Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the fourth official installment of Another Christmas Story!
This week, our very own Thom Crowe will read to all of you Chapter Three of our tale, entitled “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Within this chapter, you’ll meet the struggling Rankin family, including young, single mom Megan and her three children, Jake, Aaron, and Amy! Please be advised if you’re listening with young kids, however, that not only are there a few instances of semi-questionable language in this chapter, but some hard truths about a certain beloved and iconic Christmas figure as well.
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 will be discussing the Christmas episodes of the television show Arrested Development, and next Thursday for the fourth official chapter of this story – “Chapter Four: Last Christmas”, which listener Rebecca Boll will be reading to y’all and in which you’ll catch up with the character of Mary Holiday in the present day! Enjoy, y’all!
Chapter Three: Do They Know It’s Christmas?
December 23rd – 7:00 p.m. EST
“Boys! Come down for dinner!”
“Just a minute!” Aaron called back to his mother, as he sat on his overstuffed carry-on suitcase in an attempt to hold it shut long enough so that he could zip it up. As he struggled to do just that, he could hear his baby sister, Amy, wailing at the top of her lungs downstairs as his mother, Megan, did her best to comfort her in a calm, soothing voice that was louder than the baby’s in order to be heard over her screams. “Yes!” he exclaimed, falling backward onto to the floor in triumph when he finally managed to seal the over-packed piece of luggage.
“Hey, nerd.” Aaron stared at his fifteen-year-old brother, Jake, who was lying down on his narrow, single bed in the tiny bedroom that he was forced to share with his younger brother. “You forgot these.” With a taunting smile, he withdrew a pair of faded, chipped, downright old drumsticks from where he had been hiding them beneath his bedsheets.
Aaron’s face fell at the sight of them and was forced to duck as Jake chucked them hard at his head. After they hit the wall behind him with a loud clatter, leaving a small dent in the plaster, Aaron straightened up again, furious. “Why would you do that?”
“Whoops.” Jake shrugged sarcastically, a mischievous grin spreading across his face, which accentuated the ring piercing fastened into his lower lip. As he ran a hand through his long, sleek black hair, pushing it from his impish eyes, he said, “I guess I forgot I had them.”
Before Aaron could respond, their mother called upstairs again. “Boys, what’s that noise? I said dinner’s ready! I – oh, I know, sweetie! It’s okay!” Her voice, though still loud, softened somewhat in order to comfort the still wailing Amy. “It’s okay! Mommy’s here! She’s – Jesus Christ!” She was angry again now, her tone of voice changing in response to the smoke detector that had just started going off in the kitchen, which made the baby cry harder. “Jake! Get down here and stop this damn alarm! I can only do so many things at once!”
Jake sprang off of his bed, rolling his eyes. “Coming, mother!” And without another word, he bounded from the room, shoulder-checking Aaron with a grin on his way past. Aaron barely noticed, however; he was too concerned about his precious drumsticks, which he picked up off the floor gingerly. Holding them up to eye-level, he examined them closely before deeming that they – thankfully – had suffered no new damage. He turned to survey his already overstuffed suitcase, overwhelmed by the prospect of attempting to find space within for his sticks. Before he could attempt to try, however, his mother called upstairs again. “Aaron Rankin, I said come down for dinner! Don’t make me ask again!”
Sighing deeply, Aaron carefully placed his drumsticks down atop his marching snare drum that was situated on his unmade bed. He smiled proudly as he surveyed the image before hurrying from his bedroom and down the stairs of the Rankins’ tiny, Tampa, Florida home. By the time he reached the cramped, hazy kitchen, Jake had managed to pull the smoke detector down from the ceiling so that it had mercifully stopped screeching. Amy, however, was still crying hysterically. His mother was holding her propped up in the crook of her left arm while she stirred a smoking pot on the stove, singing to the baby in a soft voice. “Jingle bells, Amy smells, mommy laid an egg; the Jake–mobile lost its wheel, and Aaron ran away. Yes, that’s a good girl.” As Amy finally began to quiet down, Megan kissed her gently on the forehead. Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed her nine-year-old son and smiled wide – he was the apple of her eye. “Aaron. There you are. Do you mind setting the table?”
Aaron took in his mother’s frazzled appearance, immediately noticing the pleading look in her wide, green eyes, which he had inherited. With a nod, he responded, “Sure thing, mom.” Aaron shoved past the seat in which Jake sat and made his way over to the sink, beside which a drying rack was situated, housing three worn – but clean – plates in addition to two empty baby bottles and a toddler’s bowl and spoon. After gathering the dishes in his arms, he gently began placing them on the tiny, wobbly kitchen table.
“Don’t forget the utensils,” his mother instructed in a sing-song voice, as her daughter cooed and she continued to furiously stir the pot on the stove. Aaron complied without protest, grabbing a handful of forks from a disorganized drawer of silverware. As he placed them around the table, he eyed his disheveled and exhausted looking mother with pity.
Megan was only thirty-one-years-old and raising her three children on her own. Tobias Martin, her long-term boyfriend and the father of all three, had walked out on her when she first revealed to him that she was pregnant with Amy. Jake was devastated by the abandonment, and the woman was sure that it contributed to his current-behavioral issues. Aaron, on the other hand, didn’t mind that his father had walked out of their lives; the man hadn’t been much of a dad to either of them, and he sure as hell was never a great partner to Megan. Leaving her alone to raise three kids was just the cherry on top of the cake of shitty things he had done to the woman who used to love him for so long.
Fifteen-years prior, when Megan and Tobias were just kids in high school, Tobias had gotten Megan pregnant for the first time. Over the years, as Tobias had begun to demonstrate more controlling and psychologically abusive behavior toward her, Megan still found the young man endearing despite her better instincts; so much so that she allowed him to knock her up with a second child. Looking back on it all, she felt like such an idiot for being so enamored by him, even if he did give her the best things she could have ever asked for: her children, who also happened to be her best friends. Around the age of twenty-five, Tobias became addicted to drugs and dragged Megan down that rabbit hole as well, isolating her from her family. It was also around this time that he began to physically hurt her. Yet even then, it wasn’t until Aaron had witnessed him striking her in the face that Megan demanded he clean up his act, and made a conscious effort to clean up her own.
In response, the little family moved down to Tampa so that the young couple could receive top-notch treatment for their substance abuse. Though it was one of the hardest things Megan had ever done in her life, she ended up kicking the habit; and though it took her a long time to do so, it took Tobias even longer. During a night of passion to celebrate the occasion when he finally did manage to kick it, Megan became pregnant with Amy, and when she told her boyfriend, Tobias told her that he wanted a new start for himself, free of commitment. That night, he left the house and never returned.
Since then, Megan had to provide for herself and her three children on her own, balancing the role of sole caretaker with holding a minimum wage job bagging groceries at the local supermarket. Thankfully, she was receiving government assistance to ease her financial burdens ever so slightly, but her monetary situation still kept the woman awake late at night, leaving her frenzied and overly tired. Megan’s well-off parents, Jeremy and Caitlin Rankin, whom she had never had the closest relationship with, had come back into her life after the birth of her daughter once Tobias had walked out, and offered their help, but the young woman frequently turned it down; she wanted to prove to them that she could do it all on her own. It didn’t stop her parents from continuously proposing their aid frequently, however; indeed, they often went so far as to repeatedly suggest to their daughter that she and their grandchildren move into their Brooklyn Brownstone with them. Megan, however, always adamantly turned down their gracious offer.
The chaotic state of life within the Rankin household had forced Aaron to mature more quickly than he would have otherwise – Megan liked to joke that he was nine going on nineteen – and the love he harbored for his mother made him irate whenever Jake gave her a hard time, which, unfortunately, was pretty frequently.
After Aaron set down the last fork, he gathered three spotty glasses from a cabinet before reaching into the fridge and pulling out a pitcher of ice water and a pre-made bottle of milk for Amy. “Can you get your sister settled in her chair, please?” Megan asked her youngest son the moment that he had finished placing the drinkware down. “Thank you.” She sighed with relief as he took the baby from her arms. “It’s nice to get some help around here.” She threw Jake an annoyed glance before she began to scoop the contents of the pot she had been stirring into a serving dish.
As Aaron began to situate Amy in her highchair, he noticed his brother roll his eyes in annoyance. Ignoring him, he smiled at his baby sister, who reached up lovingly to stroke his face after she was strapped in. “There you go, Amy. Here’s your bottle.” Amy yanked the milk from his outstretched hands and began to suck it down gleefully.
Aaron took his seat opposite her, and adjacent to his brother, just as Megan placed a platter of extremely burnt macaroni and cheese in the center of the table. As she scooped a large amount onto Jake’s plate, he asked glumly, “Can we order take out?”
“Don’t be a wise ass, Jake. Okay? For once in your life, can’t you just be grateful?” Megan asked, annoyed, as she scooped some of the food onto Aaron’s plate.
Sensing his mother’s desperation, Aaron kicked Jake pointedly under the table. “Ow! What?” Aaron jerked his head at the woman, who was scooping food onto her own plate now, and widened his eyes in silent warning. His brother scoffed at the gesture before relenting and saying, “Sorry, Megan.”
Aaron slapped a palm to his face, exasperated, as Megan rolled her eyes and began to fill their glasses with water. “You know that I don’t appreciate you calling me by my first name,” she said calmly.
“You’re young enough to be my sister,” Jake pointed out bitterly.
“Yes, well, I’m not. I’m your mother, so start treating me like one, Jacob.” Megan sat down with a contented sigh, smirking in a self-satisfied way at the look of annoyance on her eldest’s face at having been addressed by his full name. “Look, can we just get through one meal as a family without fighting, please?” She stared at Jake pointedly until he begrudgingly gave her a curt nod. “Thank you.”
The Rankin family sat in awkward silence, picking at their food as Amy continued sucking on her bottle. The quiet that settled over the table stretched on for so long, and became so awkward, that eventually Megan couldn’t take it anymore. Forcing a smile onto her face, she turned to peer at Aaron. “Are you excited about New York, sweetie?”
Aaron shrugged. “I guess,” he replied, trying and failing to sound enthused.
“You guess?” Megan repeated, surprised. “That wasn’t the excited reply I was expecting! What’s wrong? Are you sick?” She placed the back of her hand against Aaron’s forehead.
“I’m fine, mom.”
“Those kids aren’t still picking on you, are they?”
“Chris and Daniel?” Aaron asked. “No. Well, yes. But–”
“If they give you a hard time on your trip, you go straight to Ms. Warren or Principal Rodriguez and report them, do you understand?” His mother’s tone was stern now. “I’m serious. I want you to start sticking up for yourself. I don’t want you to have to put up with that crap.”
“I can deal with Chris and Daniel, mom,” Aaron replied, exasperated. “Seriously, it’s just–”
“Well why aren’t you excited about your trip then?” Megan asked, her eyebrows furrowed. “It’s absolutely beautiful up there this time of the year. Especially when it snows! And you’ve seen the news, they’re expecting a lot of it this year.” She winked at her son. “Besides, you should feel honored that your class was chosen out of so many to perform with the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular! On Christmas Eve, no less! During the nativity scene! That’s always the highlight of the show!”
“We won a contest, mom,” Aaron politely reminded her. “It’s not like we’re special or anything.”
“You can say that again,” Jake mumbled derisively.
Megan shot her oldest son a disparaging glance before turning her attention back toward her youngest one. “You’re playing the little drummer boy, honey! You were born for this role!” When the words didn’t succeed in cheering Aaron up, she reached across the table and gently wrapped her hand around his wrist and shook him. “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”
Jake rolled his eyes. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? He’s scared to be away from mommy overnight.”
“I am not!” Aaron replied, embarrassed, feeling his cheeks burn red. “Enough, Jacob!” Megan snapped.
“Nothing’s wrong!” Aaron insisted, determined to take back control of the conversation. “I’m excited for my trip, mom. Seriously. I just – I wish I would be home for Christmas, that’s all.” He stared down at the table, avoiding the eyes of his mother and brother. “I mean – what’s the point of Christmas if you can’t celebrate it with your family?”
Megan’s face fell at the words. “Aw, honey. I wish you could be home for Christmas too, but don’t let that ruin your fun! This is such an amazing opportunity for you, and I want you to enjoy it! There is no place better to spend the holidays than Manhattan! Besides, you will be celebrating Christmas with family – you’re staying with grandma and grandpa, remember? And I promise you that when you get home, the four of us will celebrate Christmas again together! How does that sound?”
Aaron forced a smile onto his face. Though his mother’s words didn’t do much to bolster his spirits or heighten his anticipation for his class’ field trip, the woman beside him looked so sincere that he didn’t want to do anything to bring her down. “That sounds great, mom.”
“I have an idea – why don’t we all go to New York to spend Christmas?” Jake asked pointedly, stabbing angrily at his dinner. When he noticed his mother look at him in surprise, he shrugged innocently. “The families of all of the other kids in Aaron’s class are travelling north to see them perform at Radio City, why can’t we?”
Megan went red in the face and shifted uncomfortably in her seat as she addressed Aaron. “You know that we’d be there if we could,” she began. “But – well, we just don’t have the money right now. I had to pick up extra shifts at work just to be able to afford your ticket–”
“It’s fine, mom,” Aaron genuinely insisted. “I understand.” He shot his brother a dirty look.
“We’ll be there in spirit though,” Megan continued as though she had not been interrupted, her voice rising hysterically as she tried to inject optimism into every word that spilled from her mouth. “And your grandmother promised me that she’d videotape the entire thing for me so that we can all watch it together when you get home!”
Aaron forced a strained smile. “That sounds nice.”
“So let me ask you something.” Jake shoveled a large spoonful of macaroni into his mouth. “Does dad know that his son is going to be in town?”
Megan instantly stiffened at the words. “Jake!” Aaron exclaimed.
“It’s fine, honey.” Megan winked at Aaron, who could tell by the tone of her voice that she was anything but fine. Despite this simple fact, she was remarkably able to keep a modicum of calm and patience when she addressed her eldest’s question. “Firstly, I have no idea whether your father ever moved back to New York, Jake. You know I haven’t talked to him since he walked out on us, which brings me to my second point. Since he chose to walk out, it’s none of his business where Aaron, or any of us for that matter, is spending Christmas, or if any of us are going to be in town.” Jake opened his mouth to argue, prompting Megan to raise her voice and plow on in order to prevent him for speaking. “I know how hard that is for you to comprehend, but he left us. He doesn’t want anything to do with us. He’s a bad person, and whether you believe it or not, the fact of the matter is, we’re better off without him.”
Jake appeared taken aback by the words, but apparently Megan wasn’t done yet. She whipped around to face Aaron, her eyes flashing. “And if by chance you do run into your father in New York, I don’t want you talking to him or going anywhere with him. Do you understand me?” Her voice was firm now. “If you see him and he tries to communicate with you, I want you to immediately tell your teacher or one of the other adults on the trip with you, got it? And then tell your grandmother as well the moment you see her. Understand?” Aaron nodded, blinking in surprise. Megan leaned back in her seat, appearing slightly relieved. “Good.”
Another awkward silence settled over the table, during which Aaron stared pityingly at his brother out of the corner of his eye, noticing how genuinely depressed the boy looked. Aaron knew that Jake wanted a father figure in his life, but he hoped that his brother would eventually come to terms with the fact that they only had their mother, who was doing her best and deserved to be treated better than Jake currently treated her. As Aaron was preoccupied with these distracting thoughts, Megan interpreted his silence for depression and said, “Look, forget about your father. I promise you, you’ll have fun in Manhattan, okay? Have I ever lied to you?”
Aaron smiled. “No.”
“Exactly! And don’t worry – I have no doubt that Santa Claus will be able to find you at grandma’s house in order to leave you your gifts. And who knows?” She shrugged playfully. “Maybe he’ll have a gift or two waiting under the tree for you here to open when you get home as well!”
“A new marching snare drum?” Aaron asked excitedly.
Megan hesitated and her smile faltered as her face fell noticeably. “I don’t know, honey. That’s a pretty expensive gift, you know – even for Santa! He works on a budget! Supplies aren’t cheap, and he has to make sure to pay all of his elves a living wage!”
Disappointment coursed through Aaron’s body. “I know. It’s just – it’s all I asked for this year.” Truth be told, it was all he asked for the past three years, and each year neither his mother nor Santa Claus had been able to come through for him.
“Cheer up! Maybe he’ll bring you a new pair of drumsticks, at the very least!”
“Jesus Christ, Megan!” Jake exclaimed loudly, slamming his hands down on the table so hard that it caused Amy to jump and drop her bottle to the floor in fright. “Would you give it a rest? He’s too old to believe in Santa Claus!”
“Jake, shut up!” Megan warned through gritted teeth, shaking angrily.
Aaron stared from his brother to his mother and back again, confused. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.
“Santa Claus isn’t real, you idiot,” Jake began forcefully. “Mom buys, wraps, and leaves the presents under the Christmas tree for us! She’s lied to you your whole life! Why do you think our gifts are so crappy compared to all of our friends’?”
“Enough!” Megan stood up furiously, as Amy began to cry loudly. “Jake, go to your room!”
“With pleasure, Megan!” Jake pushed his chair back from the table with such force that it overbalanced and clattered to the floor. With a hard kick to Aaron’s chair as he passed, Jake stormed out of the kitchen without a backwards glance. Megan, meanwhile, bent down to pick up Amy’s bottle and shoved it back into the baby’s hands unceremoniously, which quelled the crying instantly.
Aaron, meanwhile, was in shock. Staring at his mother closely, he asked desperately, “Mom? Is that true? Is Santa Claus fake?”
“Of course not, sweetie!” Megan insisted, as she began to clear the table in an attempt to avoid direct eye contact with her son. “You know what Jake is like; he’s probably just bitter because he knows he’s going to end up on Santa’s naughty list this year.”
But Aaron barely heard the words coming out of his mother’s mouth. At that moment, all of the Christmas specials and movies that he had seen over the years played quickly in his mind; how had he never noticed before that in every single one of them, none of the adults ever believe in Santa Claus? He had heard a few older kids in school discussing the doubts that they had about the jolly old man’s existence, but he never gave the thought much credence until now. “Are you lying to me?” he asked his mother sadly. “Are you really the one who leaves all of the gifts under the tree? Are you really Santa Claus?”
With a deep sigh, Megan placed the plates that she was carrying in her arms gently into the sink before crouching down in front of Aaron, staring her youngest son straight in his eyes. She remained silent for a moment, as she mulled over her answer. The boy was so mature in so many ways, she didn’t have the heart to tear away his last vestige of childhood innocence just yet. If she could keep him believing in the magic of Santa Claus for just a little while longer, at least through the holidays, she would be happy. So with a deep breath, and welling up with emotion, she explained, “I swear to you that I’m not Santa Claus. Parents are just the people who wrap your presents, stuff your stockings, and put your gifts under the Christmas tree. My parents did it for me, and one day you’ll do it for your kids.
“It doesn’t make us any one of us Santa though.” She smiled. “Santa is so many people; the ones who keep the spirit of Christmas alive all year long. The real Santa Claus lives in all of our hearts, not just up at the north pole with his elves and his reindeer. Santa Claus does exist, Aaron. He is the embodiment of magic, love, and the spirit of giving to others. He is the physical incarnation of peace on earth and good will toward men. He teaches people, especially children like yourself, to believe in something they can’t see or touch, but they know is there. And that’s a trait you’re going to need throughout your entire life! Trust me, I know from experience!” She let out a tiny laugh. “The capacity to believe; to have faith. Not just in yourself, but in other people as well!”
Megan stared down at the floor, diverting her gaze from her son’s wide, curious eyes. “Unfortunately, for whatever reason, a lot of people stop believing in Santa Claus when they get older. Sadly, so many tend to forget the lessons they learned from him as a child. Maybe it’s just the reality and the weight of adulthood that causes it, I don’t know.” She shrugged. “But whatever the case, when that happens, Santa doesn’t just stop leaving them gifts, but he leaves a hole in their hearts as well. These people are misguided, Aaron.” She swallowed hard and looked up to meet his eyes again. “The world is a scary, cruel, depressing, and often unhappy place. Believe me, I know that first hand!” She smiled sadly. “But Santa takes a little bit of that unhappiness away. He and the lessons that he helps to teach help to scratch out the tears of more depressing days. And if more adults remembered the spirit of what Santa taught them when they were young, and carried it close to their hearts later in life – if everyone tried, just a little bit, to be more like him – the world would be a better place.
“Don’t listen to your brother, Aaron – or anyone else who may tell you that he’s make-believe, for that matter. Santa Claus is real, even if you can’t see him. And I never want you to stop believing in him, okay? I never did.”
Megan lapsed into silence, as Aaron absorbed the woman’s words. He thought it was a beautiful sentiment, but he was still confused about one thing. Furrowing his eyebrows, he asked, “So if you’re the one who wraps the gifts and leaves them under the tree, does that mean that Santa doesn’t actually visit on Christmas Eve?”
“Of course he does!” Megan forced an anxious smile, taken aback slightly by her son’s astute listening comprehension skills. “Someone has to eat the cookies and milk, don’t they? It sure as hell isn’t me!” She patted her flat stomach. “I didn’t mean to imply that he doesn’t deliver the gifts, because of course he does! It’s just – parents help him with the presentation. Do you understand?” Aaron nodded. “Good.” She stood up and ruffled the boy’s hair. “Now, why don’t you grab yourself a cookie from the cookie jar.” She jerked her head at the jar in question, as she bent down to pick up Jake’s fallen chair. “I baked your favorite today!”
“Chocolate chip?” Aaron asked excitedly.
“Chocolate chip,” Megan confirmed with a smile. “So go grab yourself one, and then go upstairs and finish packing so that you can get to bed. We have to meet the rest of your class at the airport bright and early, don’t forget! Four a.m.!”
“Okay, mom.” But rather than going to make a move right away, Aaron sat there for a few more moments and watched as his mother finished clearing the table. After depositing all of the dirty dinnerware into the sink and turning on the faucet, she turned on the radio on the counter and began to hum along with Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? as the song echoed around the small space and she began to scrub the dirty plates.
With a sigh, Aaron pushed himself to his feet and kissed the forehead of a giggling Amy, who was dancing along to the music in her high chair, before strolling over to the cookie jar resting on one of the kitchen counters. Before he opened it, however, he took pause to study the shape of it.
It was a porcelain Santa Claus, grinning from ear-to-ear in a way that accentuated his rosy cheeks. Over his shoulder, he was carrying a heavy sack of toys, from the top of which, a teddy bear’s head was sticking out. Though his mom insisted that Santa was real, Aaron was unable to shake the doubt that remained in his head. He wanted to believe; he wanted to believe so badly. But the way in which Jake had just snapped at the dinner table earlier had seemed so genuine, he didn’t know what to think anymore.
“Aaron?” Megan’s voice shook him from his reverie. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that she was staring at him, concerned. “Are you alright?”
“Fine, mom.” And without another word, he grabbed a cookie from the jar, shoved it into his mouth, and hurried out of the kitchen in order to finish packing for his trip to New York City the next morning. While he still wasn’t happy about the prospect of being away from home or family for Christmas, and he was getting more nervous by the second about the prospect of performing on stage at Radio City Music Hall, he was determined to at least try and enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience – just like he had promised his mother that he would.