It's Christmas Eve
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           Mrs. Claus reached out for her husband, threw her arms around his bulky shoulders, kissed him on the right cheek and said, “Now, you be careful, I know you have a lot to do, but you’re not getting any younger. And be sure to drink plenty of water and I’ve made some sandwiches for you. You’ll find them on the front seat of the sleigh.”
           Santa Claus returned his wife’s kiss, hugged her tightly and said, “G’bye, honey, now you take care of yourself too. I’ll be back tomorrow. I’ll miss you. I love you.”
           The bright North Pole sun was still high in the sky when Santa climbed into his shiny red sleigh. He settled into his cushioned seat, took hold of the reins attached to the eight sturdy reindeer and snapped the leather straps, ordering the reindeer to begin pulling the sleigh, which was heavily laden with Christmas gifts for children around the world.
           As the sleigh slowly picked up speed Santa turned around and waved to Mrs. Claus and the assembled group of elves, all standing under the eaves, by the front door of the cozy Claus home.
           As the reindeer picked up speed and the sled’s runners cut through the hard packed snow Santa turned towards his wife and the elves and gave them one final wave goodbye. He would be gone for the evening and early morning hours.
           As the reindeer accelerated Santa shouted, “C’mon Dancer and Prancer, c’mon the rest of you, we have a lot of work to do.
           The moon was beginning to show itself when Santa reached the roofs of a group of medium sized homes in a newly built housing tract in northwest Canada. The roofs were covered with sparkling white snow which cushioned the sleigh’s steel runners as they landed and came to a soft landing.
           Santa jumped off the sleigh and after grabbing an armful of gaily wrapped packages walked quickly to the chimney, peered into it and then lifted himself into the opening and slid down its length.
           Carefully placing the gifts under the tree, Santa approached the fireplace and with a quick jump climbs up and lands on the roof, walks by his waiting reindeer and gives Dancer a fatherly pat on the rump.
            Back at the sleigh’s reins Santa heads for the next home and repeats his descent down the fireplace, leaves the gifts for good children, climbs back up the chimney and departs – all done in a few seconds. On and on, through the evening, Santa repeats his actions. Finishing his deliveries in Canada, he swings towards the Atlantic ocean, heading for England, Ireland, mainland Europe, Russia, China, Japan, India, the Middle East, the African continent, a fast swing to Australia, New Zealand, halfway across the globe to South America and the South Pacific Islands, before heading for the west coast of the United States.
           So far, not a single child or adult had spied Santa making his deliveries. His warm, red suit was gathering a few stains from the soot in the thousands of chimneys he’d slid down and climbed up. The reindeer were beginning to slow down from the ‘round the world excursion. With each stop the sleigh weighed less. All that remained were the deliveries to the 48 contiguous states.
           This had been an especially busy year for Santa. The world’s population had grown by a few million and there had been a glut of children being good. Less and less children had been “naughty.”
            Quickly, the Christmas gifts were delivered to the good children in Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, then the middle west, the south and on to the east coast states.
           Nearly done, Santa had saved New York City for last. It was one of his favorite cities, besides it had the heaviest concentration of good children, in addition it was the most difficult city in which to deliver gifts.
            Onward Santa worked. He looked upwards at the waning moon. In a few hours the sun would rise and his work would be done.
            First, the lower East side, the West side, Midtown, heading Up-town. Snow was cascading down. The roofs were piled high.
           Next stop was a small duplex on 85th street. The sleigh pulled up on the roof of the two story duplex, Santa checked his list of names and addresses. He grabbed an armload of gifts and went down the chimney of 367 w. 85th St., apartment #2. Down he went. He found the living room neat and orderly. Placing the gifts under a well decorated tree, Santa swung around and headed for the fireplace, when he noticed, sitting on the mantle, a saucer filled with chocolate chip cookies and a full glass of milk.
           Santa quickly looked around the room to make sure he was alone. That’s when he spied a pair of eyes, staring at him from behind the right side of the couch. He took a step towards the eyes and said, “Hello, did you leave those cookies and milk for me?”
           Still, seeing only the pair of eyes, he heard a nervous, “Yes, is that okay?”
Taking two more steps towards the eyes, Santa smiled, reached out with his right hand and said,  “Please, come out, I’d like to meet you and thank you for the little snacks.”
           The eyes rose from behind the couch and there, standing in front of Santa was a beautiful 6-year old girl, attired in charming pink pajamas and fuzzy slippers.
           “What are you doing awake, it’s 5 o’clock in the morning?”
           “I couldn’t sleep, Santa, I wanted to meet you. I wanted to see if you were real.”
           “Of course I am real. Here I am. What’s your name, little girl?”
           “I’m Helen. I’m glad to meet you, Santa.”
           “You should be going back to bed, Helen. Go sleep a few more hours and then get up with your parents and show them the gifts under the tree. I hope you enjoy them.”
           “But Santa, I don’t’ have parents, I live here, with my Grandmother. My mother and father are dead.”
           “I’m sorry, Helen, but you really should be going back to bed. I’ll be leaving now.”
           “Santa, before you leave, could I ask you a question?”
           “Sure, Helen, ask away.”
           “Well, my grandmother told me that there was no real Santa. She said that all this Christmas stuff was phony. She said there wasn’t any Santa. It’s all a fake. It’s all just so people can make money. Is it true, Santa?”
           “Helen, I don’t know why your Grandmother told you those things. There is a real Santa and I’m him. I’ve been delivering gifts all night all around the world. I’m here to try and bring joy and happiness to the children of the world and to help everyone celebrate a special birth.”
           “Can I tell my Grandmother that I met you, Santa? Can I tell her that Christmas is real and that you left these gifts just for us?”
           “Helen, you tell your Grandmother that Santa is real and you met me, and tell her that Christmas is real too. Tell her that this is the best time of the year. It’s a time for hope and joy and laughter. It’s a time for celebration. It’s a time for Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus – everybody – it’s a time for all people to be thankful for all that’s good in their lives. Now, I have to go, Helen. I’ve got a few more gifts to deliver and I don’t want any disappointed kids out there.”
           As he inched towards the fireplace, Santa took two bites from a cookie, sipped from the glass of milk and readied to fly up the chimney.
           He turned back towards the little girl and said, “Helen, thanks for the snack, it was delicious and so nice of you to think of me.
           “I’ll never forget you, Santa. I love you and I always will.”
           “Oh, my beautiful little one, thank you. I’ll never forget you either. You’ll always be in my dreams. Maybe we’ll meet again next Christmas eve.”
           “I hope so, Santa. I’ll be looking for you.”
           “I’ll be here, Helen, I promise. “
           “With that, Santa rushed towards Helen and gave her a giant Santa hug and kissed the top of her head.”
            Like a flash Santa was off. Up the chimney, on the roof, into the sleigh and on to the upper West side of Manhattan.
            Back at 367 W. 85th street, apartment 2 a beaming, beautiful 6 year old calmly walked to her bedroom, climbed under the covers and thought to herself, “I’ll never forget this night and I’ll always believe in Santa no matter how old I get.”
            Helen celebrated her 50th birthday earlier this year. She lives alone now. She still puts out a saucer filled with chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk on the mantle every year. She still waits at the end of the couch, with only her two eyes showing in the moonlight. And every year, since that first one, many years ago, Santa arrives. Helen and Santa talk for a while. Santa takes a few bites of the cookies, drinks some milk and then gives Helen a giant Santa hug and kisses the top of her head.
            After a while Santa leaves to deliver the last remaining gifts. Helen walks slowly down the hallway to her bedroom and climbs into her bed.
            She can hear the beat of the reindeer hooves on the roof and she hears a voice offer, “On Dance, on Prancer…let’s go boys, we have work to do…”
            It happens every year. Ask Helen.
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