“Will I see the real Santa this year, mam?” asked Jamie expectantly.
“Oh, I don’t know, darling. He’s very busy on Christmas Eve. If he stopped to say hello to all the children, he’d never have time to deliver all their presents,” Audrey replied, a little impatiently. “Now be quick, it’s your turn!”
A large man dressed in a shabby red coat sat a few yards away looking at his watch. His face was partially hidden by a long, white nylon beard that drooped on one side where the hook had slipped from his ear. A banner above his head proclaimed proudly, ‘VISIT SANTA AT KING’S SUPERSTORE. WE’RE THE KINGS OF CHRISTMAS.’ This king’s ‘throne’, an old armchair bedecked with silver, green and gold tinsel, was placed between two great sacks of presents, one pink, one blue, and was surrounded with liberal amounts of polystyrene ‘snow’ through which Jamie now marched smartly over to him.
Lifting Jamie onto his knee, the man cleared his throat and bellowed: “Ho, ho, ho. A merry Christmas to you. What’s your name, young man?”
“Well, Jamie, how old are you?”
“Six and a quarter.”
“And what would you like for Christmas?”
“I’d like a racing car that I could sit in and drive, please. I’ve wanted one since my birthday and that was ages and ages ago, but my mam and dad said I would have to wait until Christmas and ask Santa for one.”
“Well, we’ll have to see what we can do, won’t we? Is there anything else you’d like?”
“I….I don’t know if….” Jamie hesitated.
The man eyed the clock on the wall next to him. “Yes, Jamie. Go on.”
“Even if I don’t get a racing car, I’d really like, more than anything…” Jamie hesitated again, “…I’d like to meet the real Santa Claus when he brings my presents.”
The man frowned and seemed a little put out. “Well, Santa doesn’t really have time to see anyone, Jamie. Have you been good? Because, you know, only good boys and girls get what they want from Santa, but even they don’t get to meet him. He won’t come to your house unless you’re fast asleep in bed.”
The man looked at his watch once more.
“But I’ve been very good this year,” Jamie protested. “I’m sure Santa wouldn’t mind if I saw him.”
“He’ll only visit your house when you’re safely tucked up in bed,” the man reiterated. “Here you are, Jamie. Merry Christmas!”
The man took a package from the top of the blue sack and handed it to Jamie. The store lights danced on the metallic red paper and decorated the small, green Christmas trees it bore with a thousand bright-white candles. A gold coloured ribbon quartered the gift neatly and curled itself into a bow to finish it off with a flourish.
“Thank you. Merry Christmas!” Jamie replied as he climbed from the man’s knee and walked over to his mother. As he did so, Jamie looked down at the present he was holding. A strange tingling sensation iced its way slowly up his arm, slid along his shoulders and avalanched down his spine making him shudder.
“Are you cold, darling? Never mind, we’re going home now.” Audrey placed a comforting arm around Jamie’s shoulders and guided him out of King’s Superstore and into the fastly-fading daylight.
The snow-chilled air nipped at Jamie’s face and hands. He closed his eyes, took a long, deep breath and let the frost-coated evening fill his lungs, enter his bloodstream and race to every last inch of his soul. Clutching the package the man had given him, Jamie opened his eyes slowly and began to drink in the wondrous, fantastic, magical sights that surrounded him.
It was Christmas! The green, blue, red, silver and gold tinsel that framed every shop window sparkled and glittered like myriad stars under the hot, crackling spotlights. Christmas carols floated on the icy breeze and encircled the ruddy faces of passers-by which shone and glowed with the brightness of the greetings that each bestowed on the other. Decorations, streamers, illuminated Santas and his reindeer, bells, holly – all spanned the high street down which Jamie and his mother walked and all seemed to shout in jubilation: A Merry and Joyous Christmas to You All!
Jamie felt his heart would burst with excitement at any minute and hardly noticed when his mother tugged at his hand and exhorted him to climb aboard the bus which had pulled up alongside them. Eagerly he clambered on to the nearest available seat and stared from the window at the pageant being played out before him. Men, women and children raced toward him, their arms overloaded with boxes, dodging and swaying around one another in a marvellous display of choreography, then raced away again in an instant. Dazzlingly-coloured trees flashed past in a second leaving a rainbow of trailing light reflected in the bus window: and all the while, soft, feather-like flakes of ice fell gently to earth covering people, buildings, decorations, trees and Christmas parcels alike with a blanket of diamond-studded velvet that glistened yellow and orange in the ethereal glow of the streetlights.
Jamie watched it all with an awe-struck delight as one by one, the shops, people, decorations, the high street itself all receded from his view. Only when the final shadowy figure had disappeared and the last light’s luminosity had faded into the darkness did Jamie settle himself in his seat, grasp his mother’s arm and turn his thoughts to home.
It was almost five thirty when Audrey and Jamie arrived at their small, two-bedroomed house that sat slightly apart from the other houses at the end of a short cul-de-sac. It was a far from opulent home, but the peace, contentment and love that lit every dark corner were testimony to the warmth of spirit that abided there.
“Go on into the living-room, Jamie,” urged his mother. “Open your present if you like.” Audrey waited until Jamie had gone, then continued, “John, did you get everything?”
Audrey’s husband, tall and dark-haired, appeared in the doorway to the kitchen where he had begun preparing the evening meal. “I finished my shopping, but do you realise how difficult it is to get hold of a Santa Claus suit on the afternoon of Christmas Eve?” he replied with a smile. “I managed it, though. Oh, and I found some lights for the tree, but I’m having a little trouble getting them to work.”
Audrey glanced at the seven foot fir ensconced in the corner of the living-room, dressed in gaily coloured tinsel and baubles, but looking decidedly gloomy in the dim light from the table-lamp. “I’ll have a look at them later,” she said. “It should be a wonderful Christmas this year. Just wait until Jamie sees you in that outfit. His face will be a picture.”
John nodded. “He wants to see Santa so much. Well, this year he won’t be disappointed.”
Jamie, meanwhile, sat on the settee, totally rapt in the gift that the man in King’s had given him. Slowly, he unfurled the golden bow and removed the ribbon. Carefully, he peeled off the tape and unfolded the wrapping. A shiver cascaded through his body. In his hands lay a small, hardback book, no thicker than half a thumbnail, but Jamie knew instantly that enchantment lay within it. His eyes followed his finger as he ran it along the ornate silver lettering spelling out the title: The Night Before Christmas.
Almost with reverence, Jamie opened the cover and began reading. Illustrations of timber-framed houses and soft, blue-white snow-covered hills fired his imagination so, that as he turned each page, visions of sugarplums did dance in his head; he could hear the prancing and pawing of reindeer’s hooves on the rooftop; the smell of the pipe-smoke encircling Santa’s head filled Jamie’s nose; and he felt the breeze on his cheek as St Nicholas and his team flew away like the down of a thistle.
Jamie sat staring at the last page hardly daring to close the book lest the magic it contained be locked away and lost to him forever. However, close it he did, and as he did so, he raised his eyes to the ceiling where were hung the multicoloured paper and foil streamers and, through tear-washed eyes, was sure he could make out the images of Father Christmases, sleighs, reindeer and elves waving and smiling down at him. Every sparkle was brighter; every glow was more dazzling; every shimmer was more lustrous. As he watched, the entrancing figures danced and weaved in and out of the Chinese lanterns, pirouetted through holly wreaths and finally spiralled gracefully around and about the dark, green fir in the corner of the room. With each revolution a handful of bulbs would spark into life until at last, reaching the bottom, the whole tree was ablaze with an intensity that would have outshone the sun itself had it had the temerity to show its face.
“Well, will you look at that!” exclaimed John from the kitchen.
“It seems my electrical skills won’t be needed after all,” laughed Audrey. “Jamie! Dinner’s ready!”
Presently, the time for bed arrived and as is usual on Christmas Eve, children, or those who are children at heart, make no complaint at having to go. So it was with Jamie who, book in hand, now made his way upstairs followed by his mother ready to tuck him up soundly in preparation for a child’s longest night of the year.
“I will see Santa tonight, mam,” said Jamie as he placed his book on the bedside cabinet and climbed into bed.
“Ooh, I don’t know, Jamie,” Audrey teased. “You heard the Santa at King’s. He only visits children who are fast asleep in bed. Now, try and get to sleep and we’ll see you in the morning. ‘Night, Jamie.”
Audrey switched off the bedroom light and stood in the doorway looking back at her son. For a moment, she thought she could see the faintest of glows emanating from the top of the bedside cabinet, but knowing she must be mistaken, turned away and rejoined her husband downstairs.
The clock ticked on and the midnight hour approached.
“Well, John, it’s time you were getting ready.”
“Yes. Little Jamie’s in for the surprise of his life.”
The two of them rose and settled the dying embers in the grate, put out the lights on the Christmas tree, then pausing briefly to check all was done, switched off the table-lamp and ascended the stairs.
While John wrestled with the Santa suit and false beard, Audrey retrieved Jamie’s presents from the wardrobe and carried them along the landing to his bedroom door.
“He’s still asleep,” whispered Audrey as John, resplendent in fur-trimmed scarlet jacket and trousers and sporting a magnificent, long white beard, waddled up beside her.
“The straps on this padding are killing me!”
“Sshh! You’ll wake him!”
“I thought that was the idea!”
“Not yet! Wait until you’re putting out his presents. Now go to it, Santa.”
Audrey couldn’t help but smile at the sight of John struggling through the doorway, sack of presents in hand, bumping into the furniture as he puffed and blew his way to the foot of Jamie’s bed. One by one, he laid out the precisely-wrapped packages on a low table that stood next to the wall. With each one, in putting it down, he made slightly more noise than the last in an effort to wake his son from his slumbers, but to no avail. For with each gift that was placed, a spectral glow pulsated from the top of Jamie’s bedside cabinet. Unnoticed by Audrey at the door and out of sight of John, the light, barely visible, beat in time to each sound that John made. Brightening when John made a show of clearing his throat or “accidentally” shaking the bed, dimming when the sound receded, but always there, always beating. Occasionally, Jamie stirred, but only to turn over and drift off to sleep once more.
Eventually, the sack emptied and the last present was delivered. The light dimmed again to the faintest of glimmers.
“I don’t understand that at all,” said John incredulously. “Didn’t wake up once.”
“The trip to town must have exhausted him,” replied Audrey. “Oh well, we may get some sleep this year for a change. Come on, we’ll leave him be.”
Audrey and John left Jamie’s bedroom and walked wearily back to their own. The suit, padding and beard were packed away, night-clothes were donned and both fell thankfully into bed and a sound, deep sleep.
Along the landing, Jamie dozed peacefully, his room in total darkness. The ghostly glow had diminished to nothing.
All was quiet. The snow continued to fall endowing everything it touched with a purifying beauty. Its white coat turned powder blue in the moonlight.
Suddenly, ever so quietly at first but growing louder and multiplying in seconds, came the sound of pattering on the roof tiles. Jamie’s eyelids twitched. A dazzling, brilliant white light burst from the book by his side. Immediately, Jamie sat bolt upright in bed, startled. In an instant the light vanished plunging the room into darkness once more. Jamie sat for a second and rubbed his eyes, then heard a faint rustling sound coming from the living-room. A spark of excitement ignited a fire of emotion that welled up inside him until he could contain it no longer: “HE’S HERE. IT’S SANTA.”
Gingerly, Jamie crept from his bed, his heart pounding, and tiptoed along the landing to the top of the stairs. Below him, just twelve steps away and on the other side of the living-room door was the person he most wanted to see in all the world. Did he have the courage to go downstairs? Should he do it? No, he couldn’t. YES! YES! Don’t wait! This is it! Jamie took a step down, then another. No, he daren’t do it. What will he say? What will I reply? He stood transfixed on the second step, his heart bursting in his ears. YES! DO IT! He took two more steps, then another. He found himself halfway down the staircase. Fear, excitement, awe, terror all thrilled him by turns. He couldn’t go back, he was too close. Steeling himself, he tiptoed the few remaining steps and stood, shaking, outside the living-room door. He placed his fingers on the handle, pressed down and pushed.
Jamie entered the room and stood speechless, struck dumb by the sight before him. Every light was ablaze; the tree was illuminated even more intensely than it was before; a fire roared in the hearth, logs crackling and sputtering in the heat that now bathed every corner of the room, defying Winter to set one wizened toe in this house; streamers, lanterns, wreaths appeared to cover every available space; and there in the midst of it all was a small, round, plump, jolly, old elf of a man staring right at him and wearing a smile as broad and as welcoming as he could ever hope to see. Instantly, Jamie’s fear was banished, his terror dispersed and his awe dispelled, leaving only the excitement that a child’s heart can feel when face-to-face with: SANTA CLAUS.
A scene that Jamie had imagined, never believing that the dream could come true, was being played out in front of him. Elves of every description, some short, some tall (relatively speaking as none were more than a foot high), others fat, yet more slim, here wearing green, there dressed in red, even one or two in candy-striped outfits, were busying themselves tying candy canes, chocolate coins and gingerbread men to the branches of the tree while Santa produced gift after gift from a sack of toys that was standing as tall as the man himself.
Jamie laughed and did not stop laughing even as Santa beckoned him over and bade him to look into the seemingly bottomless well of delights at his side. Jamie’s jaw dropped and a stunned gasp of overwhelming joy issued from his lips. There, in amongst the countless gifts for countless other children, lay the gleaming metallic-blue racing car that he’d wished for all year. Santa tipped the sack and gently wheeled the car onto the living-room floor. Jamie was sitting inside in a flash and pedalling madly around the room in danger of sending toys, tree, furniture alike flying in all directions. Yet just as it seemed he was bound to hit something, Jamie felt the wheel turn in his hand and he would head off toward the next obstacle. Santa watched the young boy for fully five minutes, the laughter of one sustaining the happiness of the other, before returning to his task.
Presently, with each stocking filled and the base of the tree submerged in a multitude of boxes, the time for parting arrived. Jamie stopped the car and stumbled out, his head spinning with a thousand emotions. The pair stood silently for a second looking at each other, then, unable to stop himself, Jamie ran and wrapped his arms tightly around Santa’s waist wishing he never had to let go. Santa readily held the boy just as tightly and it was at least a minute before, with great reluctance, he slowly unfurled Jamie’s arms and moved to the fireplace, his face bearing the ever-present smile. He gave a quick nod of the head and in the blink of an eye he was gone.
How he got back upstairs he couldn’t tell. How long had passed he didn’t know, but Jamie found himself tucked up cosily in bed, his eyelids heavy, and drifting peacefully off to sleep. Around him all was silent. The house had returned to darkness.
The next morning Jamie awoke with a start, leapt from his bed, dressed in an instant and raced downstairs, the presents in his room remaining unseen. His parents were already up and waiting for him in the semi-darkness of the living-room as he opened the door and slowly peered around it. The tree with its tantalising treats, first to reveal itself, sparkling in the light entering from the passage-way. Now, stockings, filled to capacity, beam from the fireplace. Next, one parcel becomes two becomes four becomes a carpet-covering collection of gifts, radiant in the growing brightness, until at last, blazing with illimitable illumination, appears the racing car itself standing proudly in the middle of the living-room floor.
Blindly, Jamie ran to his prize possession, climbed in and set off haphazardly around the room. Audrey and John looked at the toys, the candy canes, the coins, the decorations and saw the innocent delight in their son’s eyes. Finally they looked at each other and a knowing smile passed between them. Jamie didn’t notice this nor would he have cared if he had, for he was now out of the car and disappearing under a snow-like flurry of wrapping paper, lost to the magic of another Christmas morn. While upstairs on a bedside cabinet, a small and insignificant-looking book was pulsating, beating, glowing in time to a young boy’s laughter.