“Shoot,” I whispered as I awoke with the sun filtering in through the blinds, not wanting to leave the warm cocoon of my bed quite yet. “I forgot about the Elf on the Shelf.”
“You better go before they wake up,” said my husband, Greg, with his body cozily curled under the covers and his eyes closed.
Grabbing my robe, I tiptoed down the hallway, hoping my children had stayed asleep and not realized this latest mom fail. The elf was supposed to fly back to the North Pole each evening to give a report to Santa and then magically return to take another place in the house each day. What it really meant was mom better not forget to move the little bastard every night or the jig would be up. No Santa. No magical reindeer. Nothing to threaten the kids with to goad them into good behavior. For that was the elf’s main purpose – to elicit good behavior.
Yet, in my terror that this lie we perpetuate every year for generations would end that very morning, I frantically checked in on my younger child, Sadie, age five. She was sound asleep, blissfully unaware that her mother had once again forgotten to move the silly elf they had named Bubblegum. They chose that name because they said his cheeks were rosy and chewy, insisting that it had nothing to do with the fact that I won’t let them chew gum, clearing out their Halloween stash of the gooey stuff every year and donating it to the troops. There was just Josh now to consider. At eight years old, Josh usually slept until I woke him up or his younger sister did it for me. Holding my breath, I peeked around the hall corner into his room. He wasn’t there. “Crap,” I whispered for the second time that morning. I couldn’t remember where I had to go next. Where was that darn elf? I swirled down the steps in a flurry, coming to the foot of the staircase facing the front door.
“Hey, mom?” yelled Josh. Caught.
I circled around the banister and down the hall into the kitchen. “Oh, there you are,” I said, trying to look cool, pulling my robe across my chest.
“Why didn’t Bubblegum move?”
I glanced up and realized the elf was perched high on the ledge above the kitchen cabinets. I put him there reasoning that I would see him when I made my nightly cup of decaffeinated tea and would remember to move him. But the night before I had been so tired, I went to bed without the tea and without moving Bubblegum.
“Well…” I began, searching for the right answer, the most believable one that wouldn’t reveal my major screw up. “Your elf probably got tired last night. You see, I had been letting Bubblegum have some of my tea before his trip back to Santa every night. You know, so he would be all warmed and ready for the long haul back to the North Pole. But last night, I got tired. And I went to bed without the tea. So, maybe Bubblegum was tired too and just stayed here to rest.”
Josh seemed to consider this for a moment. Just then, Sadie scampered into the kitchen. “I want Frosted Flakes,” she demanded.
“I’ll get the bowls and milk. Josh, please get the cereal out of the cabinet,” I said.
“Hey,” said Sadie, “why is Bubblegum still up there?”
“He was tired,” said Josh, “so he just stayed here for the night. Leave it alone.”
Great. Mom fail avoided. Christmas is still intact. Thirteen days to go, but can I keep up this charade? I wanted them to believe, not just so they would maintain their innocence, but so I wouldn’t be the mom to start the rumor. Once one kid stopped believing, word got out. Just one more year, maybe two tops, so I wouldn’t have to be THAT mom - the one who ruined Christmas and the magic of Santa for the entire Silver Tree neighborhood. I had to keep the Santa myth alive.
As the kids ate their cereal, I retreated upstairs to get dressed and groomed. For me that meant taking off my elastic waist pajama pants and putting on an equally elasticized pair of yoga pants. I was on my way, leaving my sleeping husband still in bed, also known as a home office day. On the way to school, through their complaints about the lunch, the snack (raisins and why couldn’t they be M&Ms instead) and the music selection, Sadie managed an all-important question about jolly old St. Nick.
“How does Santa get to ALL the houses on Christmas? I mean, that’s a lot of houses. I don’t think you could drive that fast, Mom, even with a porcha.”
Wow. It was quite a heavy question to ask before noon on a weekday. “A porcha?” I repeated.
“Yeah, mom, a porcha,” she said again.
“Oh… a Porsche. Yes, I couldn’t drive that fast. Well,…” again I paused to think of my best insightful answer on why a fat man can manage to visit millions of homes in one night. “Santa has reindeer that fly through the sky like birds. And remember, when it’s 3:00 a.m. here, it’s 8:00 p.m. in Tokyo so Santa will have already had plenty of time to make his way around the globe.”
“Ok.” She seemed satisfied. “But what if he can’t fit in the chimney?” she continued.
“I heard Santa’s doing 21 Day Fix this year,” I said referring to the latest workout craze. “He’ll be svelte and ready to go by Christmas Eve.” Josh gave that answer a nice eye roll, but at least it got my daughter’s inquiring mind off my back.
I parked the van half a block away from the school, and as we were hustling to the school, I noticed Sabrina Montgomery coming our way with her cocker spaniel, Suerte. Sabrina lives on our block and is a constant reminder of all my failings as a mom. She usually walks her son, along with their cocker spaniel, the three-quarter mile to school whereas I choose the lazy way - carting my kids by van. Sabrina volunteers for P.T.A. and room mom. I do everything I can to stay away from school sponsored activities. And last but not least, Sabrina is thin. Her curves hit in all the right places and her cellulite free body contrasts my current muffin top and dimpled thighs. In jeans, black boots and a vibrant red and green sweater, she looked holiday chic. Her son, Thad, may be a little bit brainy and high-strung, but those quirks are offset by the tenacity of his uber mother. Around the holidays she turns even more Mommy Dearest as she focuses on her crusade to make her yearly holiday party Silver Tree’s finest.
Crossing the street while gripping my breakfast of champions, a blueberry Pop-Tart, I put my head down and tried not to make eye contact. Oh no, she saw me. I gave a little wave, trying to hide my half-eaten Pop-Tart in my purse. Suerte followed and eyed me suspiciously. My kids ran ahead, escaping into the hallowed halls of learning. Even though I often ran into Sabrina in our neighborhood or around school, I had been trying to avoid her this holiday season. Let’s just say, my yuletide greetings did not meet her muster.
“Emily,” she called. “Do you want some fruit cake? I baked it fresh this morning.” She handed me a small brown loaf, decorated with bright red cherries, wrapped in a festive plastic bag. “I need to ask you something.”
That was unusual. Sabrina rarely needed advice, especially from me.
“What is it?” I asked in an upbeat voice that showed I was at least willing to pretend I wanted to help her. After all, she had just given me cake.
“I had some trouble with Thad last night. He found the remnants of the roll of wrapping paper Santa used last year.” Sabrina tritely used finger quotes when mentioning Santa.
“Ooohhh,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic.
“He was asking me all kinds of questions. I didn’t know what to say. I just don’t want him to be the one to figure it out and break the news to all the other kids.”
“I know.” I nodded in assent. Secretly, I was bubbling on the inside. Sabrina had made a major holiday gaffe.
“You could make him believe it isn’t actually the same paper. I love to make my kids think they’re wrong when they’re actually right.”
“No, that won’t work,” she said shaking her head. “He actually saved part of the paper.”
“Of course, he would,” I said.
“I don’t know. I was really hoping I could keep it up for one more year.”
“A couple more lies, he’ll believe,” I assured her. “Tell him Santa left the extra paper for safe keeping so he could wrap the presents with it for next year. Make Thad believe Santa knew he would love the paper so much, he would keep it.”
“I guess that could work. I better get going so I’m not late to my room mom meeting. Thanks, Emily. Coming to the party tonight, right? I hired carolers…”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” I said through clenched teeth.
Once I got back to the van, I sped off into the horizon of freedom. It was no Porsche, but at least there was finally some peace and quiet. I just wanted to hide in my room with a snickerdoodle or two and watch Elf. As I humbugged around the house, griping at the cookies I had yet to bake and the presents I had yet to wrap, I considered how I could make it through this holiday season without spilling the beans about Father Christmas. After all, it would probably be the last Christmas Josh would believe in Santa, and I wanted to keep it special for Sadie. Above all, I felt like I needed to create some positive Christmas karma. Bubblegum was watching.
Later that day after having baked a batch of sugar cookies that were supposed to look like snowmen but came out looking like amorphous blobs, I picked the kids up from school and continued my online shopping from the couch, a candy cane dangling from my mouth. I wasn’t sure what the kids were doing, but suddenly it got eerily quiet. That’s how you know they’re up to something. When they’re yelling and fighting - that’s all normal. But when there’s silence, something is wrong. I took a long drag on the candy cane and listened until I could hear a sound like a robot giving directions.
“Tis better to give than to wonder about receiving,” I heard the voice say. I crept towards the playroom where the kids were huddled in the corner.
“What should I get Mom for Christmas?” asked Sadie.
“Maybe you should write a poem,” said the automatic voice again. I walked further into the room, and I could see the two of them hunched over my phone. They were asking Siri, the personal navigator, about Christmas. Quietly, I waited for the next question, holding the candy cane steadily between my lips.
“Who is Santa?” asked Josh.
“Ok, game over. Enough with my phone. You know who Santa is. He’s the big, fat jolly man that gives you presents every year.” I leaped over to Josh and grabbed the phone out of his hands. “Why are you playing with my phone anyway?”
“I was just testing Siri to see if she knows Santa too,” Josh tried to explain.
“Well, you don’t want to get on the naughty list. As for you, Sadie, mom would like a Gucci handbag, but I’ll settle for one of your pretty pictures done in those smelly markers you love.”
“Why did Josh ask Siri who Santa is?” asked Sadie. I was hoping she’d forgotten. I shot Josh a look that said he’d better watch out, better not cry, as I fumbled for an answer.
“I think Josh was just wondering if Santa is Santa all year. You know he has many different names like St. Nicholas and Kris Kringle. I think Josh thought maybe Santa was more like Superman who is sometimes Clark Kent.”
“Superman is Clark who?” Sadie asked.
“Never mind,” Josh grumbled.
“Santa is coming in 13 days. He’s magical and magnificent, and like your mother, he doesn’t want to hear you doubt him. You want a new scooter, right?” Sadie nodded her head emphatically.
“Well I’m not buying it for you. Santa’s your last chance. Don’t blow it.”
I couldn’t help but wince at my sniping. Christmastime should be merry and bright, not causing me to yell and pout. If only I didn’t feel so guilty about what a scrooge I was, I could enjoy creating the magic of the holiday season like Sabrina – Silver Tree’s queen of Christmas. The Siri incident with my children reminded me of why I was working so hard to preserve the lore of Santa. And while I wouldn’t be throwing a Christmas party for the ages and even making edible holiday cookies was a challenge, I wouldn’t let the magic of Santa go. Feeling more energized, I told the kids and Greg to get ready for the party. Just as we headed out for another holiday tradition, I hoped I wouldn’t screw that up too.
Late as usual, we walked up the block to the Montgomery’s house. Sabrina spares no expense for her yearly neighborhood family shindig. Her husband, Elliot, prefers to stay in the shadows, allowing his wife to soak up all the attention. Secretly, I think he plays along with the charade just so Sabrina will let him go on a yearly golf retreat with the guys. Every year, her two-story colonial is decked out with tasteful white lights adorning the gutters and window ledges of the exterior. Inside, she continues the white décor with garland and candles lining every ledge. Everything looks elegant and classy like a proper winter palace, carpeted with a crisp white rug, an evergreen smell emanating from fresh swags. Even the Christmas tree boasts white porcelain and ceramic ornaments, sparkling amidst silver tinsel and topped with a radiant white star.
When we arrived, guests were eating hors d’oeuvres on miniature plates and sipping wine from Sabrina’s monogrammed glasses. Sabrina didn’t allow red wine to be served and everyone had to remove their shoes in order to keep the immaculate white carpet gleaming. Sadie and Josh met some friends from school and started playing around the Christmas tree. Soon, the kids were laughing and dancing, knocking into each other. One kid bumped into another a little too hard, and a boy careened into one of the tree’s branches, knocking off a white ceramic ball patterned with silver dancing monkeys. Thad, Sabrina’s son, heard the thump and scurried over to retrieve the ornament.
“Mom,” he called. “It’s broken.” He picked up the sphere, which had cracked on one side, looking like broken eggshell. The kids abruptly stopped their shenanigans, listening to see if they’d be in trouble.
Eager to dismiss her son and maintain her calm hostess demeanor, Sabrina said, “Don’t worry, Thad. We can get another from Target.”
A quizzical look passed over Thad’s face, and he stared at his mother. “But I got this ornament from Santa.”
She let it slip. She needed help.
“Yeah, Santa is so clever. You know sometimes he gets things from stores instead of making everything from scratch in his workshop,” I said, walking over to the tree. “He really knows where the best bargains are, doesn’t he, Sabrina?” I nodded my head confidently in order to sell my story. The kids realized the moment had passed. Crisis averted. Thad appeared to buy it too, and stepped over to hang the broken ornament back on the tree, pocketing the broken shard.
“No, honey. Don’t do that,” Sabrina said, shaking her head.
“Mom, it’s fine. I like this ornament.”
“You can’t put a broken ornament on the tree.” She laughed, trying to look unruffled in front of her guests. Removing the ornament, she threw it in the trash can.
“Fine. Have it your way.” Thad stomped away, his friends following behind.
About an hour later when the kids were busy playing in the basement and Greg was engrossed in conversation with a neighbor, I slinked into the kitchen. The reindeer antler headband perked up as Suerte, Sabrina’s cocker spaniel, lifted her head at my entrance, still lying on her dog bed in the corner. Sabrina had laid out all of the desserts on the far counter across from the sink. I sauntered over to inspect the goodies. Suerte followed behind, sniffing, antlers bobbing, as I approached the counter. While no one was watching, I gobbled up two cookies and a cannoli because I really am void of will power when it comes to sweets. Suerte sat and watched, judging my gluttony with her puppy dog eyes. I made a face at her in which to say I wouldn’t be fat shamed by a dog, and jiggled up my Spanx for good measure. Just as I was reaching for my final chocolate brownie, my stockinged feet slipped on the floor, and I accidentally knocked over a porcelain dish of dark chocolate pieces. Like a cheetah catching its prey, Suerte shoved her muzzle into the pile of chocolates and sucked them into her mouth with equal quickness. I tried to recover as much as I could, but Suerte’s hunger for chocolate clearly surpassed my own. She must have devoured at least twenty-five pieces.
Quickly, I hid the evidence of our chocolate binge and set the dessert counter in its proper order so as not to ruin Sabrina’s Martha Stewart-like holiday spread. Knowing that chocolate can be harmful to dogs, I watched Suerte closely. It didn’t take long for Suerte to start coughing, a sharp barking cough that sounded like a wounded duck with a balloon caught in its mouth. With my dessert coma quickly wearing off, I panicked and fetched Greg for help.
“I dropped some chocolate pieces. Suerte ate about twenty-five,” I whispered as if it were the secret codes to a nuclear detonator.
“You do know dogs and chocolate don’t mix?” he said.
“I know. Hence… that,” I pointed to Suerte.
“Ok, ok. Well, we could tell Sabrina?”
“No. Ask Siri. She seems to know everything these days.”
“That thing on the phone.” I nervously shook my hand toward Greg’s pocket.
“What do I say?”
“I don’t know. How do you unpoison a dog?”
“Here,” he said pointing to the screen, “we could give the dog a combination of hydrogen peroxide and water.”
“And that will make her better? It will cure her?” I said hopefully.
“No,” my husband laughed, “but it will make her throw up.”
While I didn’t enjoy his patronizing tone, I was in no position to argue. When faced with the thought of killing Suerte because of my chocoholic ways or making her sick, I chose the latter.
I hurried into the bathroom, opening first the medicine cabinet behind the mirror and then the door below the sink. Score. I found the hydrogen peroxide. Like twisted scientists performing a controversial chemical experiment, we measured out two teaspoons of hydrogen peroxide in a bowl. I searched through three kitchen drawers until I came up with a turkey baster. Luckily, the rest of the crowd was busy singing around the piano with the professional caroling trio Sabrina hired, oblivious to our noise and our whereabouts. After sucking up the hydrogen peroxide cocktail, I approached Suerte, who was still making that horrible hacking noise.
“Here, puppy. Let me help you feel better.” I inserted the baster into her mouth, squirted, then held her snout and rubbed her neck.
“It says to just wait and see,” said Greg.
“Let’s try to keep her in the kitchen. I’ll be on guard first. No one will doubt my story that I just want to be near the desserts.”
“With good St. Nick.” As the group finished, Sabrina announced the arrival of a special visitor.
“I think someone is here to see you,” Sabrina yelled down the basement stairway. All the kids rushed up from their lair, eager to greet Santa. Sabrina ushered him in the front door and sat him in a wingback chair near the piano. His black boots juxtaposed the pure white carpet at his feet. The kids crowded around, surprisingly quiet as Santa read the “Night before Christmas.” With the conclusion of the story, the kids took turns sitting on Santa’s lap as parents herded in front to take pictures. Only a few children had a chance to visit with Santa before Sabrina’s son, Thad, approached to take his seat on Santa’s lap. Before he sat down, he requested Suerte be in the picture too.
“Come here, Suerte, my girl,” Sabrina cooed at the dog. I gave Greg a worried look, but he just shrugged his shoulders. As a loyal dog, Suerte got up and walked to the doorway. I tried to stop her, standing at the divide between the land of easy clean tile and that of impossible to clean snowy, white carpet. You could tell it pained the dog to lumber over to Santa, but she obeyed.
“I think she needs to go out,” I said.
“Oh, she’s fine,” Sabrina waved me away.
By the time Suerte ambled over to Santa’s feet, she looked like a sailor green from too many days at sea. She let out one big burp that sounded like the pop of a champagne cork. Once I heard that belch, I quickly jerked Suerte’s collar and pulled her away from Santa’s lap. My cat-like reflexes were uncharacteristic, but due to my dessert bender, I was still a second too late. The reindeer antlers drooped down Suerte’s head as the once white carpet turned brown by Santa’s feet. Vomit spewed on more than the carpet, covering Thad’s leg. Santa bellowed, “Bah Humbug,” (I told you he was good) and jumped to his feet, knocking Thad into the puddle of puke.
“Back to the basement,” I yelled to the kids, banishing them from further holiday drama. Sabrina let out a dreadful scream, staring at the brown stain on the carpet and her crying son. Tearing off his beard, Santa tried to wipe away what chunks of dog bile he could, no longer caring to uphold his character once the kids had safely vanished. Except for Thad. Quickly, I shepherded the guests into the kitchen, while Sabrina’s husband took Suerte outside. The professional carolers covered their noses from the barfy smell with their capes and muffs. Sabrina took Thad to the bathroom, encouraging him to undress from the puky clothes, and I couldn’t help, ok, I was intentionally eavesdropping. Still shaken, Thad didn’t want her help. He kept asking why Santa had pushed him. Why did Sabrina always have to have everything so perfect? He knew Santa was fake anyway. Why did she have to pretend? Sabrina couldn’t come up with any answers. She ran the water and presumably bathed her son. But he knew the truth. Santa was a fraud. Afterward, Elliot put Thad to bed. The party died after that. In the end, Suerte was fine. I wish I could say the same for Sabrina who looked troubled yet tried to wear a smile as she thanked each guest for coming.
I sent my brood home while I helped clean up. In the kitchen, I offered Sabrina a brownie because chocolate has a way of healing, unless of course, you’re a dog. Sabrina never knew it was my fault, believing instead some child gave Suerte an unauthorized treat. Not only was the party ruined, it ended with a tarnish on Santa’s magic and Sabrina’s previously spotless reputation as Silver Tree’s preeminent holiday hostess. She was out of my league, and I knew I couldn’t compete with her Christmas tidings. I might not have been able to save Santa, but I could still help Sabrina.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Get that ornament that broke.”
“Our last ditch effort.”
She searched through the trash can (not the one where we discarded the vomit) and found the ceramic ball, missing the cracked piece. She handed it to me, and I eyed it turning it left and right.
“If we can just…” I said.
I turned to look at her. “Yes, he knows Santa’s not real. But he doesn’t know that YOU are.”
Sabrina got out her hot glue gun, fetched the jagged shard from Thad’s pants’ pocket, and pieced the ornament back together. She even etched “for my monkey” on the side with a special etching acid only a crafty Christmas mom like Sabrina would have. When she was done, the jagged edges on the broken piece stood out like the outline of an island on a map of the sea. It was perfect. Then we took five more ornaments off the tree, Sabrina was careful not to select the most expensive ones, and broke those too. We glued them back together, each looking like a patchwork of mismatched pottery. She wrapped Thad’s special ornament and left it under the tree. The others she draped on the tree’s middle front limbs, glittering in their broken glory, a testimony to her flaws.
After all that work, I needed a cupcake, preferably one with vanilla buttercream crumbled with peppermint. I trudged home wondering if the exhaustion trying to uphold the ruse of Santa was worth it. It hadn’t worked for Sabrina. She cracked. Literally.
It was very late and the kids were in bed, but as I tiptoed by Josh’s room, he whispered loudly, “Mom.”
“Yes. Why are you still up?”
“I was just thinking.” I walked over and sat on the edge of his bed. “Mom, you’re really good at that stuff.”
“Good at what stuff?” I asked.
“Good at making stuff up quickly to cover up the truth.”
“You know.” I kissed the top of his head. “And just remember, sometimes it’s okay to let the truth come out. But for now, do you think we can keep this one from Sadie?” He nodded.
Shoot. I still needed to move that elf!