We don’t have a real Christmas tree. Our tree is a pre-lit, no fuss, Big Lots bargain tree. I like it though, and I’ve never really known a real Christmas tree, so I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything. Johnny and Sammy will probably never have real Christmas trees, but I’ve plugged spruce or fir or pine-scented warmers into the outlets, so they still have the smell of Christmas. Every time they wash their hands with my green alpine-scented soap, they will suds Christmas.
There’s no snow yet. This is so odd for Western New York. Instead of boots, I wear flats to my last class of the semester. I shuffle my shoes on with no problem while Johnny begs, “Mom, when is the snow coming?” His face presses against the cold of the glass, as though he can wish himself out there, running and sledding amidst the snow flakes. I crave the snow, too. Here it is as much a part of life as the drained canal, the fallen leaves, the gasp the chill sends running from your mouth. The white blanket softens the blow of winter. It’s too beautiful to hate.
When school ends and my Christmas shopping is nearly done, Johnny and I go to Wegmans for a few last-minute Christmas-season items: wrapping paper for “Santa’s” gift (Johnny is too smart to risk wrapping his North Pole gifts with our farmhouse paper), hot chocolate with marshmallows (à la Polar Express), and candy canes to dangle from our tree limbs. When we leave the house, Johnny pokes at a tiny ball of frost on the stone walkway as though it is a pea on his dinner plate. The snow dusted down upon us like confectioner’s sugar the other night, and it’s disappeared since. Johnny analyzes the snow fall. Maybe he will be a meteorologist. Maybe he just wants to see it sprinkling down like confetti.
At Wegmans, Johnny and I settle into our routine. I buy a coffee for me and an apple juice for him. He sits in the cart to help me decide what to buy, but really it’s so I can make sure he stays put. We use the little cup-holders, and he calls his “a juice-holder.”
He talks about the train that Wegmans has displayed since Thanksgiving.
“I want to see the train. It will go around and around,” he says, his hands dizzying themselves in circles. When the train was first set up, Johnny walked over to it, and his friend from his old daycare was watching it too. When it came time to leave, I was impressed that Johnny complied. “Why is he crying, mommy?” Johnny tugged at my hand. “The train will be here again,” he said. Johnny is just three, I thought, deciding that maybe he wasn’t as spoiled as I had dreaded.
I gave in to the traditional Santa threats this year since it’s the first year he understands. When Johnny is naughty, I warn him that Santa is watching. When he pulls down his pants and pees on the dining room wall, I tell him that if he’s not careful, he will be on Santa’s naughty list. If he throws the wrappers from his peppermint Hershey kiss on my living room floor and refuses to pick it up, I say the same thing. In general, it works, but I worry I’m touching something that belongs to him, that I’m stealing the magic from his Christmas.
The chefs at Wegmans always talk to Johnny, always ask him if he wants sautéed mushrooms, or pomegranate seeds, or pork roast with carrots, but he usually will only eat a cookie from the cookie club, calling out, “Thank you, Wegmans” before he takes his first bite. When I was little, my Sundays were marked, not with church, but doughnuts from Wegmans. Religiously, my father and I would pile our dozen into the white boxes: apple fritters, glazed rings, raspberry or lemon-filled for dad, custard-filled for mom, apple filled, sugar-dusted for me. One Sunday morning when I was five, my father’s pick-up truck wouldn’t start after we bought the doughnuts. It coughed, but wouldn’t turn over. It was January, and Western New York was Western New York that year. Snow had piled up heavy the night before. My mother had no car and no license then. My siblings were still too young to drive. He looked down at my feet, in their small white bobo sneakers with thin lace socks. My father carried me home, our breath chugging ahead of us. I don’t remember if we brought the doughnuts home that morning or not.
Now every childhood memory of doughnuts from Wegmans is caked in snow.
“Can we go see the train, mommy?” Johnny asks when we’re picking out his hot chocolate.
“Remember, the last few times, the train wasn’t working,” I say. I had cursed out Wegmans under my breath when Johnny pulled me over to the train table again and again. Every train car has the Wegmans logo with perhaps a sliced ham printed on the side, or gum drops, or maybe Santa himself. I must admit, I would buy it if it weren’t nearly $200.
“We can get batteries. That’s all it needs,” Johnny says.
How practical, I think.
We make it past the train without Johnny even asking again. He is holding his package of hot chocolate with marshmallows. Today will be the first time he tries it. I imagine setting him up at the kitchen table with his mug of hot chocolate, and I will have my mug of coffee.
At the checkout, Johnny tells the cashier that Santa is coming. I’ve hidden the North Pole wrapping paper, a candy-cane striped tube, under the cart, and I whisper to the cashier not to let Johnny see it. She ducks to scan the paper on the cart’s low rack.
I used to watch my parents closely, looking for clues that Santa was real, instead of clues that he was fake. I believed for a short time, but I rode the school bus, so it was short-lived. One year, my parents forgot to leave a present under the tree from Santa. That was the last of Santa for me. That’s when my mom started using the phrase, “God is watching you,” when I was acting up. Santa no longer held consequence for me.
After we check out, I see a man with a white beard and a red shirt coming towards us. Otherwise, he’s wearing blue jeans and tennis sneakers.
“Johnny,” I whisper. “There’s Santa.” This man has to know what he’s doing this time of year, I think.
“Hi, Santa,” Johnny calls out over the beeping registers. The customers hear him and start laughing. For a minute, we are all looking at Santa.
“Merry Christmas, young man,” the Santa says. He disappears behind the door to the men’s room.
While I load the groceries in my car, Johnny grills me about Santa. “How is Santa here?” he asks.
“He came to make sure you were being a good boy,” I say. “He probably had to pick up some groceries for Mrs.Claus.”
“Santa is magic,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, relieved.
“Look, mommy. There’s Mrs.Claus,” he says, pointing to an older woman in the car across from us.
“No. Shhh,” I say.
The Santa is walking by our car. “Hey there,” the Santa says. “I got something for you.” He keeps walking.
“Johnny, you must be a really good boy. He’s bringing you a present on Christmas Eve,” I say.
Before I finish loading the car, the Santa comes back, and hands Johnny a stuffed elephant. I imagine whose it was before. A grandchild, maybe? His own child?
“Thank you!” Johnny says.
I’m reluctant to let Johnny take it.
“You keep believing,” the Santa says.
There are exhaust fumes trailing into the cold air from my car, and I wish it were snowing for Johnny.
“Ho ho ho,” the Santa says.
I smile curiously at the Santa. He takes out his wallet and shows Johnny a picture of himself dressed as Santa. I see a photo, tucked next to it, of the Santa and his wife.
“An elephant,” Johnny says, looking at his new and worn stuffed elephant.
“Merry Christmas,” says the Santa.
“Thank you,” I say.
“This is what it’s all about,” the Santa says. Johnny has made his day.
I’m sure Johnny is in his booster seat before his eyes can follow the Santa to his car, where he drives away from the parking lot, leaving a trail of smoke behind him.