Ghosts

Cally liked being the first one downstairs on Christmas morning. If she tiptoed down the stairs quietly enough, she might catch a glimpse of Santa. But no matter how early she got up, she never did. There were crumbs on the cookie plate, and the milk was gone, and once he even left behind a sleigh bell. She found it when she went outside to look for reindeer tracks in the snow. There never were any hoofprints. Her father wouldn’t let her up on the roof to check for boot prints, so she had to take his word that they were there. But that was scant evidence. Still, she wrote Santa a letter each year and burned it in the fireplace. “That’s how Santa gets mail,” her father explained.

One Christmas Santa brought Cally and her sister hats. They were berets, presumably crocheted by Santa’s elves; Cally got a red one and Nancy got a green one.

As soon as she saw her hat, Nancy started whining that she didn’t like green. “It looks like a girl scout beanie,” she said.

Then something happened that changed everything.

“I’ve made a blue one,” their mother said. “I was going to give it to your cousin Janet, but if you’d rather have blue…”

The green beret went into her work basket, and a blue one was brought out.

Nancy asked if there was enough yarn to make a pom-pom for the top, and her mother said there was.

Cally was sure that her mother wasn’t an elf. And it seemed incredible, even to a five-year-old, that Santa would have foreseen the problem with a green beret and left behind a blue one, just in case — with enough extra yarn for optional pom-poms.

It was disturbing. Cally thought about it all morning while her father slept in his recliner. Her little brother was pushing his new Tonka around in circles, making truck noises. Nancy was reading, as always, a book about a girl who had a horse. Their mother was in the kitchen, putting Saran wrap over the bowls of leftovers.

Wondering how to frame her question, Cally went into the kitchen.

“Would you dry?” her mother asked, pointing to the dish rack. Cally nodded and took the towel. Twisting it around her hand, she tried to think of a way to bring up the subject.

“Does Santa know how to crochet?” she asked.

“Hm? No, I suppose Mrs. Claus does that,” her mother replied, spooning the mashed potatoes into a smaller bowl.

“How does Santa make Tonka trucks? We saw those at Kresge’s. Does Kresge’s get them from the North Pole?”

Her mother put down the spoon and looked at her. “Honey, what is it you want to know?”

Cally couldn’t answer this.

“You’re getting to be a big girl now. Maybe it’s time for you to understand.” She sat down at the kitchen table and folded her hands in her lap. “Santa is a myth, honey.”

“What’s that?”

“A story people tell–”

“Like a fairy tale?”

“Yes, just like that. We know that the big bad wolf isn’t real. People tell those stories for fun. That’s how it is with Santa.”

“Then who brings the presents?” It couldn’t be as simple as grownups going to the store and buying things.

“It’s — the Spirit of Christmas. You know what a spirit is, don’t you?”

“Like the Holy Ghost?” This had been explained in Sunday School class when Eric Welch asked why there were ghosts in church, when they were supposed to come out only at Halloween.

“Yes.” Her mother looked relieved.

“What does it look like?”

“You can’t see a spirit, honey.”

She imagined presents moving through the air, carried by an unseen ghost.

“Don’t tell your brother,” her mother warned. “He’s not old enough to understand yet.”

Cally finished drying the dishes and returned to the living room. Her Barbie had been wearing a black leotard all morning. Now it was time for her to try the silver tutu. She began peeling the black tights off her stiff legs, still thinking about the Christmas Spirit.

It was sort of scary to picture an invisible ghost laying the boxes under the tree. If the Christmas Spirit, like the Holy Ghost, already knew when you were naughty or nice, she had been very lucky so far. It had obviously overlooked a number of lies she had told, as well as the times she had called her sister bad names. Her friend Jamie went to confession to get rid of his sins. All he had to do was tell the priest all the bad things he had done, say a few prayers, and he was free. Lutherans were less lucky; they had to carry their sins around, knowing that the Holy Ghost was keeping track, and would know who was really sorry and who was faking it.

Her father was watching a movie on television now. A man named Scrooge was seeing Christmas ghosts in his house. They had come to tell him what a bad person he was, her father told her, so he would start being nicer to people and stop saying things like, “Bah, Humbug!” She tried saying it a few times, until her father told her it was a curse word.
So, there was more than one of them! And they weren’t invisible, as her mother had told her. The first one dressed like an angel (minus the wings), the second looked a bit like Santa, but the third was terrible looking. This had to be the one that kept track of things.
But now that she knew how it worked, she could be extra careful.

The following Christmas, she didn’t go outside looking for hoof prints. She waited until everyone was downstairs before she came out of her room, just in case one of the ghosts was still there.

Two years later, when her brother asked her about Santa, she told him the secret of the Christmas Ghosts. This scared him so much that he went crying to their mother. When she figured out what Cally had done, she scolded her for making up stories.

The Ghosts kept Christmas exciting for a few years after that, but eventually she figured out that they were a myth, too. And she finally understood what a myth was — children tell lies, but grownups tell myths.

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