Every year Creswell’s Bakery put on a big dinner the day before Christmas for their employees. All the staff, bakers and sales, right down to the cleanup crew came to the plant with their families. And Mrs. Creswell had counted every child. She made sure that special miracles came forth from under the big tree like bread out of the oven. And Max was always glad to play the part of Santa.
It was Max who scraped out the mixers and washed them down. The sickening smells of old dough greeted him every evening after the last of the bread was baked. And he took on other dirty jobs because he was meticulous and reliable, qualities hard to find on a cleanup crew.
He always arrived early and sat down with a cup of coffee and a fresh glazed doughnut. And maybe a second doughnut. He had a comfortable body. In high school he’d been a wrestler, but after he married Betty and she had their first child, Arlo, Max started gaining in girth. And yet, when Betty turned her eyes on him she was still inclined to see a man who looked good in a tee shirt.
After Arlo came Dino and Milo, and then Emily, who was everybody’s darling for a while. When she was four, a tiny surprise came—Judy. By the time Judy could crawl into Daddy’s lap, sweet Emily grew just a bit green.
“Come here, there’s room for you,” Max would say. Not for Emily. Two’s company, three’s a crowd.
For her ninth birthday she and her mother planned a big party with invitations to all her friends, colorful crepe paper favors, and a decorated cake from the bakery. But then Judy had to be there, and she didn’t know the games and she stuffed candy in her mouth and got to be such a whiner that Emily was glad when Daddy came downstairs from his nap. He took Judy off their hands. Even so, Emily blushed when he came down in a tee shirt, in front of all her friends. They had been curious. “Your dad works at the bakery?” But after this she had to admit that he was the furthest thing from a baker.
The day before Thanksgiving Emily came home from school excited to help with decorations and learn her mother’s family recipes. But there in the kitchen was Mrs. Tagarty trying to feed Judy as if she were a two-year-old.
“Now, I don’t want to frighten you,” Mrs. Tagarty kept saying. Judy, with a mess on her face, ran up and hugged Emily on her fresh white blouse. “I don’t want to frighten you. Your mother will be okay. Won’t be long, she’ll be home.” Emily wanted to scream. She had to pry it out of the woman. Her mother had fallen down the outside stairs in back and had broken her right arm.
When the front door opened she ran to the entry. Max, who’d taken the day off, came in holding onto Betty, a little woozy, her right arm in a big white cast. He helped her up to bed, and Emily was kept from asking anything. When he came down he sent Mrs. Tagarty home and set everyone to cleaning the house—Dino and Milo, even Judy, who ended up smudging the windows more than she cleaned them. Only Arlo escaped. Out of high school, he’d gotten a job on the cleanup crew. He went off to the bakery.
The next morning Max told Emily to polish the dining room table, something she’d only seen her mother do. “Read the directions on the bottle,” he told her between washing sweet potatoes, basting the turkey and running upstairs to give his wife tablets from the druggist to take with her tea. That afternoon Arlo arrived with his girlfriend, Sue, and her arms were filled with red and white roses. “My uncle has a greenhouse,” she said to Max on his way upstairs with a cup of broth. Sue and Emily went into the kitchen to arrange the flowers for the table. Later, Max came in.
“Sue, Betty wants you to come up. She wants to thank you for the roses.”
“Maybe I could bring one or two up to her,” she said.
At last they all sat down to prayers and turkey. Max did make one more trip upstairs, but by now Betty was napping, and he began to relax and enjoy his food. That evening he sat in his easy chair listening to his scratchy old-time fiddle records, and Judy crawled into his lap. Dino and Milo had escaped right after eating, and Emily found herself with Arlo and Sue in the kitchen, joking as they washed dishes.
Once back on her feet, Betty had only her left hand for all that needed doing, and so Emily became her mother’s right hand. She made soup, cut and steamed vegetables, and cooked meat for dinner. She washed pots and pans and dishes while Judy got bored and was let off to go play with her dolls. Dino and Milo had to sweep the floors, wash clothes and take out the garbage, but they disappeared for long stretches.
Yet in December when school closed for the holidays Betty opened her cookie recipes, and day-by-day guided Emily through them. “You’re doing great.” Emily even decorated quite nicely the Christmas tree butter cookies. For once, hers didn’t have any messy edges like Judy’s. Her little sister smiled, red frosting on her face, and swabbed another tree cookie.
“I can’t wait to get the real tree,” Emily said. The next day she went with Arlo to the grocery store to buy a few things, but the parking lot was so full of cars that they had to park behind the drugstore. She was walking past the drugstore window and saw a glass ornament in the shape of a Christmas tree.
“How much is that? Arlo? Come back here.”
“I don’t have money to throw around on ornaments. We came to buy groceries.”
“But look, it’s only seventy-five cents.”
“You know how many potatoes you can get for seventy-five cents?”
“Oh, Arlo!”
All through the grocery store she moped after him until he turned. “It’s not like we need another ornament.”
“But I want it for a gift.”
“Who for?”
“Mom and Dad.”
“Hum, I bet you could make something as good as that.”
“Oh, Arlo!”
Yet as they passed the drugstore again there was Sue coming out the door. Arlo straightened up. “Hi, honey.”
And Emily saw her chance. “Oh, Sue, look at that ornament.”
“Why, that’s a beautiful tiny Christmas tree!”
“Don’t you think it’s something I could get Mom and Dad for Christmas?”
“Oh, that’d be great.”
“Well, Arlo here was telling me. What were you saying, Arlo?”
“Well, I thought, huh.” He looked at Emily, then at Sue.
And Sue gave him a big smile. “Why, Arlo, how nice of you, helping your sister.” She slipped her arm in his, and they all walked into the drugstore.
The next day Emily spent her spare time happily making gifts for her brothers and Judy, but then a suspicion came over her—only three days before Christmas Eve.
“Mom, when is Dad going to get our tree?”
“Oh, honey, we’ve had some doctor bills, and we thought we’d wait till Christmas Eve and get one of the last trees on the lot. You know they let them go for half price.”
Emily was stricken. She ran upstairs and threw herself on her bed, groaning at the thought of a lopsided tree pretending to be something it was not. This had happened on the Christmas she was six. No one ever talked about that Christmas. She could see how out of place her ornament would look on such a tree. Then she heard Arlo trudging down the hall on his way to work. She ran and grabbed his arm.
“Let go! What you doing?” She explained it all to him, but he just stared back. “No, Emily. You got me once. Not again!” He shook free.
Then she did the unthinkable. She skipped out on her mom. She kept telling herself they might need help at the tree lot, and then they might give her a nice tree. She talked to the high school boy there, Doug, and trailed after him, doing everything he asked. She thought it might work, even though there was only one tree she could stand to look at. Then two things happened. Someone bought that tree, and then Doug’s mother came back.
“What’s that girl doing here?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
The mother looked at her. “You want to buy a tree?”
Emily turned away without answering.
At the kitchen door her mother’s voice was shaking. “Young lady, where have you been? I about had a heart attack over you!” Emily explained, and Betty sat her down. “There are plenty of tree lots.”
“And you think they won’t all get sold out?”
“I can see it really matters to you.”
“It sure does.”
“Well, I’ll talk to your Dad tomorrow.”
The next morning as Emily helped with breakfast Max came up from the basement with the bow saw. Arlo clumped down from upstairs wiping sleep from his eyes, and Max said, “Hurry up and eat, Son. You and I are going on a little expedition.”
After they left, Emily kept glancing out the window and felt the passing of each hour. It was past noon when they returned with a delicate beauty, fresh-cut.
“Where’d you get that tree?” Betty said to Max.
“On Lundgren’s hill. I asked the old man.”
“Do you know what kind it is?”
“It’s beautiful,” Emily said. “The branches feel so soft.”
“A nice hemlock fir. I saw it and said it was made for Emily. Didn’t I, Arlo?”
Betty shook her head, but Emily jumped up and down. “Oh, Mommy, let’s get the ornaments and lights.”
They all had fun decorating, and soon the tree was strung with lights and garlands of popcorn and ornaments all around, the star on top and seven red apples tied to the branches, one for each member of the family. Emily couldn’t wait any longer. She pushed the gift into her dad’s hands. “Here, this is for you and Mom.”
“But it’s not Christmas yet,” said Betty. “The bakery party is tomorrow night. Maybe we should wait till then.”
“No, it’s better now.”
“Well okay, Emily.” The two parents unwrapped the gift and smiled.
“It’s so pretty,” Betty said. “What a surprise!”
“It’s a good beginning to Christmas,” Max said. “Where’ll we hang it?”
“Right up by the star, Daddy.”
As Max hooked it on a top branch a shower of fir needles rained down. “Guess I’d better put some more water in the stand.” He did so and then left for work.
In the morning Emily, on her way to the kitchen, peeked in the living room. The sight of brown exposed branches stopped her. Almost all the needles had dropped from the tree. They had made a thick layer on the gifts and over the floor. The apples looked so false on their string, the star tilted and the Christmas tree ornament drooped like a ghost of itself. Emily groaned.
Coming up behind her, Betty said, “I was afraid of this.”
“What happened?”
“It’s a hemlock fir, and they’re beautiful out in the woods, but if you bring them in, well, they don’t hold at all like other fir trees. I guess your father didn’t know.”
“He sure didn’t.”
“Now, don’t find fault with him. He’s been working pretty hard these days, and it’s not over yet. He’s got a lot to do for the bakery party tonight.”
Later, after she’d swept the fallen needles from around the tree, Emily helped her mother fix a meal for him before he left early for work. Dino and Milo came and ate as well, and they gabbed and joked with their father, but Emily couldn’t even look at him. Max, without a word to her, finished eating, got up from his chair, kissed his wife, and went to the kitchen door. He turned and looked at Emily who was wiping the table. “I’m sorry,” he said, then closed the door and tramped down the outside stairs to the street.
She watched him from the window. His open coat flapped in the wind, and his old feed cap cocked over made one side of his head look big. The handle of his lunch box, long gone, was just a loop of string that he twiddled in his fingers. He looked like an old man and a little boy all at once, a sight that sent a cold wind right through her. She gasped. “Why didn’t he get another kind of tree?”
Dino chanted, “Why, why, why? I don’t care ‘bout no tree, just what’s under it.”
“Yeah,” said Milo. “You’re never gonna be happy.”
“Emily,” Betty said, “he did try. You’re not being fair.”
She went to her mother and hugged her tight, but as Betty embraced her, the cast came down on the back of Emily’s head.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.”
But it was no good. She ran upstairs and threw herself on her bed. Later, she heard Dino and Milo complaining about having to wash dishes and sweep. Toward evening they all put on their nice clothes for the bakery dinner. Betty inspected Dino and Milo behind the ears and under the nails while Emily helped Judy tie her shoes. Arlo came home, showered and dressed in record time, and took them in the car to the bakery. Then he drove away to get Sue. Before the party Max never came home but stayed at the bakery, scrubbing walls and giving the hardwood floors a good waxing.
When Betty and the children entered the plant, the ovens wafted a smell of roast turkey and ham. Rows of tables were covered in white butcher paper with sprigs of holly down the middle. Emily could see beyond them the huge Christmas tree, so tall with its star shining down from the rafters and mounds of gifts beneath for all the children.
After dinner and dessert Santa Claus would give out gifts and ask the littlest ones what they wanted for Christmas. She had known for a few years that this was her dad. At first she had been proud of him, and it eased the letdown that Santa was only pretend, but tonight the very thought of her dad’s dumpy girth made her see that he just happened to be the one who fit the suit. It made her dinner taste flat and the cake turn soft and greasy in her mouth. Then with bells jingling Santa came out, and everyone shouted, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!”
“Have we got any good children here tonight?”
“Oh! Then we have a gift for each one. Come on up, starting with the youngest.”
A line formed out from the tree, and Santa greeted the children, one by one. Betty asked Emily to hold Judy’s hand in line. Dino and Milo said, “Luck-y!” but she just rolled her eyes.
Judy’s turn came for Santa, and Emily nudged her toward him. Only then did she see how timid Judy was, who saw the man in the beard as a stranger. Max deepened his voice into a whisper, but Judy hung back. Emily began getting irritated with her, and then with him. She wanted to say, “Come on, you two,” but then she noticed Santa’s hands. They were trembling. All at once Judy made a big smile. “Santa! I remember. I saw you before. I saw you last Christmas.”
“You remember,” he whispered.
“Where did you go?”
“Well, I got real busy at the North Pole. You look like you’ve been busy too, growing bigger, and I know you’ve been good, haven’t you?”
“Well, here’s a little gift. Do you think you’ll remember me next Christmas?”
“Oh, yes!”
“Well, I’ll sure remember you.”
Emily glanced at Judy as she bounced away across the floor, so happy that she even forgot the gift in her hand until Betty asked what it was. Emily had spent so much time envying her little sister, and now she had no heart to go back to Santa and get her own gift. After the long line finally disappeared and folks began singing Christmas carols, she got restless.
Santa was just pretend, right? But then why were his hands trembling? Judy had felt so shy, but his warm whispers had brought her right in, and all the other five-year-olds, right into Christmas. Emily was thrown back into her own memories. A long time ago that deep voice had whispered a promise of Christmas. Yet only now did she see that Santa’s hands were trembling. Her heart got so big, almost too big for her body, and she began to skip.
While all the others were singing near the piano she skipped up and down between the empty tables. She wanted to skip around the tree, but there was a door behind it, and as she came near she heard her father huffing and groaning. She knocked.
“Who’s there?” She answered, and he said, “Come on in.”
She saw him sitting, wobbling on a folding chair. His sweaty hands were trying to pull off the black boots. She came up and hugged him. “Oh, Daddy, I’m so sorry. You are the best Santa Claus in the whole world.”
“You think so? Well, that sure is nice to hear, even if I don’t know a good Christmas tree.” He hugged and patted her, then said, “Want to give old Santa a hand with these boots?”
Later Arlo stepped in. “Emily! What you doing here?”
“Giving Santa some much-needed help.”
“Well, anyway, Sue’s cousin saved us a tree off his lot. We’re gonna tie it on the car. How long you gonna be?”
“Just a little longer still.”
“Is it a nice tree?” Emily asked.
“Sure is. You know Sue. It’s gotta be the best.”
Later, as Max came into the car, Judy shouted, “Daddy, I saw Santa Claus.”
“You did? Well, what did he look like?”
“He was big, so big! Even bigger than you.”