Six year old Olivia sat alone on the frozen ground just outside of an empty church. Across the street, families lined up outside of “The Mobile North Pole”. She enviously watched several boys and girls about her age climb the snow covered stairs and make their way inside to sit on Santa’s lap.
She noticed how warmly they were dressed; thickly lined coats to protect them from the blowing wind, fuzzy boots to cover their little feet, and thick, clumsy mittens to keep their tiny fingers from the sting of the cold. Olivia looked down at her own shabby attire; before she had stolen a coat out of the donation box just inside the church foyer, she wore only an over-sized hooded sweatshirt. At that moment she wished she hadn’t been so concerned about getting caught and took a few extra seconds to steal a pair of boots too. She wore just tennis shoes so small that her big toe was starting to bore a hole through the tip. The ache in her glove-less fingers was beginning to give way to numbness. She tucked her hands up into her sleeves.
She focused on a family of 3 in line across the street. The little boy was smaller than Olivia. He was enthralled by the lights and the bustle of the holidays. His eyes darted from scene to scene with awe. He wasn’t even aware that his mother and father had positioned themselves to use their bodies as shield for him against the bitter wind. Tears began to well as she thought of her own parents. Before her father left, she had warm clothes, a soft bed to sleep in, and a roof over her head. “We never had much, but it was so much more than we have now”, she thought. Olivia’s mother could not find a job suitable enough to support herself, much less her daughter. Without her husband, she wasn’t able to keep up on rent. They were forced to stay in shelters when beds were available, and in the car when they weren’t. Olivia missed her Daddy very much but knew he was never coming back.
She remembered the last time she saw him very well. It was a Sunday morning right after spring break from school. Daddy was unusually quiet that day. Mommy seemed upset. Olivia heard them argue the night before but that wasn’t unusual. The silence, however, was very strange. After pushing food around his plate for a period of time but not really eating it, Daddy stood abruptly from the breakfast table. Before he turned to walk away, he pushed Olivia’s hair from her face and gently placed a kiss on her forehead. He said nothing as he left the room and walked out the front door. Neither of them had seen nor heard from him since.
“Tomorrow is Christmas,” Olivia thought, “and Daddy won’t even be here to celebrate with us.” However, it occurred to her that she didn’t have a gift for him anyway. Why hadn’t she made him a gift, just wrapped something? Maybe then he would want to come home to open it.
“Livi, honey?” Olivia’s mother, Lisa, finally emerged from the store where she had returned the cans and bottles the two had collected from the street earlier. “Where did you get that coat? You know what, never mind. It’s going to start snowing soon, sounds like it’s going to be a white Christmas!” Lisa tried to sound upbeat for her daughter’s sake, but the holiday coupled with the upcoming storm also meant that space in shelters would be scarce tonight. She really didn’t care how that coat came to be in her daughter’s possession. Tonight Livi would probably need it. “Livi, did you hear me? Livi? What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing”, the somber little girl mumbled. “May I go see Papa Claus before we go, please?”
Lisa glanced at the line across the street. It had dwindled but the thought of not getting a bed at a shelter tonight dismayed her. “I don’t know, honey. Santa is probably very busy, it IS Christmas Eve… OLIVIA!”
Too late. Olivia wasn’t interested in her mother’s reply. She was on a mission to see Santa and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. Thankfully the streetwise child knew to check for cars and stopped to look both ways before just darting into traffic. Upon arrival at Santa’s door, a fatigued looking elf stopped her.
“Sorry little girl, Santa needs to get going. He has to get back to the North Pole and get the reindeer ready.” Olivia had ignored her own mother, this ornery elf wasn’t getting in her way. “Aren’t you a little tall to be an elf?”, she asked as she attempted to slip past him. He had to admire the little ragamuffin’s spirit. Besides, he was too tired to try to reason with a kindergartner so he let her by.
Bolstered by her success in slipping her Mother and dodging that elf, she burst into Santa’s tiny cottage more determined than ever to make sure Santa heard her wishlist. ”Please, Papa Claus, don’t leave yet! My list isn’t long, I promise!” Without hesitation she continued, “All I want for Christmas is a warm place to sleep”, she said confidently, then with her voice trailing off, “… and I want my Daddy to come home.”
Initially this stranger in the red Santa suit was irritated that the tall elf had allowed another kid in after quitting time. “This Santa gig doesn’t pay overtime”, he thought. Immediately upon hearing Olivia’s wish list, however, he was stabbed by a deep pang of guilt. Clearly this child was homeless and truly believed him to be THE Santa Claus. In reality, there was very little he could do for her. Briefly he stood staring at her in stunned silence, but quickly mustered a hearty “HO, HO, HO”.
He then instructed Olivia to take him to her mother. He couldn’t even remember now why he had been in such a hurry to leave just a few minutes prior. Olivia complied and led him across the street to where Lisa was waiting for her. Santa and Olivia’s mother spoke briefly before he took them both back up the stairs into that church. Lisa caught the uncomfortable look on Olivia’s face as they passed by the donation box. There would need to be a long conversation about stealing, but how could she not marvel at the little girl’s resourcefulness.
Olivia was brought to a room that contained toys and books where a pre-school aged boy sat on his mother’s lap listening to her recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas” while his beaming father looked on. Olivia recognized them as the little boy and his parents from the line earlier that evening. The boy’s cheeks were still pink from the cold wind. The woman smiled warmly and motioned to Olivia to sit down and join them. The gentleman excused himself and followed Santa & Lisa out of the room and down the hall.
After the story ended, the little boy’s mother dug through the donation box until Olivia was decked out in winter clothes and boots that actually fit her well. As they returned the other items back to the bin, Livi found a pair of men’s gloves. This time she asked the woman if she could take them. ”I think they would make a nice gift for my Daddy,” Olivia told her. The woman nodded and handed Olivia a hat. ”Take this too. It’s cold out there,” she said. Olivia was ecstatic. Now she had not one, but two presents to give Daddy. Surely he would want to come home!
Soon after, Santa and Lisa returned to collect Olivia and her new things. Santa then drove Olivia and her mother (much to Olivia’s dismay, in a car and not a sleigh!) a short distance to a nearby shelter. They had only one bed available that night, but would allow Livi and her mother to share it.
Soon Olivia was crawling into an old but cozy bed. Santa kissed her forehead, just like her Daddy had before he left. “Good night little angel”, he whispered. ”Thank you Papa Claus…” was all Livi managed before sleep overcame her. Before he left, Lisa hugged the kind stranger and thanked him profusely for sacrificing his own Christmas Eve just to give them the gift of warmth.
Later that night Olivia woke with a start Somewhere in the distance she could swear she heard the sounds of jingling bells. She shook her mother vigorously. “Mommy! Mommy! Papa Claus, he came back!” Olivia exclaimed as she crawled from the bed pulling her mother’s arm.
“Oh love, Santa is busy tonight. It was just a dream,” her mother replied tiredly, “please come back, try to…” she stopped as Livi spun toward the entrance…
…for at that very moment, the door of the shelter flew open, and there stood Olivia’s father.
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