The morning after Christmas, Emmeline tip-toed nervously through the house. She inspected the tree where a day earlier the boughs and branches had been festooned with gift cards and envelopes and the leafy eaves had been buttressed with packages and ribbons and bows. She frowned and cocked her head to the side, probably disappointed to find only lights and ornaments.
She skittered to the fireplace on anxious feet. Then she bent low to peer into the chimney.
“Ahnta?” she whispered into the dark. “Coook-eez?”
It was difficult to explain that a man in a red suit would come barreling down her chimney in the middle of the night to fill her socks with candy and gifts. She must have thought her parents had lost it in the weeks leading up to Christmas, what with all the talk of flying ungulates and obese strangers from the north. But come Christmas morning, it all seemed to register: The cookies we had left the night before were eaten, the milk gone; the barren tree was burdened with plenty; relatives shoved presents in her lap and said, “Here, from Santa.” The rest of the day she begged for cookies and inquired about the well-being and whereabouts of this mysterious chimney sweep who apparently had a thing for elfin folk, shopping mall photography and giving her things in colored paper.
When she woke up from her nap the day after Christmas and found the house still empty of relatives and gifts, she searched the tree again and peered into the chimney. She even looked in the refrigerator and under her crib.
“Ahnta?” she called. “Coook-eez?”
I realized that it would be more difficult to explain that Santa only comes once a year and that the rest of the time he eerily keeps tabs on girls and boys with an omniscient checklist, a practice that for any other adult would mean incarceration or at the very least a list of a different sort. Instead I quietly re-wrapped one of her new animal toys and told her that Santa had come again and probably would the next day, too, so long as she continued to inspect the fireplace with a curious wonder some among us had long ago abandoned. She opened the toy and didn’t seem to mind that it felt familiar in her hands, and so we played together by the tree and watched the ornaments twirl and glisten in the early twilight.