It hasn’t snowed like this on Christmas since I was seven, but I don’t remember that Christmas so much because of the white-out or because my mom had just died. I remember it most because of the girl that found me in the snow on Christmas Eve. She had called herself, “The Christmas Princess.”
Losing my mom that Christmas made me lose faith in a lot of things, including Santa Claus. It’s amazing how death can make even the youngest child grow up almost overnight. At seven, death was the last thing on my mind until she passed, but suddenly it was all I thought about. I became very cynical over the prospect of life and was angry at any and everything that could end it. For a seven year old, I was mighty bitter. Child-like glee was something I knew nothing of anymore. All the anger though, was really just a mask I wore to conceal my fear. I couldn’t sleep, for fear of never waking up again. I was scared to eat, for fear that I’d choke to death or be poisoned. I was even scared to go to school, just for the fear that I’d never see my dad again.
Given the circumstances, I’d rather have just skipped Christmas that year. There was no freshly-baked-cookie smell warming our house, no Christmas stories at bed time. Mom’s voice wasn’t carrying throughout the house singing non-stop Christmas tunes until the big day. It just wouldn’t be the same without her. I could tell Dad felt the same way, but he tried really hard to hide his pain from me.
Putting up the tree felt more like a chore than anything else. There was no excitement leading up to lighting it, no Christmas music playing in the background to get us in the spirit. We felt dead, because she was dead.
I’d finally had enough of pretending. I dropped the string of lights in my hand angrily and said, “Dad, I don’t even believe in Santa Claus anymore. Why bother?”
Dad looked even more defeated than he had just a few minutes before as he sunk into his chair and stared blankly at the half decorated tree. We never finished it; it just stood there for the rest of the month naked and never lit. Christmas, like my mother, had died.
That month had to be the longest month ever, but probably because we just wanted it to be over with already. There was talk of a great blizzard coming on Christmas and while most of the kids in my class were excited over the possibility of having a white Christmas and missing school, I was dreading being stuck at home –indoors- with my miserable dad in our miserable state. Even though I was scared to wonder too far from him, being around him without Mom on Christmas was just going to be too hard.
The snow arrived early on Christmas Eve. By the time I woke up there was already a thick blanket of it coating everything. At the rate it was falling there’d be several feet by nightfall. I had to get out of the house one last time before I was actually trapped in it. Dad never even got out of bed. I guess the day was just too much for him.
In my thickest wool coat, scarf, and gloves I wandered out into the white forest behind my house. Snow flew at my face from all directions. I didn’t know where I was going or what I’d do when I got there, but it didn’t matter as long as I was getting away from the house. Even if just for a little bit.
I sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree and let my head fall into my hands. Out here, I could cry. I could scream and no one would hear me, no one would see me. My gloves stuck to the icy clumps of snow in my hair and my cheeks stung when the warmth of my tears ran across them. I sobbed just a little, suddenly feeling lonelier than I already did.
For a long time I just sat there with my arms wrapped around myself staring at nothing, thinking nothing. There was no real way to register how long I’d been there because the sky was still gray and mostly blocked by the constant sheet of white falling from it. But my legs were buried in snow up to my knees and I was starting to lose feeling in my limbs so I knew I should start heading home.
Just as I started towards the direction I thought I’d come from I heard the jingle of a bell. I spun around trying to find the source of the sound, but I saw nothing. I started towards home again, but not being able to see the path quickly sent me face first into the snow. My teeth clamped down on my lip during the fall and red speckled the white surrounding me. Already weak and drained, I cried again. Could this day get any worse?
Then I heard them again, the bells, closer this time. I sucked up my tears and swiped the back of my hand over my bloody lip while I looked for the sound once more and this time I saw it: A girl, about my age, on a reindeer traveling towards me. She hopped off of the deer when she reached me, bells jingling even more than they had before with every step she took in my direction.
Without the sound she made and her bright cherry red hair she would have seemed invisible in the snow. She was dressed in a white fur cloak, adorned with silvery swirls where it clasped together and her skin was almost as pale as the fur wrapped around it with just the tiniest splash of pink on her cheeks and nose from the cold. Crystal blue eyes stared into mine as I scrambled to get to my feet.
She cocked her head to the side and asked, “What happened to your lip?” and she reached out and touched me, her fingers warm and comforting. She smelled like sugar cookies.
“I fell,” I told her, somehow feeling ashamed of my clumsiness.
She unbuttoned her cloak, revealing a velvety white dress with snowflakes the color of her hair lining the hem. She reached into a side pocket and pulled out a small jar, then dabbed her finger in it and touched my lip again with a sticky substance that tasted like honey. It made my lip tingle. “There, all better now,” she said with a smile so beautiful it softened me. Her smile alone made me almost forget why I’d been out here in the first place.
She watched me check my lip and chuckled when I realized it really was better, almost as if it’d never even split open. My mouth dropped open into an O shape of shock, but before I could ask her how she did it she said, “You should be getting home, it’s getting late.”
She fed her reindeer what appeared to be a cookie from her pocket and straightened her riding gear while I stammered forward searching for my voice. “Who are you?”
She smiled that smile at me again, one that could hypnotize someone, and answered simply, “The Christmas Princess.”
“The Christmas Princess?” I asked dubiously. “Do you have a name?”
She nodded and extended her hand to me, but I didn’t take it, “Noel, Noel Claus.”
“Claus, as in Santa Claus?” When she nodded again, I laughed at her. “Right.”
She frowned at me, disappointed, and started to get back on her reindeer. “You shouldn’t give up on Christmas, Nicholas, just because your mamma passed. I don’t think she’d like your negative outlook on everything these days.”
Once again my mouth found itself falling open, choked for words. After a minute of stunned silence I finally managed to speak, but wondering how she knew about my mother wasn’t the first thought that came to mind for some reason. “How do you know my name?”
With absolute certainty she answered, “Because it’s on the list.”
I took a step forward, feeling heat rise in my cheeks over this stranger seeming to “know” me. “What list?” I demanded.
Noel grinned at me then. “Duh, the list!”
When I still stood there confused she took a step closer to me and dug into another pocket inside her cloak. She pulled out a piece of paper that had clearly been crumpled one too many times and handed it to me. It was my handwriting, my Christmas list. It’d started out as a series of useless toys, all of which had been scratched out and at the very bottom of the list it just said: My mom. I hadn’t even given the list to anyone. I’d crumpled it up and thrown it away. How could this girl, this stranger, possibly have this?
Enraged and embarrassed, I nearly growled, “Where did you get this?”
She took a step back, intimidated by my anger, but confident still in her reasoning. “My daddy knows what every kid wants for Christmas.”
So she was still holding onto her father being Santa. She could live in the land of delusion, but I wasn’t going to join her. I turned away from her with a huff and started through the snow, but quickly found myself face first in it again, luckily not splitting my lip open a second time.
Noel was there to help me up and as she pulled me to my feet she frowned. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Nicholas. I just thought I could help.”
Her kindness, despite her ridiculous story, was too impossible not to lose myself to tears over. “How can you help?”
She swayed nervously all of the sudden and stared at the ground, “I just thought maybe you could use a friend. That you could use some proof to restore your faith.”
I wiped my tears away, so confused over this girl’s purpose and story. Could she actually be serious? No. I couldn’t actually believe that, could I? I mumbled, “I don’t believe in Santa Claus, Noel.”
She sighed like my words caused physical pain, but she took my hand and led me to her reindeer. His fur was soft and warm. Snow didn’t even stick to it. “This is Blitzen,” she said. “Out of all the reindeer he’s the fastest.” She handed me one of the cookies I saw her feed him earlier and I reached out my hand palm up for him to eat it. She whispered something into his ear as he finished the last crumb and then turned his face towards her as if acknowledging her secret. Noel nodded her head at him with a smile and Blitzen grunted just a bit, but then suddenly he rose up out of the snow, floating right there in front of me.
I stumbled backwards, but Noel caught my wrist to stop me from falling. I swear the reindeer laughed. He pranced around in the air in a circle above us, a sparkling cloud lingering in his wake.
“How… how did you do that?” I stammered.
Noel giggled, “The magic of Christmas, Nicholas.”
I stared at her, stunned, my mind trying to find some reasonable explanation, but coming up short. Reindeer don’t fly. Magic had to be the only explanation. Blitzen settled down back in the snow and Noel rewarded him with another cookie.
“Do you believe now?” I just nodded my head, still shocked by the proof. “Good, then let’s get you home. We’ve got a lot of work to do before Dad arrives.”
She hopped up on the reindeer and held her hand out for me to join her. With both of us secure Blitzen took off in the sky, knowing exactly where my house was without any directions. And we got there in a handful of seconds opposed to the hour it probably would have taken us to walk.
My house was still and quiet, a dead land. Dad had never even moved from bed. Noel removed her cloak as soon as we were inside and got busy. She turned on some Christmas music and started on the tree. “Come on, Nicholas, this tree can’t be bare when my dad arrives.”
I joined her and together we made a masterpiece, singing Christmas tunes the entire time just like I would have when my mom was still around. I’m not sure how we didn’t wake my father, but he never came to check on me.
We only focused on the living room, but we made it more Christmassy than it’d ever been before. And we even baked cookies, the snickerdoodle kind because Noel had said her dad was really into them that year.
I found myself giggling for the first time that month around Noel, her Christmas joy spilling out of her and infecting me. I tried to soak up as much of it in as I could. She was a blessing I didn’t want to lose.
But when the clock struck nine Noel gasped, “Oh, No! I’ve got to be going,” and she gathered up her cloak while making her way to the door.
“Wait,” I said in an attempt to stop her. “Will I ever see you again?”
She removed one of the bells from her boot and placed it in the palm of my hand, smiling. “If you still believe in me during the next great Christmas blizzard you will see me again,” and she pulled me in for a hug, whispering, “Please believe in me, Nicholas.” I didn’t want her to let go. She was comfort, she was kindness, and she filled voids that I thought only my mother could. How could I ever not believe in her?
When she finally released me she started for the door once more, but before she left she added, “You know, Nicholas, my daddy can’t be Santa forever. One day this princess will need a prince, someone to be the new St. Nick,” and she blew me a kiss that made the air sparkle as it left her lips.
No sooner than she was out the door, I was tired beyond resistance. I curled up on the couch with the only light coming from the tree and watched the way the twinkle lights reflected off of her bell until my eyes refused to stay open any longer.
In the morning, my dad woke me. “Nick, what are you doing out here? Did you do all of this?”
My eyes came open to a face I forgot my father once owned - one of pride, of happiness, and of Christmas spirit. He smiled at me for the first time that month taking in all that Noel and I had done.
“I changed my mind last night. How could I not believe in Santa?”
He pulled me up off of the couch into his arms and squeezed me hard. I heard him whimper, but I knew for the first time this month he was shedding tears of happiness instead of sorrow. Like Noel had given Christmas back to me, I had given it back to my father and deep inside I knew, wherever my mother was, I was making her proud.
I’ve thought about Noel every Christmas since I was seven and prayed for snow every year that followed, but until today, ten years later, my hope over seeing her again had started to fade. Still, I wore her bell on a leather chord around my wrist every day and found joy in things I would have likely grown cold towards without having met her that Christmas I lost my mother.
I twirled the bell between my fingers, while snow fell all around me, wondering if I was crazy for sitting out here waiting, but finding it impossible to make myself head home.
My phone buzzed in my pocket with a text message from my dad:
Nick – Dinner in 20 minutes. Where are you?
I didn’t want to go yet, but as the sky grew dark, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. I couldn’t let Dad down for Christmas and I still had a ways to walk through a few feet of snow.
When I stood though, I heard a familiar bell jingle. I clasped the one around my wrist to make sure the sound wasn’t me and I heard it again. I peered through the trees, but all I saw was snow. The bells grew closer though and my heart started racing with anticipation. I couldn’t contain it. I called out into the forest, “Noel?”
I spotted the cherry red of her hair first, falling in trundles of thick curls over a long white cloak. She slid off of her reindeer when she reached me, smiling the smile ingrained in my memory, a smile that seemed happy to see me waiting for her. I was speechless over the beautiful girl she’d grown into as she approached me. I had to remind myself that she was real, not just some figment of my imagination.
When she reached me, she cupped her warm sugar cookie scented hand to my icy cheek and breathed, “Thank you for believing in me, Nicholas,” and she pulled my lips to hers.
Her kiss flooded my entire being with a warm sensation like I’d never felt. A feeling of joy that could never be crushed again, a purpose that I knew I would one day fulfill. She had changed me all those years ago, but it wasn’t until this moment that I had actually accepted the calling.
One day… I would be the big man in red.