall before reaching into one of the pockets of his coat and pulling out a piece of paper covered in tiny print. “When you get a chance, you should read this.” He placed it in the boy’s hands. “It’s a copy of Francis Church’s response to Virginia, reprinted in its entirety. I give it out to all of the kids who visit with me, whether they believe in me or not.” He winked.
Aaron stared down at the piece of paper in his hands, in awe of Santa’s inspiring words. And it was in that moment, in his gut, he absolutely knew – deep down to the very core of his being – that the man he was talking to was the real Santa Claus, and that Jake had been wrong. Santa did exist. As he stared up into the kind eyes of the old man, a wide smile broke out across his face. “Thanks, Santa.”
“You’re welcome, Aaron.”
Aaron threw his arms around the old man, and as Santa hugged him back, the flash of a camera went off, capturing the moment. When they finally broke apart, Aaron asked about something else that had been bothering him. “What’s the true meaning of Christmas?”
“Peace on earth and good will toward men,” Santa replied immediately. “Spending time with those you love – whether family or friends – and giving to those less fortunate than yourself. And, if you’re religious, looking toward the example that Jesus set during his time on this planet. Why do you ask?”
“Because sometimes it seems like all of that gets lost in the gift giving,” Aaron admitted. “And, I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I guess I was just starting to wonder if there was anything more to it than that.”
“There absolutely is.” Santa ruffled his hair playfully. “You’re a good kid, Aaron. Now!” He clapped his hands together authoritatively. “Are you going to tell me what you want for Christmas or not?”
“A new marching snare drum,” Aaron replied excitedly. “The one I have is getting so old.”
Santa nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. Anything else?”
Aaron’s smile faltered. “Well…if it’s at all possible, I’d really love my brother Jake to start treating our mom better. She tries so hard with us, but it’s not exactly easy. There are three of us, and only one of her – she does her best! And if you could, I’d love her to be able to have an easier time this year, financially, so she’s less stressed and doesn’t cry so much at night when she thinks we’re asleep and can’t hear her. She deserves better than that.”
Santa’s face fell gradually the entire time the boy talked, until an expression of heartbreak had replaced the smile that had been there moments before. “That’s a big ask, Aaron,” he replied regretfully. “I’ll try my best though, okay? I promise.” Then, with a nod, he reiterated, “You’re a really good kid, Aaron.”
“Santa!” The elf who had interrupted them a few minutes earlier marched over again, irate now as he gestured wildly at the queue of people waiting to see him, which was now longer than ever.
“I know, I know,” Santa replied, exasperated. “Sorry!” He held up a hand of apology at the people glaring at him from where they waited in line. “It was nice meeting you, Aaron.”
“You too, Santa. And thanks,” he added, somewhat sheepishly. “For making me feel better.”
“I’m glad I could help.”
Aaron hopped off of the man’s lap and started walking away before he ended up stopping in his tracks as one last question that had been bothering him came rushing back to the forefront of his mind. “Santa?” he spun to face the man again.
“Yes?” Santa smiled curiously, much to the annoyance of the Macy’s elf that had been in the process of ushering Kevin forward.
“Is Krampus real?” Aaron asked, his voice barely more than a whisper as he approached the man again.
“Krampus?” Santa repeated, surprised. “Who told you about Krampus?”
Aaron glanced at where his classmates were standing, spotting Daniel and Chris near the front of the group, clearly mocking him. “Nobody important,” he muttered darkly.
Santa turned to see where Aaron was staring. “Ah!” He nodded his understanding. “Don’t worry about bullies, Aaron. They’ll grow up eventually. They’re usually just jealous of good-natured people like you, and thus try to make them feel bad. Those two may not like what I leave them for Christmas,” he added with a wink that took Aaron by surprise. “As for Krampus, you don’t have to worry about him. Trust me.”
Aaron flashed the man in red one last smile before waving goodbye and hurrying away from him so that Kevin could have his turn. As he walked over to where his teacher stood, Aaron breathed a huge sigh of relief, feeling lighter than he had all day. Glancing down at the copy of the newspaper article he had been given, he began to read it in full as he waited for the rest of his class to have their turns talking to Santa.
* * *
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking.”
“Oh, thank God!” Megan Rankin wearily exclaimed, happy to be getting an update on when their plane would be landing.
They had been circling above Manhattan for close to two hours, unable to land due to the fact that Winter Storm Elsa had officially began to pummel the northeast and had quickly grown in intensity since they had taken off from Florida. Due to the turbulence, it wasn’t a gentle circling of the city either, resulting in various passengers clutching their armrests in fright while mumbling their prayers, getting sick, or comforting their crying and restless children.
Amy had been screaming her heart out for the better part of an hour, and Megan was beginning to wonder how it was possible that her daughter had any voice left at all, let alone any tears. But, somehow, she did, and she was so upset by the bumpy ride that she had made herself sick and spit up all over her mother’s sweater. Because she was unable, due to the turbulence, to leave her seat to go to the bathroom and clean herself up, all Megan could do was pull out a baby wipe from the diaper bag at her feet and dab the vomit off of her shirt. It left a dark wet spot in its place, but was unfortunately unable to remove the smell of puke.
Jake, meanwhile, pretended to be asleep beside her. Megan could tell, however, that her son was merely faking it due to the impatient shaking of his leg; he was clearly as restless as the rest of them. While slightly annoyed that he was feigning sleep instead of offering to help her with his baby sister, Megan didn’t feel the need to try and force him to; she didn’t want to deal with his whining on top of Amy’s crying. (Nor did the people in front of or behind them, she was sure. They were clearly peeved enough by the baby’s wailing, judging from the pointed looks they were throwing at Megan.) The moment the pilot’s voice sounded over the plane’s loudspeaker, however, Jake’s eyes snapped open and he pulled his headphones off to listen. “Did you have a nice nap?” Megan asked sarcastically.
“Sh!” Jake hissed, flapping his arms at her to shut her up so that he could strain to hear the captain’s announcement.
“We have finally been cleared for landing.” Cheers erupted at the statement, though they were quickly replaced by groans of frustration when they heard what the captain went on to say. “Unfortunately, due to conditions on the ground, we will be unable to touch down at Newark airport. Instead, we’ve received clearance to head north and land at Westchester airport where conditions are slightly safer.”
Megan deflated immediately. Westchester was almost an hour’s drive from Manhattan on a good day in normal traffic conditions. Who knew how long it would take in the middle of such a bad snowstorm?
“Please keep your seatbelts fastened, as it’s going to be a rocky descent.” And with that, the plane’s speakers went silent and the angry buzzing of frustrated passengers increased in volume. Besides her, Megan noticed Jake lean back in his seat, visibly relaxing in front of her eyes. “Thank God,” he mumbled to himself.
“For what?” Megan demanded, annoyed, before she could stop herself.
“We’re finally going to get off this damn plane soon, Megan!” Jake rolled his eyes.
“In Westchester,” Megan reminded him. “Nowhere near Manhattan. Who the hell knows if your grandmother will be able to get off the island to come pick us up? Or how long it would take? Or what we’ll do if she can’t?”
“Who cares?” Jake asked, exasperated. “We’ll get into the city eventually.”
“I don’t want to miss Aaron’s performance.” Megan spoke through gritted teeth now, trying to remain patient.
“Well, if I were you, I’d pray for a miracle,” Jake suggested. Then, placing his headphones back over his ears, he closed his eyes once again.
Rather than trying to argue with her son any further, or scolding him for being so callous, Megan instead decided to take his advice. And so, as she did her best to comfort Amy with cooing sounds of adoration, Megan silently prayed to the universe, begging whatever higher power existed to get her into the city in time to see her youngest son perform at Radio City Music Hall that evening.