When my elementary school classmates found out my parents were divorcing, they showered me with horrified questions.
“Are you mad?’
“Are you sad?”
“Are you going to try and get them back together? Like The Parent Trap?”
That last one was clearly from a naïve only child in a loving home. (The Parent Trap is the stupidest movie ever, BTW. Yes, both times.) I heaped scorn on her, of course. “No way! They should never, ever live in the same house AGAIN!”
I debated adding, “Listen, girl, when your mom throws a pot of boiling rice at your dad, even a seven-year-old knows one of them needs a permanent time out.”
I decided that Little Miss Naïve couldn’t handle the truth. I fell back on the envy-inducing cry of broken-home kids everywhere: “Besides, I’m gonna get TWO Christmases.”
My posse subsided into appropriately jealous murmurs.
My mother got Christmas Eve and Christmas morning the first year. But the second year, she only had us for the 23rd and the morning of the 24th. Mom lived for the holidays – especially Christmas. The idea of not going caroling on Christmas Eve with us, not sharing in our anticipation of Santa, and not seeing her children open their stockings on Christmas morning must have been unbearable.
So unbearable, in fact, that my mother created a new tradition. But not out of whole cloth. No, my mother borrowed from the best – the original Master of Magic, J.R.R. Tolkien.
But don’t go thinking that our Christmas was suddenly overrun with orcs, hobbits, or Nazgûl. Oh, no. There is another, smaller, book by Tolkien that has been overlooked for decades: The Father Christmas Letters. This book has the elaborate letters and drawings that “Father Christmas” left Tolkien’s children every Christmas morning. And though the book is miniscule compared to the Lord of the Rings series, The Father Christmas Letters contains Tolkien’s most epic character of all time: the North Polar Bear.
My mother read those letters to us on the evening of December 23rd. We were entranced by Father Christmas’s stories. There was the time his hat blew on top of the North Pole (an actual pole), and the North Polar Bear rescued it…only to break the pole in half and crash through the roof of Father Christmas’s house (which explained why some of the Tolkien children’s parcels might have been a little squished). Then there was the time that the North Polar Bear insisted on carrying too many presents down the stairs. He fell, of course, and that’s why some of the presents were smashed that year. We shrieked and laughed over his antics.
The North Polar Bear wasn’t just comedic, however. We held our breath as he heroically beat back a goblin invasion two years in a row, killing “millions and billions” of the nasty, rat-like creatures that attempted to steal all the Christmas presents.
When my mother finished the letters, we trooped down to the big Christmas tree on the mall. Much to my older siblings’ embarrassment, we lit candles and sang a few songs. Then it was back to her place…
…only to find a magical transformation had occurred. Piles of Christmas candy were scattered around the living room. Presents peeked out of our stuffed stockings. And a note, written in red pen and very shaky handwriting, had been left by the North Polar Bear. Filled with misspellings, the note informed us that we had been so good that he, the North Polar Bear himself, had been moved to visit us early. He had scattered “millions and billions” of candies and brought out the presents that our mother and stepfather had been saving for Christmas Day.
My mother moaned over the mess, but we were thrilled. Future Genius Doctor Sister, more cunning than her siblings, realized that her stocking and present would wait for her. Under the guise of helping my mother tidy up, she collected all the festive Reese’s peanut butter cups and as much of the other candy as she could, squirreling them away for future consumption. (There was so much candy, the rest of us didn’t notice for at least an hour.)
The North Polar Bear returned every year. If my mother didn’t have her kids on Christmas, the North Polar Bear would visit a few days before Christmas while we were out of the house.
The North Polar Bear always left a note (sometimes warning Future Genius Doctor Sister not to hoard all the candy), threw chocolate everywhere, and brought out our gifts early. If my mother had her kids for Christmas, the bear would visit on Christmas Eve, leaving his trademark mess of candy behind, along with the regular gifts from Santa.
The North Polar Bear was too difficult to explain to our friends. Maybe he was so special we didn’t want to share. Or maybe we just didn’t want to face potential scoffing. We kept him secret, though we looked forward to his visits every year, eagerly awaiting the chaos and the hilarious misspellings.
We had the North Polar Bear for seven glorious years. But when my mother died, the magic died with her.
Or so I thought. For fourteen years.
The day before I flew back to Washington, D.C., to meet First Niece for the first time and spend Christmas with my siblings once again, an email showed up in my inbox:
From: NorthPolarBear(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)hotmail.com
To: BigBrother(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)BigBank.com
JudgmentalGeniusDoctorSister(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)TopNotchHospital.com,
autumn.ashbough(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)ExplosionsRUsProductionCompany.com,
BrilliantBlondeLawyerSister(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)BigLawFirm.com,
BabyBrother(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)PrestigiousUniversity.com,
GorgeousSkinnySingingSister(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)LiberalArtsCollege.com,
I am coming.