A Modern Night Before Christmas
“You sure you’ll be okay?” My wife, Jill, looks uncertain as she lingers by the door, car keys dangling in her hand.
I’ve already answered the same question a dozen times today. “We’ll be fine.” I hope my voice sounds more confident than I feel. I plant a quick kiss on her forehead, before she can spot the fear in my eyes.
“We” refers to myself, and our three little smidgins: Ellie, six, Tess, four, and Pax, who just turned two.
“Maybe I should just…” A wave of doubt washes over Jill’s pretty face.
“Hey.” I cut her off. “It’s not every day that your sister has a baby.”
“I know.” Jill drags out the last syllable so that it sounds more like a moan. “But it’s Christmas Eve…”
“YAY!” the girls shout in glee at the sound of the ‘C’ word. Pax echoes them, although he has no idea why he’s happy.
“There’s Christmas books and DVDs in the living room. And a list of emergency number on the fridge…”
“Don’t worry, Babe.” I gently nudge her towards the door. “I’ve got this. Now, you better get going. Your soon-to-be niece isn’t going to wait for you.”
“Alright.” Jill consents. She gives a mock salute. “Aunt Jill, reporting for Delivery Room duty!”
“Take pictures!” Tess shouts. She gives the same orders whether Mommy is going on a routine grocery run or Daddy is getting a kidney stone removed.
“You kids be good for Daddy. Don’t eat all the cookies that are for Santa, and make sure you’re in bed by eight-thirty, or…”
“Santa won’t come!” The girls finish for her.
“Okay.” Jill gives me a quick kiss and finally heads out the door. “I’ll Skype you in the morning!”
And with a click of the lock, I am alone with my children. The nearly forgotten sound of silence fills the void left by Jill’s departure. The kids look bewildered by this turn of events. They’re accustomed to Mommy and Daddy together, and Mommy without Daddy, while he’s at work. But Daddy without Mommy? This is a new one.
Ellie is the one to break the ice. “Let’s make Oven S’mores!” she shouts, and her younger siblings cheer in agreement.
Fortunately, this is a request I can easily accommodate. Jill has stocked the cupboards with all the necessary ingredients: graham crackers, marshmallows, and milk chocolate bars. Three ingredients and a cookie sheet. So simple, even Daddy can do it.
S’mores are assembled, baked and rapidly consumed (half of them by me). I help the kids wash their chocolatey hands and faces, and get their teeth brushed.
“What now, Daddy?” Tess pulls on my sleeve. “It’s too early for bed.”
“Can we watch a movie?” Ellie, as always, makes her question sound like a demand.
“Not tonight. I have a better idea.” I have to raise my voice to be heard over the kids’ chants of: “Moo-VEE! Moo-VEE!”
I wrangle the troops into the living room and deftly hide the TV remote behind a throw pillow before any of the little ones can get a hold of it.
“Plop your butts on the couch, kids! It’s storytime!”
“I’ll get our books!” Tess makes a run for the stack of holiday books that have accumulated atop their toy box since Halloween. Basically, it’s a collection of modern Christmas “classics” featuring characters such as Dora the Explorer, Doc McStuffins, and the Paw Patrol crew.
“Not so fast,” I say, attempting to sound mysterious. “I have something special… and here it is!” I produce a large, elderly tome that I’ve been hiding under a stack of Jill’s magazines.
“What’s dat?” Pax asks in his adorable toddler lingo.
“A book, dummy-head!” Ellie snaps.
“I know dat!” Pax’s intelligence has been offended. He raises a pudgy fist and waves it at his big sister.
“This isn’t just any book,” I say, sitting down. “This is a very old, very special book. Your Grandpa read it to me when I was a little boy, and before that, his parents read it to him when he was young. Now I’m going to read it to you. And maybe, just maybe, someday you’ll read it to your own children.”
The kids, looking equally incredulous and intrigued, sidle up to me. They take their places on the couch, Ellie on my right, Tess on my left, and Pax in the coveted spot on my lap.
“What’s it called, Daddy?” Tess points at the worn cover.
“THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS!” Ellie shouts, like she’s solving a puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. (She’s two whole grade levels ahead of her class in reading. Gets it from me.)
“Very good, Ellie. The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore.”
“There’s a boy in my class named Clark,” Ellie pipes up. “He picks his nose and eats the boogers.”
This prompts uproarious laughter from Pax, and it takes time to get him settled down enough so that I can start reading the story.
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
“What about Harvey?” Tess interrupts, referring to the hairy pet that resides in a cage in the girls’ shared bedroom.
“Harvey’s a hamster, not a mouse!” Ellie is quick to correct her.
“The point is, everyone, all people and animals, were fast asleep. Now, I’ll continue with the story, if you don’t mind.
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
“Who’s St. Nicholas?” The girls ask in unison.
“It’s just another name for Santa Claus,” I explain. St. Nick, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, they’re all the same person.”
“What about Jack Frost?” Tess asks.
“No, Jack Frost isn’t in this story. Moving along now… The children were nestled, all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.”
“What’s a sugarplum?” the girls want to know.
“I… I’m not sure.” It strikes me that for the thirty years I’ve been alive, I have never encountered an actual sugarplum. Were they even a thing? “I’m sure they’re very sweet.”
“You should Google it, Daddy,” Tess advises.
“Later. Back to the story. Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap…”
“Kerchief?” Ellie is always intrigued by new words.
I manage to suppress a sigh. Barely. “Look at the picture.” I point. “See what the lady is wearing on her head? That’s a kerchief.”
“Oh, it’s like a do-rag.” Ellie nods.
“Why would anyone wear a do-rag to bed?” Tess giggles.
“To keep her hair neat,” I improvise. To diffuse another interruption, I change the wording of the next line from “just settled our brains” to “just settled down for a long winter’s nap.”
By some miracle, I manage to get through an entire verse without interruption. I knew I was in for trouble though, as the next one came to a close.
“Ew! He threw up the sash?” Ellie makes a disgusted face.
“Thwow up!” Pax says, and makes such a convincing retching sound that I hold the book away from him, in case he really is going to puke. He doesn’t.
“Wait, sash?” Tess asks. “Like that stuff in a can Mommy makes when she doesn’t feel like cooking real food?”
“I’d throw up the sash too,” Ellie says.
I don’t bother explaining the difference between a curtain sash and corned beef hash. Instead, I resume the story. I don’t get far.
“Wait!” Ellie slams her hand into the page before I can turn it. “Eight tiny reindeer? Eight?” And my bright little girl rattles off the names of Santa’s reindeer, while counting each one on her fingers. “What about Rudolph?”
“He wasn’t born yet,” I say, aware that my voice is starting to sound as testy as I feel.
“I guess this is an old book,” Tess marvels.
I am tempted to skip over the next few lines… or even pages, but I know that eagle-eyed Ellie would never let me get away with it. So I read on, and the children, apparently tired of asking questions, are soon caught up in the rollicking rhythm of the poem, even if they don’t understand every word of the fancy, old-style language. Their eyes are sparkling as I describe the rooftop commotion as St. Nicholas (“Santa Claus!” Tess reminds her siblings) and his reindeer arrive.
“He was dressed all in f.. um, all in red from his head to his foot.” (I stop myself from saying “fur” to avoid a protest from animal-loving Ellie.) “And his clothes were all covered in ashes and soot. A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.”
“What’s a peddler?” Tess inquires.
“Someone who rides a bike, dummy-head!” Ellie snaps. “Now shut up and let Daddy finish the story!”
“Watch your mouth, Princess,” I warn. I begin reading again, describing Santa’s rosy cheeks and merry dimples and cherry-red nose. The children are all smiles. Until…
“Santa smokes a pipe?!?” Ellie isn’t just shocked, she’s outraged. She leaps off the couch and stands with her arms akimbo. She looks like a miniature warrior, despite her Hello Kitty pjs.
“Well, see, uh…” I stammer. “Again, this story was written a long time ago, before people knew smoking was bad for them. I’m sure Mrs. Claus made him quit. In fact, I think that’s in the sequel.”
“Well, I’m gonna make a ‘No Smoking’ sign before I go to bed,” Ellie said. “Just in case.”
“That’s fine, hon. Now sit back down by me.” Reluctantly, she does, and I read: “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself.”
“Hold up!” It was Tess’s turn to interrupt. “Santa’s not an elf! I think this author was very confused.”
“This has got to be the worst Christmas story I’ve ever heard.” Ellie folds her arms across her chest and pouts, bringing my attempt at creating a holiday tradition to a screeching halt.
“The end awready?” Pax frowns.
I scruffle his mop of blonde hair. “Well, at least for this story,” I say, closing the book and setting it down on the coffee table. So much for instilling a love of classic literature into my rambunctious crew. “Girls, go pick out a book you can both agree on, and Daddy will read that instead.”
My daughters race to the pile on their toy box. It only takes a few seconds for them to pick out a book from the stack. They run back, Ellie clutching the book in both hands, and settle into their former positions on the couch. Ellie hands the book to me.
“Read this one, Daddy!”
I take the book and clear my throat.
“Pete the Cat Saves Christmas…”