The girl woke up on a drafty morning, just on the edge of cold, in the early hours of Christmas morning. She noted the suitcases sitting outside in the toy room, with dolls and stuffed animals stacked on a white rounded shelf, and sighed at the prospect of the day to come. Just a few weeks ago, she would have been overjoyed, running down the stairs, in childish joy, but today, she merely felt the weight of growing up, almost like an anchor. She turned her head into the bright pink, fluffy pillow and burrowed tighter into the blankets. Yet duty called, along with her circadian rhythm, since she was a naturally early riser. She stumbled out of bed, slowly, in a sleeping T-shirt and shorts, trying to get downstairs before the rest of her family, especially her brother.
All of a sudden, she saw a light in the bathroom, immediately becoming suspicious. Peering in through the door, she saw her mother typing on her computer at 6 a.m. She thought, “Why on earth would she be doing that?” So she went and stood next to her, asking,” Amma, what are you doing?” Before her mother could speak, a realization hit her like a cold stone. Her mother was typing personalized cards that they received every year, always in fancy fonts and with encouraging messages, but she had always been told that these from Santa. It was even more of a betrayal of the holiday she had loved since the time, traveling to Yosemite, that her mother had told her that Santa did not exist. Her parents had been giving her presents every year, and the surprising thing was that she had never picked up on it or perhaps even chosen not to. Maybe childhood was a cocoon, and every year, a layer of that cocoon was shattered.
It wasn’t that the girl was particularly religious about Christmas, but there was a special joy about opening the presents under the tree. Every year, lifting one side of the 13-year-old Christmas tree crammed into a box and put on a tall shelf, and the boxes of ornaments. Some red with spots, others shaped like bells or hearts, and the most special were the school projects turned into mementos, a pinecone hanging on a plastic chain from kindergarten and a blown glass ornament from third grade. Current joys and past whims all hung to the green branches, with plastic green needles on the floor of a golden rug. Below that, presents would sit, wrapped in customary spotted golden wrapping paper. It was not really out of any love for the wrapping paper, but the convenience of that being one of two rolls of wrapping happier in the house. Not this year though. This year, they were going on vacation. The corner near the table with an absurdly large flower base on it was empty, and the hollow was piercing.
Even if the bubble had burst for her, it had yet to burst for her brother. Her mother called her,” Di, come over here”.
She dashed over, yelling, “ Enda?” or “What?”
Her mother said, “ Listen, you have to pretend Santa dropped off the presents, ok? Your brother still believes in it, and we don’t want to tell him yet” The girl started to feel guilt worm into her soul because her face was completely transparent, almost like a mirror. But she had no choice but to obediently agree. In an effort to put on a show for her brother, she helped her mother wrap the presents and print out Santa’s cards. Simultaneously, her father found a large, flat cardboard box and set it near the front door. The girl helped carry the presents to that box, placing the cards on top, all in the hour and a half before her brother woke up.
Then, the dreaded sound of her brother’s echoing footsteps down the stairs with brown, twisting reeds, embroidered on the carpet, came. Her mother enthusiastically greeted him, “ Look, look, Santa came early!” since he had been upset about missing Santa due to the trip. That one short sentence pulled him out of a sleepy daze, and he dashed down the stairs, like he was running a marathon. Tearing at the wrapping paper he found a stuffed jaguar, a microscope, books, and a few board games, thinking it was revolutionary that he got exactly what he asked for. He did not quite realize, at that stage, that he had been talking about these presents all day and that her mother had simply ordered them on Amazon two weeks ago.
He implored his sister to open her presents already, but the girl already knew what her presents were: books she had specifically asked for. However, she knew her mother’s directive, so she opened the presents, with less vigor though, and lo and behold, found the books she had asked for. She took a deep breath, and enthusiastically said,” Wow! This is exactly what I wanted!” Then, the sound of a stomach rumbling was like the morning bell in school, and the presents were quickly abandoned for a refreshing meal of dosa, sambar, and milk.
Over that meal, the girl perused her latest book, laughing at her parents’ warnings not to spill anything on the pages. Maybe Santa didn’t need to be real because she still had presents and most importantly, something else. The love her parents had to wrap presents and place them on a cardboard box, celebrating in whatever form possible. Christmas would never again be the surprising holiday of her childhood, but it was enough to be with her family on that special today and delight in tricking her brother. She thought to next year, to elaborately decorating the Christmas tree and sitting on the carpet with her friends, telling stories. Gifts are one thing, and memories are in a whole other category. Especially these memories of the bittersweet joy of growing up, one step and unraveled thread at a time.