Jamie Moyer’s dad believed in angels. He said that he’d met one once, and they’d had a remarkably fine conversation. He refused to speak of it further, however, saying with a wink that such events were personal. Jamie herself didn’t know how she felt about angels. After all, she knew that parents sometimes tricked their kids into believing things just for the fun of it. All she knew for certain was that every year, as Christmas time approached, her father went nuts.
Jamie’s dad was just a regular guy most of the time– a man who worked at home doing amazing and complicated things on the computer in the basement, for which he received “the big bucks,” as he called it. And most of the time, Jamie’s dad liked regular-guy sorts of things: old John Wayne movies, Super Bowl Sunday, tinkering with thingsthat had motors in them, and the ultimate regular guy mystery, the Saturday Night Fights. But by Thanksgiving, all of that dropped away like leaves from an October tree, and he transformed into something between a book-thumping Professor Christmas, and an elfin child who refused to grow up.
It began the day after Thanksgiving, actually. The angels appeared first. Jamie would find them staring back at her from cross-stitched wall hangings in the entry way as she tookoff her raincoat. Then they would appear as bendable figures perched atop the hallway mirror, looking at her as she combed her hair. Soon they appeared as centerpieces holding candles above her plate as she ate, and as tiny crystal suspensions in the kitchen window that gleamed in her eyes as she put away the clean silverware. She would find magazine prints of angels carefully cut out and taped to the wall just opposite the toilet in the bathroom. There was no getting away from them.
By the first of December, the other decorations began to emerge. Red and green poinsettias, candles, and evergreen boughs sprouted like weeds throughout the house. By the time the Christmas tree was placed by the front room window, Jamie would find angels, Santas, elves, nutcrackers, reindeer, and snowmen staring back at her everywhere she looked. Even the tablecloth, the pillows, and the welcome mat were replaced with festive red and green stand-ins. During the last few days beforeChristmas, Jamie would watch her father as he stood in the middle of the living room sipping his hot spiced cider and looking for one more spot to stuff an angel, an elf, or elongated star.
But Christmas music on the radio was the worst. Her dad loved to sing along at the top of his lungs. And although she had to admit her dad had a passable singing voice, she prayed that none of her friends would be over for a visit when her dad happened to take the lead tenor part inHandel’s Messiah, which he loved dearly. After all, she was almost nine years old.
Jamie was a slender string of a girl, a platinum haired third grader who had grown legs that seemed too long for her body, like a geranium under a grow-light. She had a button nose full of freckles and always wore her hair in a pony-tail so she could nibble on the end of it when she fretted. At Christmas time, the tip of it was always a little wet.
Thank goodness it was Christmas Eve, and they probably wouldn’t be having any friends over at this late hour. In fact, Jamie had already dressed for bed. She was wearing her favorite long white nightgown, and clutching her ever-present sky blue baby blanket (which she called her “cuddly”) to her cheek for comfort. Her older sister, Lindsey, lay sprawled across the entire sofa, listening to a song on her CD player. Jamie’s mom was still away at the hospital, working the night shift as a nurse. Herdad was rearranging the Christmas tree ornaments again. Suddenly he held up his hands as though to wave, and then stood motionless.
Handel’s Messiah had come on the radio again, and Jamie’s dad was following along in perfect harmony, but at the top of his lungs. Jamie rolled her eyes.
“Jeez-o-leez, Dad!” Jamie sighed. “Every time that comes on the radio, you act so…so…” Shecouldn’t think of just the right word, so she sat down by the Christmas tree and put her half of the candy cane back into her mouth. Hers was the curved part; Lindsey had gotten the straight part. Older sisters got the best of everything.
“Did you know that the slang word Jeez is probably short for the name Jesus?” her dad said through that ever-present holiday grin of his. He took a sip of cider from his mug. Jamie was always astonished that he never spilled it when he sang.
“I think it’s short for chill out, Dad,” Lindsey said, holding her straight candy-cane half as if it were a cigarette. Lindsey had her earphones on and her eyes closed. She was bucking and gyrating to music that obviously had a more contemporary beat than Messiah.
“That was my part in the youth choir at church when I was about your age,” Jamie’s dad said in Lindsey’s general direction. “I can still hit the high notes,too!”
Lindsey, who was continuously snapping her fingers to the music in her ear, said, “Cool, Dad, but shhh! I’m like, listening to my music now.” She took a lick of her candy-cane half and closed her eyes again.
“Let’s open some presents!” Jamie said, eyeing one in particular. She picked up a large green-wrapped box from under the tree. She already knew it was for her, and it was just the size of the lap-top computer she sodesperately wanted. She shook it, listening for the tell-tale clicks of plastic against metal. Nothing.
Jamie’s dad frowned. “Presents are for Christmas morning. The real Christmas is Christmas Eve,” he said. “Besides, we ought to wait for your mother.”
“Aw, come on, Dad!” Jamie pleaded. “Please? She won’t mind just one!”
“I’ll think about it,” he answered. “But first, we’re going to read the Christmas story. Turn down the radio. Lindsey, off with the earphones.”
“Aw, jeez, Dad! Every year you do this!” Lindsey said, rolling her eyes. “Like, we’ve heard it already!”
“So you think you know it pretty well, ay?” Her dad paused, gazing at the two of them and taking small sips from his mug. “Very well, then. We’ll tell it to each other.”
Jamie lay down heavily, as though passing out, just at the base of the tree. She pulled her cuddly over her head and sighed. She had known it would somehow come to this: a Christmas pop-quiz, just like in school. “Is this an open-book test?” she muttered through her cuddly. Even Lindsey snickered at that one.
“Jamie, now be serious. This is important,” her dad said. “A little bit of tradition won’t hurt you.”
“Yeah, right,” Jamie said.
Jamie’s dad opened up the family Bible to a well-wornbookmark. “Let’s start here,” he said, and began reading. “And there were in that same country, shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them; they were sore afraid. And the angel said– what, Jamie?”
“Don’t be afraid, I bring good news,” Jamie said.
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,” Lindsey corrected. Miss perfect show-off.
“Which is for all people,” Jamie said, wrinkling her nose up into a pig-face at Lindsey.
“Which shall be for all people,” Lindsey corrected again.
“Dad! Make her stop!” Jamie closed her eyes in frustration, and to concentrate. “For unto you today a Savior is born…” Jamie paused, and then hung her head. She was stuck. She closed her eyes again and wished she were somewhere else. But the aroma of hot spiced cider, fir needles, bayberry candles, and half-eatencandy canes didn’t let her mind wander very far.
“That’s okay, kiddo. Lindsey, your turn.”
“I haven’t forgotten, Daddy,” Lindsey said in that special pre-Christmas voice of hers that was even more sugary than Christmas fudge. The perfect little angel, at least during the Christmas shopping period. It made Jamie want to barf.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, Which is Christ, the Lord.” Lindsey made a smirkat Jamie and then went on. “And this shall be a sign unto you; you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” She beamed at her dad, and then stuck out her tongue at Jamie on the sly.
Jamie moaned and pulled her cuddly over her head again. Of course Lindsey would know it better. She’d heard it thirteen times before; Jamie had only heard it eight. Lindsey was bound to get the only lap-top this family would ever see. Jamie would only get one as an old, rusty-hinged hand-me-down. She’d probably get lots of socks and underwear instead.
She sighed and gazed through her blue cuddly at the tree lights. The star glowed bright blue, but all the smaller lights were indistinct, like green and yellow fireflies blinking off and on. She imagined each one with a doll or a toy tied to its feet, bringing them all to her.
“Okay, if that was so easy,” their dad said, “Let’s try another part.” He flipped abunch of pages. “Here. ‘Now, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod, the king, behold, there came wise-men from the East.’ Jamie, are you listening?”
Jamie uncovered her face. The fireflies were just red and yellow lights again, and the tree star was just a white plastic star with a red border, barely visible through the branches. “Yes, I’m listening!” Her voice sounded impatient even to her.
“Okay,smarty-pants,” her dad said. “What did they bring?”
Jamie was silent. She pulled her cuddly over her head again to avoid looking at him. She knew he would be looking back.
“The first one brought gold,” Lindsey said, still the scholar right up to the Christmas finishing flag.
“That’s right,” her dad said. “And his name was Baltazar. What was the second gift?”
“Frankincense!” Lindsey said. “But I don’t remember his name, Daddy.” Lindsey was speaking in that sickly sweet voice again, Jamie noticed. “What is Frankincense?” Lindsey added.
Her dad smiled. “It’s a kind of spice people used to burn for the aroma. Like incense. It’s hard to describe.”
“I guess you had to be there,” Jamie muttered absently, looking at all the lights. Her dad had strung a strand of lights off the tree and all the way over to the mantle again. The lights dangledabove the nativity scene there, spinning just enough to twinkle. Jamie could just see the upper halves of Mary and Joseph from where she lay. They looked like two sticks of cinnamon, and the manger looked like a piece of chocolate. Just for a moment, she wondered what it must have been like to hunker down in a stable and have a baby. Probably cold, and entirely without chocolate.
Her dad sipped his cider and then continued. “And tradition has it that his name was Melchior. Good, Lindsey. Now let Jamie answer.”
“Dad,” Jamie whined. “Do we have to know their names?”
“It’s part of the Christmas story,” he answered. “It’s one of the greatest stories of all time, and I think you should learn it. Now, who was the third wise man, and what did he bring?”
“Santa Claus,” Jamie muttered. “And he brought toys.” She rolled onto her side facing away from them and looked at all the pretty boxes under the tree. She already knew which ones were for her. Well, if she didn’t get her lap-top, at least she could hope for something from Santa good enough to tell the kids about at school.
Jamie’s dad sighed.
“His name was Casper, stupid!” Lindsey said.
“Like in Casper the Friendly Ghost?” Jamie made a wan smile, hoping her joke would lighten things up. It didn’t.
“Gaspar, with a G,” her dad corrected.
“Whatever,” Lindsey said. “But he brought myrrh, I know.”
“Duh,” Jamie said.
“Oh, you didn’t know any of it, Dork-meister!” Lindsey glowered at her.
“Did so!” Jamie said. “Anyway, knowing this stuff is important how?”
“Every single piece of knowledge is valuable,” her dad shrugged. “Who knows, maybe you’ll be on Jeopardy one day, and the category will be Christmas. Now,settle down.”
“Like, if I name the three wise men, do I win a lap-top?” Jamie glowered back at Lindsey, who gasped in dismay.
“At least I’m the smart one,” Lindsey said. “I could really use a lap-top.”
“Yeah, for storing boys’ phone numbers,” Jamie said.
“Would not! I’d do my homework on it. School’s very important to me.” Lindsey held her hand to her chest, the perfect princess.
“Is that why you wear a Victoria’s Secret bra to school?” Jamie said.
“You little dork!” Lindsey shouted and threw a pillow at her. Jamie ducked, and the pillow hit the tree, knocking several of the glass angels to the floor.
“Girls! Enough! Now look what you’ve done!” Their dad rushed to the tree and started picking up the angels, examining each one for damage.
“I didn’t mean to,” Lindsey said.
“It happened onaccident,” Jamie said.
“Yeah, on accident,” Lindsey echoed.
“Nothing broken. No harm done.” Their father sounded tired. He closed the book and pulled out all the bookmarks. “But I suppose that’s as far as we’re going to get with our reading this year. It’s time for bed, both of you.”
“But you said we could open presents!” Jamie said, her hands on her hips.
“Yeah, Dad, you promised!” Lindsey chimedin, for once on Jamie’s side.
“I said I’d think about it,” he answered.
“Dad!” This time the girls were in perfect unison.
“Okay, okay,” their dad grinned. “I’d better keep my promises.” He reached behind the tree. “But just one each. And I get to choose which one. Lindsey, this is for you.” He handed her a small flat present.
Lindsey opened it in record time. It was a CD. But her gleeful look faded rapidly. “Christmas music?” Lindsey sounded as if this were a most unbelievable catastrophe.
“I thought you liked that group,” her dad said.
“I like their real music,” Lindsey said under her breath.
“Well, try it anyway. Who knows, you might even like it…on accident,” he said, mimicking the two of them.
Lindsey placed the disc in her player and put on her earphones. After a moment, hereyebrows went up and her frown disappeared, although Jamie could tell she was determined not to smile.
“Okay?” her dad asked.
“Tolerable,” Lindsey shrugged. “I get the bathroom first!” she added, waltzing away toward the bathroom without so much as a backward glance.
“You’re welcome,” her dad said after her. “And merry Christmas Eve, Lindsey.”
“Oh yeah, thanks, Dad.” Lindsey’s voice came from thebathroom just as the door clicked shut.
“What about me, me, me?” Jamie said.
“I was just getting to you.” He reached behind the tree again and brought out an odd-looking package. It was shaped like a fat pop bottle and gathered into a bow at the top. Jamie hadn’t seen that one before.
When she opened it, she stared in amazement and then frowned. It was a wooden statue, about as tall as the span of her open hand, of the most peculiar looking angel Jamie had ever seen. He was old and pot-bellied, bald and wrinkled. His wings were tattered, with feathers askew or missing entirely. He needed a shave, and his halo had slipped down over one ear. He had a bent and battered trumpet tied to a sash around his waist. His smile was not very heavenly, either. It was more like the smile of someone who had gotten into the Christmas cookies. “What is this?” Jamie stared at her strange present.
“That’s the Christmas angel, Jamie,” her dad answered.
“Christmas angel? But it’s so, so…ugly!” Jamie stamped her foot, mostly out of frustration over not getting to choose which present to open.
Her dad paused to take a sip from his mug, and then exhaled noisily. “Ahh. Hmm. Well, it’s true he won’t be winning any beauty contests. But, well, there’s just something a little magic about him. One day you’ll understand. You’llhave to trust me on this one, kiddo.”
Jamie examined the old tattered angel top to bottom, front and back. No lights, no sounds, no battery compartment. Not much magic here. “Sure,” she muttered, and dropped the Christmas angel onto the couch.
The bathroom door was still closed; Jamie turned back to her dad. “Dad, can I have my three questions now?” When her father tucked her into bed, he nearly always told her she could ask three questions. Then he would be honor-bound to answer them truthfully.
“Hmm, seeing as how Lindsey has the bathroom all tied up, okay, shoot. If they’re quick,” he said.
Jamie thought hard, her mouth tightening into a small crooked line. She twiddled with her pony-tail over her shoulder. It smelled like fir needles and bayberry candles, with a touch of peppermint. She nibbled on the end of it. “First question,” she said. “Dad, what was your most favoritest gift that Santaever gave you?”
Her dad smiled a slight parent kind of smile, the kind that no kid ever understood. “My most favorite gift didn’t come from Santa, Jamie. Santa just brings toys after Christmas is over. The best gifts are gifts of love, and they’re usually given on Christmas Eve.” He gave Jamie a little hug. “Like this one. Merry Christmas Eve, Kiddo.”
“What time do you think Santa will get here?” Jamie asked.
“Long after you’reasleep. And that was your second question.”
“I didn’t say second question!” Jamie stamped her foot again.
Lindsey leaned into the room and yelled out, “Bathroom’s free,” and disappeared again.
“Well, you have one more, kiddo, so make it a good one,” her dad said.
Jamie looked around the room, trying to think of a good question. It was impossible for her to remain unhappy or even very disappointed amid all the decorations. She truly enjoyed the season’s preparations—taping Christmas cards in the hallway, frosting the windows, putting the star on top of the tree, setting up the nativity scene in its special place on the mantle above the fireplace. But her dad was so picky about where the figurines went that most of the time, she and Lindsey just backed away and let him do it. Jamie would watch him standing by the mantle, sipping his cider and fiddling with the angels and the wise men. He would pick themup one by one, examine them for chips and cracks, (someone had dropped one of the sheep once and broken off a leg) and then he would set them down just so in various spots around the nativity scene.
Over the top, Jamie thought. Who cared about the names of the wise men, or how many angels went where? She sighed, but the fir and bayberry scents calmed her and made her smile a little.
“Okay, third question.” Jamie paused and took a quick nibble on the end of herpony-tail again. “Dad, how come you’re so picky about the manger scene? Do you believe all that stuff in the Christmas story?”
Her dad smiled that unreadable smile again. “I believe it…” He paused, thinking. “just as much as if I’d seen it. But everyone has to come to their own conclusions, I think. Now, go on, Jamie. Lindsey’s out of the bathroom.”
Jamie took one more look around the living room, her eyes settling on the mantle-top nativity scene and the large glass angel her dad had placed beside the manger. He had tapped the suspended lights so that they twirled; the angel beside the manger seemed to twinkle under them. “I wonder what really did happen way back then,” she said to herself. I wish I could just go and see for myself. And not the cardboard stand-up version, either. I mean the real thing—camel breath, donkey poop, and all. That’s the only way I could ever believe it.”
“Well,it’s a wonderful story whether you believe any of it or not,” her dad said. “Now, off to bed with you.”
“Will you come and tuck me in?”
“Yes, in a few minutes,” he answered. He picked up the Christmas angel from the couch and gazed at it for a moment, turning it slowly in his hand.
Jamie scampered off toward the bathroom.
* * *