You vow to stay awake all night to prove that your parents weren’t lying to you about Santa Claus. It feels as if five minutes have passed when your older sister shakes you, insisting that you’ve overslept. It’s still dark outside and your bedroom is cold. Your digital clock says that it’s 6:15 a.m.
You slip out of your blanket cocoon, envying the body heat still trapped inside. You pull your Christmas bell necklace over your head, and grab the bag of presents that’s been hiding under your bed. The crackle of the paper bag sounds magnified in the stillness.
Your sister presses her finger to her lips as you tiptoe past your little sister’s bedroom. You can hear your father snoring further down the hall. You creep downstairs with the bag of presents in your right hand and the bell on your necklace clasped in your other to muffle the clapper.
A lamp is on in the living room, where your mother kneels on the carpet, still wrapping presents. It seems to take her longer and longer every year. You hope this means that you’re in for a sizable haul before reminding yourself that “it’s not about the presents.”
Your mother’s face suggests otherwise. There are bags under her eyes and her smile is grim.
“He could’ve stayed and helped,” her scissors snap, as they sever a coil of red ribbon.
But we all know that she wouldn’t have let him, even if he’d offered. There’s a right way to wrap presents and then there’s your father’s way.
“Merry Christmas,” you both whisper, knowing it’s the wrong thing to say at the moment.
“We just came down to do our presents,” your sister explains.
“No peeking,” you add.
You give your mother’s exhaustion a wide berth, trying not to invade the circle of light cast by the lamp. In the corner, presents are already nestled under the trees spicy-scented branches, and white lights shine on the crests of glossy ribbons and bows. You arrange your own contribution as tastefully as space allows, and stand back to admire the splendor. It’s too early to do anything and too late to go back to bed.
Finally, your mother presses a tag onto the last present and places it under the tree. She piles the wrapping supplies in a corner and says goodnight. There’s a sliver of ribbon pressed against her arm and a piece of tape stuck to her slipper sock. You hope she knows that it’s too late to go to bed, but you know better than to say so.
Now you can poke and pinch and shake the presents to your heart’s content. You try to guess what they are through the wrapping paper, secretly hoping that you’re wrong so that you don’t spoil the surprise. But it’s clear which ones are from which parent. The nicely wrapped, neatly labeled ones from “Dad” aren’t fooling anyone.
Your little sister appears in the red sweat suit that your grandpa and his wife gave her last Christmas. The teddy bear on the front is fuzzy and the sparkly green bow around its neck has been sewed on afterwards, as if a stuffed animal is popping out of your sister’s chest. You think that the designer must’ve been a 3D genius.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” she demands, as if she suspects you of hiding the best part of the festivities in your pockets. Mischief suggests that this would be the perfect time to tell her the truth about Santa, but you resist the temptation, while your older sister helps her “hide” her presents under the tree.
“Ooh, this one’s for me!” she squeals with shining eyes, tossing all three strands of wispy blonde hair over her shoulder with a chubby hand. You have to admit that she’s pretty darn cute most days.
Hours later by childhood reckoning, you finally hear an adult tread in the upstairs hall and run out to the entryway. Your father is coming downstairs, right foot first on every step like a child, chuckling and rubbing his hands. The excited gleam in his sleepy eyes spells certified crazy, and the hair standing up all over his head confirms the diagnosis.
“Good morning! Merry Christmas! Shh, shh—Mom!” you all chime, as you hug him simultaneously.
Christmas isn’t Christmas without your father.