Five minutes before the Winter Solstice circle was scheduled to begin, my mother called. Since I'm the only one in our coven who doesn't run on Pagan Standard Time, I took the call. Half the people hadn't arrived, and those who had wouldn't settle down to business for at least twenty minutes.
"Merry Christmas, Frannie."
"Hi, Mom. I don't do Christmas."
"Maybe not--but I do, so I'll say it." she told me in her sassy voice, kind of sweet and vinegary at the same time. "If I can respect your freedom of religion, you can respect my freedom of speech."
I grinned and rolled my eyes. "And the score is Mom - one, Fran - nothing. But I love you, anyway."
People were bustling around in the next room, setting up the altar, decking the halls with what I considered excessive amounts of holly and ivy, and singing something like, "O Solstice Tree."
"It sounds like a...holiday party." Mom said.
"We're doing Winter Solstice tonight."
"Oh. That's sort of like your version of Christmas, right?"
I wanted to snap back that Christmas was the Christian version of Solstice, but I held back.
"We celebrate the return of the sun. It's a lot quieter than Christmas. No shopping sprees, no pine needles and tinsel on the floor, and it doesn't wipe me out. I remember how you had always worked yourself to a frazzle by December 26."
"Oh honey, I loved doing all that stuff. I wouldn't trade those memories for all the spare time in the world. I wish you and Jack would loosen up a little for the baby's sake. When you were little, you enjoyed Easter bunnies and trick-or-treating and Christmas things. Since you've gotten into this Wicca religion, you sound a lot like Aunt Betty the year she was a Jehovah's Witness."
I laughed nervously. "Yeah. How is Aunt Betty?"
"Fine. She's into the Celestine Prophecy now, and she seems quite happy. Y'know," she went on, "Aunt Betty always said the Jehovah's Witnesses said those holiday things were pagan. So I don't see why you've given them up."
"Uh, they've been commercialized and polluted beyond recognition. We're into very simple, quiet celebrations."
"Well," she said dubiously, "as long as you're happy."
Sometimes long distance is better than being there, 'cause your mother can't give you the look that makes you agree with everything she says. Jack rescued me by interrupting.
Hi, Ma." he called to the phone as he waved a beribboned sprig of mistletoe over my head. Then he kissed me, one of those quick noisy ones. I frowned at him.
"Druidic tradition, Fran. Swear to Goddess."
"Of course it is. Did the Druids use plastic berries?"
"Always. We'll be needing you in about five minutes."
"Okay. Gotta go, Mom. Love you."
We had a nice, serene kind of Solstice Circle. No jingling bells or filked-out Christmas Carols. Soon after the last coven member left, Jack was ready to pack it in.
"The baby's nestled all snug in her bed," he said with a yawn, "I think I'll go settle in for a long winter's nap."
I heaved a martyred sigh. He grinned unrepentantly, kissed me, called me a grinch, and went to bed. I stayed up and puttered around the house, trying to unwind. I sifted through the day's mail, ditched the flyers urging us to purchase all the Seasonal Joy we could afford or charge. I opened the card from his parents. Another sermonette: a manger scene and a bible verse, with a handwritten note expressing his mother's fervent hope that God's love and Christmas spirit would fill our hearts in this blessed season. She means well, really. I amused myself by picking out every pagan element I could find in the card.
When the mail had been sorted, I got up and started turning our ritual room back into a living room. As if the greeting card had carried a virus, I found myself humming Christmas carols. I turned on the classic rock station, but they were playing that Lennon-Ono Christmas song. I switched stations. The weatherman assured me that there was only a twenty percent chance of snow. Then, by Loki, the deejay let Bruce Springsteen insult my ears crooning, "yah better watch out, yah better not pout." I tried the Oldies station. Elvis lives, and he does Christmas songs. Okay, fine. We'll do classical--no, we won't. They're playing Handel's Messiah. Maybe the community radio station would have something secular humanist.
"Ahora, escucharemos a Jose Feliciano canta `Feliz Navidad'."
I was getting annoyed. The radio doesn't usually get this saturated with holiday mush until the twenty-fourth.
"This is too weird." I said to the radio, "Cut that crap out."
The country station had some Kenny Rogers Christmas tune, the first rock station had gone from John and Yoko's Christmas song to Simon and Garfunkel's "Silent Night," and the other rock station still had Springsteen reliving his childhood. "--I'm tellin' you why. SANTA Claus is comin' to town!" he bellowed.
I was about to pick out a nice secular CD when there was a knock at the door. Now, it could have been a coven member who'd forgotten something. It could have been someone with car trouble. It could have been any number of things, but it certainly couldn't have been a stout guy in a red suit--snowy beard, rosy cheeks, and all--backed by eight reindeer and a sleigh. I blinked, wondered crazily where Rudolph was, and blinked again. There were nine reindeer. Our twenty-percent chance of snow had frosted the dead grass and was continuing to float down in fat flakes.
"Hi, Frannie." he said warmly, "I've missed you."
"I'm stone cold sober, and you don't exist."
He looked at me with a mixture of sorrow and compassion and sighed heavily.
"That's why I miss you, Frannie. Can I come in? We need to talk."
I couldn't quite bring myself to slam the door on this vision, hallucination, or whatever. So I let him in, because that made more sense then letting all the cold air in while I argued with someone who wasn't there.
As he stepped in, a thought crossed my mind about various entities needing an invitation to get in houses. He flashed me a smile that would melt the polar caps.
"Don't you miss Christmas, Frannie?"
"No." I said flatly, "Apparently you don't see me when I'm sleeping and waking these days. I haven't been Christian for years."
"Oh, now don't let that stop you. We both know this holiday's older than that. Yule trees and Saturnalia and here-comes-the-sun, doodoodendoodoo."
I raised an eyebrow at the Beatles reference, then gave him my standard sermonette on the appropriation and adulteration that made Christmas no longer a Pagan holiday. I had done my homework. I listed centuries, I named names--St. Nicholas among them.
"In the twentieth century version," I assured him, "Christmas is two parts crass commercialism mixed with one part blind faith in a religion I rejected years ago." I gave him my best lines, the ones that had convinced my coven to abstain from Christmasy cliches. My hallucination sat in Jack's favorite chair, nodding patiently at me.
"And you," I added nastily, "come here talking about ancient customs when you--in your current form--were invented in the nineteenth century by, um...Clement C. Moore."
He laughed, a rolling, belly-deep chuckle unlike any department-store Santa I'd ever heard.
"Of course I change my form now and then to suit fashion. Don't you? And does that stop you from being yourself?" He said, and asked me if I remembered Real Magic, by Isaac Bonewits.
I gaped at him for a moment, then caught myself. "This is like `Labyrinth', right? I'm having a dream that pretends to be real, but is only made from pieces of things in my memory. You don't look a thing like David Bowie."
"Bonewits has this Switchboard Theory." Santa went on amiably, "The energy you put into your beliefs influences the real existence of the archetypal--oh, let me put it simpler: `in the beginning, Man created God'. Ian Anderson."
He lit a long-stemmed pipe. The obacco had a mild and somehow Christmasy smell, and every puff sent up a wreath of smoke. "I'm afraid it's a bit more complicated than Bonewits tells it, but that's close enough for mortals. Are you with me so far?"
"Oh, sure." I lied as unconvincingly as possible.
Santa sighed heavily.
"When's the last time you left out milk and cookies for me?"
"When I figured out my parents were eating them."
"Frannie, Frannie. Remember pinda balls, from Hinduism?"
"Rice balls left as offerings for ancestors and gods."
"Do Hindus really believe that the ancestors and gods eat pinda balls?"
"All right, y'got me there. They say that spirits consume the spiritual essence, then mortals can have what's left."
"Mm-hm." Santa smiled at me compassionately through his snowy beard.
I rallied quickly. "What about the toys? I know for a fact they aren't made by you and a bunch of non-union elves."
"Oh, that's quite true. Manufacturing physical objects out of magical energy is terribly expensive and breaks several laws of Nature--She only allows us to do that on special occasions. It certainly couldn't be done globally and annually. Now, the missus and the elves and I really do have a shop at the North Pole. Not the sort of thing the Air Force would ever find. What we make up there is what makes this time a holiday, no matter what religion it's called."
"Don't tell me," I said, rolling my eyes, "you make the sun come back."
"Oh my, no. The solar cycle stuff, the Reason For The Season, isn't my department. My part is making it a holiday. We make a mild, non-addictive psychedelic thing called Christmas spirit. Try some."
He dipped his fingers in a pocket and tossed red-gold-green-silver glitter at me. I could have ducked. I don't know why I didn't.
It smelled like snow, and pine needles, and cedar chips in the fireplace. It smelled like fruitcake, like roast turkey, like that foamy white stuff you spray on the window with stencils. It felt like a crisp wind, Grandma's hugs, fuzzy new mittens, pine needles scrunching under my slippers. I saw twinkly lights, mistletoe in the doorway, smiling faces from years gone by. Several Christmas carols played almost simultaneously in a kind of medley. I fought my way back to my living room and glared sternly at the hallucination in Jack's chair.
"Fun stuff. Does the DEA know about this?"
"Oh, Frannie. Why are you such a hard case? I told you it's non-addictive and has no harmful side effects. Would Santa Claus lie to you?"
I opened my mouth and closed it again. We looked at each other a while.
"Can I have some more of that glittery stuff?"
"Mmmm. I think you need something stronger. Try a sugarplum."
I tasted rum ball. Peppermint. Those hard candies with the picture all the way through. Mama's favorite fudge. A chorus line of Christmas candies danced through my mouth. The Swedish Angel Chimes, run on candle power, say tingatingatingating. Mama, with a funny smile, promised to give Santa my letter.
Greeting cards taped on the refrigerator door. We rode through the tree farm on a straw-filled trailer pulled by a red and green tractor, looking for a perfect pine. It was so big, Daddy had to cut a bit off so the star wouldn't scrape the ceiling. Lights, ornaments, tinsel. Daddy lifted me up to the mantle to hang my stocking. My dolls stayed up to see Santa Claus, and in the morning they all had new clothes. Grandma carried in a platter with the world's biggest turkey, and I got the drumstick. Joey's Christmas puppy chased my Christmas kitten up the tree and it would have fallen over but Daddy held it while Mama got the kitten out. Daddy said every bad word there was but he kept laughing anyway. I sneaked my favorite plastic horse into the nativity scene, between the camels and the donkey.
I came back to reality slowly, with a silly smile onmy face and a tickly feeling behind my eyes like they wanted to cry. The phrase "visions of sugarplums" took on a whole new meaning.
"How long has it been," Santa asked, "since you played with a nativity set?-"
"But it symbolizes--"
"The winter-born king. The sacred Mother and her sun-child. Got a problem with that? You could redecorate it with pentagrams if you like, they'll look fine. As for the Christianization, I've heard who you invoke at Imbolc."
"But Bridgid was a Goddess for centuries before the Catholic Church-oh." I crossed my arms and tried to glare at him, but failed. "You're a sneaky old elf, y'know?"
"The term is `jolly old elf.' Care for another sugarplum?"
I did. I tasted gingerbread. My first nip of eggnog the way the grown-ups drink it. Fresh sugar cookies, shaped like trees and decked with colored frosting. Dad had been laid off, but we managed a lot of cheer. They told us Christmas would be "slim pickings." Joey and I smiled bravely when Mama brought home that spindly spruce. We loaded down our "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" with every light and ornament it could hold. Popcorn and cranberry strings for the outdoor trees. Mistletoe in the hall: plastic mistletoe, real kisses. Joey and I snipped and glued and stitched and painted treasures to give as presents. We agonized over our "Santa" letters...by now we knew where the goodies came from, and we tried to compromise between what we longed for and what we thought they could afford. Every day we hoped the factory would reopen. When Joey's dog ate my mitten, I wasn't brave. I knew that meant I'd get mittens for Christmas, and one less toy. I cried. On December twenty-fifth we opened our presents ve-ery slo-wly, drawing out the experience. We made a show of cheer over our socks and shirts and meager haul of toys. I got red mittens. We could tell Mama and Daddy were proud of us for being so brave, because they were grinning like crazy.
"Go out to the garage for apples." Mama told us, "We'll have apple pancakes."
I don't remember having the pancakes. There was a dollhouse in the garage. No mass-produced aluminum thing but a homemade plywood dollhouse with wall-papered walls and real curtains and thread-spool chairs. My dolls were inside, with newly sewn clothes. Joey was on his knees in front of a plywood barn with hay in the loft. His old farm implements had new paint. Our plastic animals were corralled in popsicle stick fences. The garage smelled like apples and hay, the cement was bone-chilling under my slippers, and I was crying.
My knees were drawn up to my chest, arms wrapped around them. My chest felt tight, like ice cracking in sunshine. Santa offered me a huge white handkerchief. When all the ice in my chest had melted, he cleared his throat. He was pretty misty-eyed, too.
"Want to come sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas?"
"You've already given it to me." But I sat on his lap anyway, and kissed his rosy cheek until he did his famous laugh.
"I'd better go now, Frannie. I have other stops to make, and you have work to do."
"Right. I'd better pop the corn tonight, it strings best when it's stale."
I let him out the door. The reindeer were pawing impatiently at the moon-kissed new-fallen snow. I'd swear Rudolph winked at me.
"Don't forget the milk and cookies."
"Right. Uh, December twenty-fourth, or Solstice, or what?"
He shrugged. "Whatever night you expect me, I'll be there. Eh, don't wait up. Visits like this are tightly rationed. Laws of Nature, y'know, and She's strict with them."
"Gotcha. Thanks, Santa." I kissed his cheek again. "Happy Holidays."
The phrase had a nice, non-denominational ring to it. I thought I'd call my parents and in-laws soon and try it out on them.
Santa laid his finger aside of his nose and nodded.
"Blessed be, Frannie."
The sleigh soared up, and Santa really did exclaim something. It sounded like old German. Smart-aleck elf.
When I closed the door, the radio was playing Jethro Tull's "Solstice Bells."
Truth is a jewel of many facets.
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