when santa writes back

oh, i know christmas is all but tucked away. at our house, sadly, the tree’s outside now. its branches, harbor for the birds.

the ornaments, once again, are bedded down in tissue papers, some as old as lord knows when. the box, though, the one in which the christmas fixings doze till december comes again, it hasn’t made it to the attic. waits now on the upstairs landing, for the day when finally we’ll tire of stepping ‘round its torn, unruly flaps, the cardboard ones marked “merry christmas. lites, ribbons, ornaments & mistletoe.”

but there’s one last bit of christmas i cannot put away.

it’s sitting here beside me. crumpled. splattered with a spot or two of cocoa.

looking more or less like afterthought. a page ripped from someone’s long-lost journal.

which, actually, was quite the point.

it begins, “dear theodore,” and there’s a story to be told. so settle in, while i spin one last yuletide yarn.

twas the night before christmas, really it was, when for the first time ever i invited in my manchild-now-verging-on-man-of-6-foot-1 to the santa stirrings.

told him, with a drumroll in the offing, that what i was about to utter was truly a passage to be marked.

while his papa snoozed upstairs, as he nearly always does on any night when snows are blowing, or the day goes dark (meaning it’s a regular habit, this going to bed well before i click off the lights and trod the stairs), the boy who would be man was asked to take on his papa’s long-held, behind-closed-doors, night-before-christmas task.

might he, i wondered, dropping low my whisper, take some nibbles from the cookie plate, gnaw off a bite of carrot, make like the fat ol’ elf and all his flying herd had whirled right through the family room?

and so the man-boy had at it. puffed his chest in the way a papa would (at least on some old black-and-white ‘50s flick). the glint in his grey-green eyes went to super-glint.

he headed straight for the plate. nibbled. gnawed.

then went well beyond the dental portion of the ruse. why, he made like no santa i had ever known.

he sprinkled crumbs in a path of certitude. left a chunk of cookie on the hearth. and a peel of clementine besides. as if the old elf was rather sloppy, multi-tasking, scarfing, climbing up the chimney.

it didn’t stop there.

next i knew, he was yanking wide the glass-paned door, letting in the bitter cold.

i looked askance, in that way that mothers do, seemed to wonder without words, what in the world was that young elf up to?

he replied, as if he’d heard the very thought: “tossing out the carrot bits as if the reindeer dropped them. you know, flying off the roof, they leave a trail behind.”

still more: “hey, mom, do you have a piece of paper?” he inquired.

whatever for, i asked, ripping one from off my shelf.

“santa’s writing back,” he said, as if he did so every night, then launched into his loopiest, most arctic cursive, apparently.

“dear theodore,” he began, before going on to thank him for the sweetened fuel, the cookies, the orange, for being “quite the thoughtful young lad.”

before signing it, “regards, s. claus, giftgiver extraordinaire,” he even penned a pair of hoof prints from the carrot-dropping reindeer.

apologized for their messy habits. even excused himself for not polishing off the cookie plate, “mrs. claus made me a hearty dinner, you see.”

the words though were only the start.

he began to crumple. then asked for a match to singe the edges. i suddenly wondered how far he’d take it, might we soon be deconstructing santa’s sleigh? leave runner bits littered on the lawn?

grinch, alas, i knew i had to be.

so at the match i drew the line. shook my head, no way, young elf. this is not a pirate’s treasure map, nor a cowboy ransom note.

and besides, i added, i can see it now: the smoke alarm will go berserk, wake the house, and upstairs sleepers will clamber down the steps and find us, you and me, standing here, making like incendiary santas.

and thus, thwarted before the night turned smoky, the would-be man merely laid the letter down amid the cookie crumbs. and i shooshed him from the room.

twas time for doings he wasn’t yet old enough to witness, never would be, i told him as i shoved him up the stairs, needing just a moment to myself as i myself turned into santa dearest and strewed the few fine things we’d gathered for this humble christmas.

he’d have to wait till dawn, like his baby brother did, to see what spilled from st. nick’s pack.

i must admit, i nearly missed the treasure that the would-be elf laid out for all to see. hadn’t even seen it in the making, when i was lone witness to his work of heart.

next morning, in the hustle of the post-dawn pouncing, santa’s letter wasn’t found till shortly after the basketball jersey was permanently affixed (a week later, the little one hadn’t yanked it off his skinny little chest), and the hovering helicopter ripped from its see-through box.

but when the little one discovered the crumpled, hand-penned page, there beside the cookie plate, he held it, rapt. then turned and simply said, “santa wrote me back.”

i could have sworn the child glowed.

i saw of course that he read it very, very closely. i saw how he returned again and again that christmas morn, to read it once or twice or thrice. maybe just to hold it in his fingers, to rub his skin against the very spot where santa’s hands had held it firm.

i couldn’t quite believe he hadn’t seen right through it. i’d been so sure it was boldly overdone. a teenage folly that couldn’t be pulled off.

oh, was i the fool. i nearly missed the bliss of unstained innocence.

it wasn’t till the next day that it all came tumbling clear, that i realized just how much his big brother’s fussing to make it all just so had really truly mattered.

we were out, the little one and i, browsing through an after-christmas sale, and a clerk behind the counter leaned in and asked him if santa had been good, and in that way that assumes young children always get a haul, she asked what he liked best.

and with his little-boy eyes he looked up and said quite certainly: “the letter from santa.”

and right then and there i felt a tear spill down, from out of nowhere, i thought at first. but really, from out of somewhere. from that place inside my heart, that place that leaps before it ever looks.

it was, more than any other bit of christmas, the crumpled letter in the curly cursive his brother strained to make so santa-like.

it was the one thing no one bought, or paid for.

it was the finest unwrapped anything. maybe ever.

it was, he’ll some day know, a big brother’s best gift to the one who, at 7, teeters on the blurry-edged brink of belief versus doubt: plain, clear proof that believing comes to those who hold it in their hands.

twas a fleeting frame of christmas magic captured. and i’ll not forget its fine pure face.

nor will either deep-believing brother.

do you have a tale to tell of a little bit of christmas magic? or any other brand of magic?