December 24

Christmas Eve

 

“You’ve been talking to your friends, haven’t you?”

Pammy shakes her head back and forth, the covers pulled up tight to her chin.  You’ve already turned off the bedside lamp, and the glowworm nightlight casts soft shadows over your daughter’s face.  She always looks so innocent at bedtime, once the day’s opportunities for mischief  have passed.  You’ve learned not to underestimate her, however:  even a five-year-old can find clever excuses to stay up late or, at this time of year, negotiate some variation to long-held holiday traditions.

Your daughter wants her Christmas presents early.

“It doesn’t matter if Benton’s family shares their gifts the night before,”  you say, trying to keep the irritation from your voice even though you’re repeating an argument you’ve made countless times before.  “In our family, the proper time is Christmas morning.  The anticipation makes the day even more special.  You’ll see.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Pammy says, her lower lip pressing out in a slight pout.  Other nights she might have kicked her feet beneath the blanket, but she knows better than to stage a tantrum on Christmas Eve.  Jolly Saint Nick is still watching.  He still has time to put her on the “Naughty” list.

The thought of Santa offers the easiest strategy to refute your daughter’s request.  “Santa’s not even here yet,” you tell her.  “You can’t open presents until he brings them.”

“Are you sure?”  Pammy’s eyes flash, searching the glow-lit room as if she could see through the walls and down the stairs to the living room where their decorated tree awaits — and the tray of cookies Pammy left out, which Gene usually nibbles at while arranging foil-wrapped packages.  “Can you check right now, and come back to tell me?”

“No, Pammy.  Santa never arrives this early.”

“When he does come,” Pammy says, “you must wake me.  We’ll open presents then.”

She’s tricked you once again — hoping to turn your own logic against you.  You have to resort to the I-said-so tactic:  “Tomorrow morning.  Not a minute sooner.”

And now an expression of authentic sadness spreads across her face.  This is more than a spoiled child hoping to get her way.  Pammy seems really worried.

Although you’re determined not to change family traditions, you can at least sympathize with your daughter’s distress.  You recall your own fears as a small child, back when you believed in holiday myths.  One Christmas night, you dreamed of Santa’s sleigh colliding with an airplane:  the reindeer killed instantly; presents falling from the sky like giant sparkling hailstones; and a jolly man’s body plummeting to Earth, no screams of “Ho, ho, ho!” before tumbling bone-snapped and lifeless down an unsuspecting family’s chimney.

“Santa’s going to be fine.”  You reach out and offer a comforting pat to your daughter’s head.  “He’s magical.  Nothing can hurt him.”

“I know Santa will be fine.  But what about us?”

Most children have an uncanny ability to ambush their parents with surprising questions, but you’ve always thought Pammy had special skill in that department.  Even so, this latest comment strikes you as particularly strange:  not just the question itself, but the honesty with which Pammy delivered it.

Honesty.  And wisdom.

“Sweetheart, is there something you’re not telling me?”

Your daughter’s eyes flutter around the room, avoiding you.  She whispers a confession, so soft you have to lean close to hear.  “I told a lie earlier.”

You wait, letting Pammy continue at her own pace.

“I told you I hadn’t talked with my friends,” she said.  “I have.  But not really about presents.”

The room seems darker now — not a child’s comforting night-lit bedroom, but more like a cave of whispered, terrifying secrets.

“Benton’s father,” she continues.  “He works with the government.  I’m not supposed to know, but they think something terrible will happen tomorrow.  That’s the real reason they’re opening presents early this year.  They may not get another chance.”

Your daughter sniffs, then wipes at her nose.  A single tear falls down her cheek.

You wonder which of the foil-wrapped packages downstairs might cheer her up — the dollhouse, the miniature tea set, the teddy bear — thinking, like all parents, that you want your child to be happy, you want to distract her from things that might frighten her.  You want to see her face light up with joy, even if it might be for the last time.