The moon gently illuminated the Earth below, accompanied by stars, streetlamps, car headlights, and fairy lights. Carols echoed from churches; the ancient meaning of Christmas filtering through the ears of passers-by. Every window of every house gleamed, each room filled with excitement and tension; children hoping for a visit from Santa while parents frantically finished wrapping stocking fillers in the adjacent bedroom.
Christmas Eve was drawing to a close and Artie was sitting alone in his bedroom, unable to sleep. He no longer believed in Santa Claus, not after last year when he had peeked out of his bedroom door only to see his mother struggling with a bulging stocking. That was the best Christmas he had ever had, because he spent the whole day with his parents and baby sister. They were a family in its most functional form, complete and content.
This Christmas would be different, but Artie had known that for a little while. His perfect family had been torn apart in mid-November. His household was now only three, but his father was doing his best to make sure his children still had a good Christmas. There were no decorations, no lights and no tree, but his father was trying, in his own way. Artie wanted to help, but at twelve years old there was not a great deal he could offer his grieving dad.
Artie had never told his parents that he did not believe in Father Christmas, because they always tried so hard to keep the magic alive. As he struggled to doze into a dreamland, his mind filled with memory and hurt, he heard the sound of Sellotape ripping from its roll and rustling paper. His dad must be wrapping their Christmas presents, playing the role of Santa for the first time. When Artie finally drifted into sleep, his pillow was damp with tears.
Tina left the church hand-in-hand with her young daughter, absentmindedly humming O Holy Night. They turned the corner onto a road covered with Christmas lights. Waving snowmen on one house, flashing icicles on another, and ‘Santa Stop Here’ signs in several gardens. In fact, there was only one house that did not resemble a grotto and Tina did not like it.
‘You’d think he’d have at least put some lights in the window. Brings the whole street’s festive spirit down,’ said Tina. Megan, her daughter, remained silent. She felt sad when she walked past Artie’s house. It must be horrible for someone to not have their mum at Christmas, she thought. She did not blame Artie’s dad for not putting any decorations up. She did not blame him one little bit.
‘Those poor children, not having any Christmas decorations even on Christmas Eve!’ Tina continued to herself. Megan said nothing.
Netty was not looking forward to Christmas. She hated it, in fact. Her husband had left her when they were still young, and she had never loved again. For thirty-six years she had been alone, and Christmas was nothing more than a reminder of how little she had. This year was the first year that she had not felt sorry for herself. As she peered through her curtain to the house opposite, she was filled with pity. No decorations and it was the night before Christmas. That whole family were grief-stricken and Christmas would surely feel like just another day without their wife and mother.
The elderly woman had a small light-up Christmas tree on her front door, and twinkling lights around her window frames. She had been pressured into buying them four years ago, when Tina and her troupe of perfect parents expressed their disgust that her house stood alone in darkness through December. She bought a few lights to keep the peace with the ‘Anthea Turner Society’, as she liked to call them.
She saw Tina walk past her neighbour’s house, pausing to look at the unlit exterior through her flared nostrils. Netty knew that she was not thinking about the people inside, only the appearance of her wonderful neighbourhood. She shook her head in disbelief, but then stopped suddenly. Was she any better? She pitied the family inside the house, but had she offered to help them? Had she offered to watch the children so Harold could have some time alone? Had she even bothered to send a sympathy card? Or a Christmas card for that matter?
The answer was a resounding ‘no’, and Netty suddenly felt horrible. She had to do something.
‘Love, get the door will you!’ John shouted from his armchair, too engrossed in a repeat of Father Ted to answer the door.
‘Alright, you lazy sod!’ Betty, his wife, called back with a giggle. She opened the door and vaguely recognised the woman as a neighbour.
‘Hi,’ Netty began. ‘I’m doing a collection. Only, I’m not asking for your money.’
‘Then what do want?’
‘A gift,’ she replied.
Artie was awake long before he realised, drifting in and out of dreams. His sister finally brought him to a state of consciousness with her loud squeals. The boy rolled over in his duvet and slipped out of the bed, struck by the cold of his bedroom. His dad must still be in bed.
Reaching into the cot, Artie lifted his small sister in his arms and rocked her gently. He heard footsteps and his father had entered the room, smiling sleepily. He took Freya from his son and ushered the boy downstairs, where he was greeted by a small stocking full of presents.
‘Thanks, dad!’ Artie exclaimed, hugging his father’s waist.
‘That’s alright, Art. You might not even like them yet!’
‘I know I will!’
Artie was trying his best to keep up his excitement. Santa is definitely not real, he thought, because this is so different. Normally he has a massive sack of gifts and the floor around the tree is covered with presents. This year, his father forgot to buy a tree.
He began to unwrap his presents while his father gave Freya her breakfast, grateful for the gifts his father had got him. Although they may not be as plentiful or impressive as in previous years, they meant more this year. His father had tried so hard to make Christmas nice for his children, even though he was so busy and distracted, and Artie appreciated it very much.
So far, Artie had unwrapped two books, some Harry Potter slippers, and a set of juggling balls. He had just reached for his fourth present when the doorbell rang.
‘Who on earth could that be at 7 o’clock on Christmas morning?’ Harold wondered aloud, making his way to the door with Freya gripped to his side. He was stunned into complete silence when he opened the door. There was Netty with a Christmas card and a Santa hat and behind her stood several people that Harold had not seen for weeks. Steve and Janet were holding a Christmas tree while their kids each had armfuls of baubles and tinsel. Greg and his girlfriend Lorna had brought a chocolate cake and a tin of biscuits, Sarah was wearing an elf costume, and Katherine was slowly strumming her acoustic guitar.
Artie joined his father at the door and the neighbours standing outside in the cold began to sing Silent Night.
As Netty sang the classic carol alongside some of her friends and neighbours, she realised the true meaning of Christmas. Harold and Artie were both smiling, Freya bopped along making nonsensical gargles in her father’s arms. As they came to the end of the song, they all stepped aside. At the back of the carollers stood a big man with a long white beard, dressed all in red with bold black boots.
Artie knew that it was not the real Santa Claus, but it mattered not. He ran up to the man in red and gave him a big hug. His father welcomed their guests inside for a coffee and a mince pie, or some of Greg and Lorna’s cake, while Artie talked to Santa about the Christmas he had received. He already knew what his favourite present was, though – seeing his dad smile as he listened to his neighbours sing Silent Night.
All their friends helped to decorate their Christmas tree as they sang Christmas songs, only knowing the lyrics to every other verse and half the choruses, but it did not matter. Artie was laughing and singing along, and Harold was watching him with a tear in his eye.
As the neighbours bid the family of three goodbye and merry Christmas, Netty said there was just one more surprise. She led them out of the house and when they turned around, their house illuminated in every colour, flashing reds and twinkling yellows, glowing greens and bright blues.
Artie was stunned by the generosity of all those who were around him. He wrapped his arms around Netty and said ‘thank you’ countless times. She smiled down at him, full of joy and Christmas spirit.
The thing is, Artie supposed, nothing really matters. Whether Santa is real or not, whether it really is Jesus’ birthday, it doesn’t matter. Because he had his dad and his sister, and his mother was still with them, in their thoughts and in their hearts, and in the wonderful gestures that some people make at times like Christmas.