Our Christmas begins the night before, when my whole family gathers in my parents' small gravel driveway to wait for Santa and Frosty the Snowman to drive by on their fire truck. This tradition began in my town long before I was born, so I never noticed the peculiarity of this until my teens. Even as an adult, inclined to nitpick the gems out of my childhood to make it less lustrous compared against my present skepticism, I am not positive what the logic of this is supposed to be, beyond that the town has the trucks and why not add a bit of confusing whimsy to Christmas Eve?
I pose this question to Emily, my girlfriend if no longer fiancée. She seems not to hear it. I kiss her on the forehead as if gauging her temperature, which isn't far from the truth.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't paying any attention," she says, affecting a shiver. Her eyes dart to my mother's face.
"Don't worry. They aren't going to be any more confrontational than they think is funny or necessary," I say quietly, squeezing her gloved hand, though it is hard to find the fingers beneath the fluff. "What you are going through, what we are going through, it doesn't affect tonight and tomorrow. You are a member of the family. What happened doesn't change that."
Before the fire truck containing Santa arrives, my mother urges us toward the cinderblock house next door. My mother passively cares for her neighbor, whose husband lives with their daughter while slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's. My mother says that she cannot allow someone to be alone on Christmas, so we bring the neighbor some of the pizza we had earlier and a few presents my mother had wrapped. Boldly, my mother opens up the neighbor's door and shouts up that we are here. At my mother's order, my whole family croaks "Jingle Bells," since it is the only carol to which we can reliably be expected to know most of the lyrics.
We return to huddle in the cold, listening for the magnified recording of Santa's ho-ho-ho echoing off the bare trees, guessing how far away he might be. It is too chilly to have a conversation, particularly factoring in a misting of rain that gradually coats the world in ice.
Soon, but not soon enough for us not to feel inconvenienced, the fire truck drives up the hill, Santa and Frosty doing their best princess waves. It does not so much as slow in acknowledgment of our brood clutched together for warmth. A moment later, other firefighters arrive. In the past, they would stop, get out, hand each of us a candy cane and a wish for a merry Christmas.
This year, annoyed either by the rain or the collective age of our group-we have more twenty-somethings in our flock than toddlers-they launch fistfuls of candy canes at us with pitcher speed. By the time we had deflected or absorbed their assault, they are at the top of the hill. Aside from our peppermint shrapnel, our only evidence that Santa has visited this night is the fat man's gradually fading, now slightly mocking chortle.
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