For the fifth time during that Holy Night, Julia checked the tree. Nothing. Not a single clue that a bicycle was in her near future. But “hope is the last one to die”, as Grandma Maria always says.
The problem is that Julia started questioning the whole Santa’s existence. There was a rumor in school that the good old man was actually just a character and something you should “grow out of” as you become a wiser kid. A very concerning rumor that meant no North Pole Santa quarters, no reindeer, no sleigh.
The girl knew that Santas in shopping centers and malls were just men dressed as the real (or not?) guy, hired to entertain shoppers. She was a smart kid and figured that out pretty early on. But the recent news was a bit deeper than that. “Your parents buy and hide the gifts.” The echo of that brutal statement has been haunting her for a couple of weeks, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask the parents, the very same people who would have been deceiving her for all those eight years. The betrayal. But the intentions were nice… Would they do that, though?
Julia had absolutely no proof of that deceit. Also, it was difficult proof to obtain, as she knew that her mom did indeed buy gifts for her and everyone else, for that matter. There was always a gift to and from everybody. The surprise gifts were part of the ritual, just like the red shiny ball ornaments resembling Rudolph’s nose, and the spinning musical angel. She even helped her mom wrap many of the gifts for others, knowing all too well that hers were out of sight – and she loved that mystery factor. Actually, one of her early detective skills was to circle around the massive tree and try to read the tags in search of “to Julia” packages, investigating shapes for possible guesses. She also liked to make sure that everyone had at least one gift to open. She should have known better by now that her mom, as the perfect hostess she was, would never leave anyone behind. How she pulled it all off – food, gifts, decor, so much planning for so many people – remained a familiar Christmas miracle. She even made sure there were gifts with blank tags, ready to be used in case of an unexpected guest showing up. And it did happen a few times. Once, a friend of her aunt’s was invited. As her family lived far away, Julia’s mom would never allow someone she knew alone on Christmas Eve. But it turned out that she wasn’t exactly all alone, and brought her fiancé along, a strong and robust guy with a nice smile:
“Jul, get me two blank-tag gifts for this couple, and a pen. What’s the fiancé ‘s name again? Oh, yeah, Peter. Grab two, any will do”, whispered her mom. Julia was a good elf in operation “Everybody’s Got a Gift”. Yes, the gifts were generic, but aimed at making all guests feel included and welcomed. As genuine as the inclusion and welcoming were, these gifts were obviously spare ones, as everyone knew they were last minute guests and the stores were closed by the time they arrived. Presents would vary from cologne or fancy soap kits to books. Little “one size fits all” things that could please anyone – and even be used by someone in the family, in case there weren’t any extra guests. Reflecting upon it now, deception was suddenly looking like a recurrent theme during the Holiday Season, despite the noble reasons…
Blank-tagged gifts and plenty of extra food were mandatory in the home. For Julia, the fun gift exchange and her very important role as caller and delivery girl was the highlight of the night. Another organizational tactic from Julia’s mom. Everyone arriving had to place their gifts in the already packed “under the tree” space. It was like playing gift Jenga, balancing skills required. And to ensure maximum attention from the crowd to each gift exchange, so that everybody witnessed the whole process, Julia was the only one with access to the tree when the exchange started. She would then pick a present and slowly read the tag in clear and loud voice, to overpower Aunt Leah’s uncontrollable chatting ways and Uncle Henry’s hearing issues:
“To THOMAS, from LAURA!”
“THOMAS! Not you yet, Henry!”
After that, she would hand each gift to each happy recipient, who then HAD to open it in front of everyone. Underwear or intimate gifting not recommended.
It was a mission Julia took very seriously, the years perfecting her speech and delivery. It also required a certain compassion practice, making sure to pick the gifts in an order that would prevent someone singled out as “the one without any gifts yet”.
That was the routine for Julia’s family, the South American tradition where everyone gets together on Christmas Eve for a very late supper. We’re talking after 10 pm here. Drinking on empty stomachs sometimes led to Uncle Fred’s somewhat disturbing and borderline perverted dance, and some Grinch-like, “hangry” snarky comments from any family member that could easily lead to an argument, depending on the Christmas spirit level in that particular year. But her mom wouldn’t change the tradition for anything, and counted on the hors d’oeuvres (she loved French words) to keep the crowd under control.
Gathering, supper, gifts at midnight, while the Papal Mass on TV, live from the Vatican, blessed the mayhem. Then déjà vu leftovers for the Christmas lunch on the next day made sure that all extra pounds were well worth gaining. That was the way, every year. That’s the way our girl knew and loved Christmas.
However, this whole Santa thing was a pickle. Julia thought that maybe the bike would bring some proof. When she first started understanding and enjoying Christmas, a very legitimate concern followed:
“Mom, can Santa deliver to us even though we don’t have a chimney?”
“Santa actually loves condos and apartments, Jujube. No need to squeeze that jello belly into the chimney, all he has to do is come through the large windows.”
But carrying a bike would be hard and, most importantly, she would easily be able to spot the large volume and distinctive shape under the tree.
“Dad, I am going to wait awake to see if Santa brings my bike.”
“Good luck with that. Guy is magical.”
“Or not even real”, she thought.
And so they gathered for the feast. Turkey, ham, about ten side dishes, eight choices of beverage and seven desserts later, everyone had to loosen the belt to wait for the gifting, which would start in a couple of minutes.
Ready to assume her leading role, Julia came back from the kitchen, where she had taken her totally empty plate and engaged in a conversation with Auntie Silvia about Disneyworld wishes. That’s when she glanced at the tree and gasped. A huge, definitely bike-shaped gift, wrapped in transparent orange cellophane with a massive golden bow was perfectly placed under the already extremely full tree. But… but how?
Her mom saw her standing by the tree, looking like a reindeer caught in the headlights:
“Yeah, I know, looks like you got your wish… Santa came while you were in the kitchen. He was in a big hurry with all the worldwide deliveries, and couldn’t wait to say hi, but asked me to tell you he loves you and that you are a very good girl.” And gave her a gentle forehead kiss.
“Wait! Mom was in the kitchen with me a second ago. Dad was at the dining table the whole time, still attacking the ham, I could hear him. I left for just a few minutes. It couldn’t have been them…” thought the soon-to-be bike owner. Chuckling at her confused face, Julia’s dad reminded her:
“Told ya, the guy is magic.”
“Yes, he is. No doubt about it anymore.”
At least for one more year. Or two. Until she found out she wasn’t the only family elf her parents recruited, and that everybody had a place and a role, including sneaking in her presents – no matter how big they were – almost invisibly, while the parents were still safely in sight to avoid suspicion. That year, the unexpected and strong fiancé was the lifesaver who ended up carrying the bike from the garage to the tree, relieving a very tipsy Uncle Fred from the duty. She eventually learned about “Operation Bike”, laughing and learning from the best how to replicate the same magic for her own son Noah, many years later.
Santa exists because he can live inside of us. The bearded magical guy can remain forever as an endearing symbol and warm memory of love, joy, fun, sharing, giving and celebrating with family and all the dear people we meet in this journey of living.