Santa’s Helper — by John Waterman

When the Little Princess was nine years old, Tommy, one of her classmates, invited the fourth-grade class to a picnic on his ranch. It wasn’t really Tommy’s ranch. It belonged to his uncle, but all the kids called it Tommy’s ranch. He was cool.

The children followed their teacher on a tour of the farm, while they listened to her shrill lectures about domesticated animals. After the class had viewed cows in the pasture, visited horses in the corral and chased chickens around the yard, they gathered around the genuine, Old West buckboard for a hot-dog barbecue. They were allowed, under the teacher’s watchful eye, to roast their own wieners on long-handled forks over the campfire.

The Little Princess carried her hot-dog, adorned with mustard, from the big picnic table to the circle of split-log benches and sat next to Tommy. After two bites she mentioned how she planned to ask Santa Claus for a pony on Christmas.

“What!” Tommy shrieked with incredulity, attracting the attention of all the children.

“I’m going to ask . . . “

“Ha, ha,” Tommy interrupted, “you still believe in Santa Claus!”

“Yes,” she replied indignantly.

“Whooowee, at your age? Don’t you know it’s really your mom and dad that gives you presents. There’s no Santa Claus!”

By this time the other children were all starting to giggle with ridicule and join in the fun, although their faces reflected expressions ranging from knowing agreement to worry and disbelief.

Tommy launched into a loud and detailed explanation of everything that happened around Christmastime to fool stupid little kids, but the Little Princess had stopped listening. Her face was turning red, and she was getting mad at Tommy. But pieces of a puzzle she hadn’t realized she was working on started falling into place, and she didn’t think she liked the results. She now had some nagging doubts.

When she came home from the field trip she decided to consult a reliable source.

“Daddy, I need to ask you an important question.”

“Well, my Little Princess, come sit beside me on the sofa, give me a hug, and tell me all about it.”

She hugged his neck and sat beside him. He wrapped his big arm around her shoulders. “Tommy says there’s no Santa Claus. It’s just you and Mom who give me presents for Christmas. I told him there is a Santa and he’s wrong. I’m right, right?”

Daddy took a deep breath and sighed. He stared into the distance for a long moment, until the Little Princess thought maybe she should ask again, but she knew it would be better to wait.

He gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze and began to speak. “A long long time ago in a far away country, a man named Saint Nicholas gave presents to children at Christmastime to commemorate the birth of Jesus and to remind everyone that wise men traveled great distances to honor our Savior, the Christ child, with gifts of great value. As the years passed, many people joined with Saint Nicholas to carry on this new tradition of giving gifts, since they saw it to be good and worthy of people both rich and poor. Many years went by, Saint Nicholas got very old and finally passed away, but the Spirit of Christmas which he established has lived on to this very day. Santa Claus is the name we use today for the Spirit of Christmas. He contributes to making Christmas a magical time for children and grown-ups alike. Your mother and I are Santa’s helpers, and you can be, too, Little Princess, if you want.”

“You mean Tommy is right?”

“No, I mean that Santa Claus lives in all people of honor and charity, and now that you are older you may share in the responsibility to continue the Spirit of Christmas. Your mother and I have joined the team of Santa’s Elves, who wrap presents and fill stockings so that children and grown-ups may experience the magic that is so much a part of the Christmas season. I also have the power to make you an honorary Elf, if you wish to accept the job. Be careful, though. You must truly want to help Santa.”

The Little Princess thought for a moment and then smiled. “I can do it, Daddy. I want to help the Spirit of Christmas live a long time.”

“Good! Stand up and close your eyes.”

As she did so, she felt her father’s warm hand on top of her head. He touched her forehead and kissed her gently on the cheek.

“OK,” he said, “now open your eyes and look in the mirror to see if you notice anything different.”

The Little Princess felt happy and special. She was proud of herself for accepting the new responsibility. “Oh, look,” she said, “I have a gold star on my forehead, like the Star of Bethlehem. And I am one of Santa’s Elves.”

The next day, when she went to school, the star was still in place.