'ALL set for Christmas?" grins the man behind the register where I'm holding a single, pathetic can of spray-on snow. He hands me three cents change.
"Not a single bauble," I tell him. "Not a solitary string of lights. No presents. No ham or turkey. This . . ." I say, holding up the can, "is the full extent of my Christmas preparations as of today."
He shrugs. "Next," he says and I shuffle out to the car park where I meet the parent of a girl in my daughter's class in school.
"So," she says secretively, "have YOU had a chat with YOUR little girl about Santa?"
"What sort of chat?" I say.
"About, you know . . ." she says, looking around as if someone might hear.
"No," I say. "What?"
She sidles nearer. "Is Santa coming to your house this year?" she hisses.
"Is there some reason why he shouldn't?" I say suspiciously.
"Well . . . no," she says. "I just thought . . . we had a 'conversation' with our daughter, so . . ." She makes a thin line with her lips and flicks her eyebrows before hurrying off.
"Grinch," I mutter.
I tell my wife about this exchange when I get home. "Seriously," I rant. "Is there something I'm missing? Are we bad parents? I mean, what's all this about a 'conversation'? I don't remember ever having to have some sort of 'conversation' before. Where's the fun in that? It's Christmas for crying out loud."
"I wouldn't worry," she says, showing me a printout headed 'Christmas wish list' that is clearly the handiwork of our little girl. "I don't think she's looking for us to mail this, if you know what I mean."
I look at the little row of pictures, painstakingly downloaded from the internet and printed out. One is just a photo of a wrapped present. 'A surprise' it says and I feel something being tugged in my chest.
"Still," I say. "Quite magic."
When the not-so-little girl, suddenly seeming tall and slender and humming some sort of Christmas carol, arrives in the door from school, I plant myself in front of her, hands behind my back.
She gives me a sort of sideways hug, something she's only started doing since she turned 12. "It's-beginning-to-look a-lot like Christ-mas," I sing mischievously, "in eve-ry house but-ours..."
"Da-ddy," she moans.
"Guess what I have," I say and I present her with the can of fake snow.
"Cool!" she says.
"I think we need to get decorating," I tell her, "don't you?"
"We NEED to get a TREE," she says, clutching the can of fake snow like a doll.
"Tonight, for sure," says my wife. "We'll all go down and choose one together."
Her three older teenage brothers, as it turns out, seem as ambivalent about the idea of a trip into the town to get a tree as they are about telling us what they'd like for Christmas. Lots of humming and hawing and little clear information.
"I'll probably be in college late," says the eldest, "so, whatever."
"Go ahead without me," says his younger brother, "I'll be studying 'til six, so. . ."
"We can wait," I suggest.
"Meh," he shrugs.
In the end, it's left to my wife, the youngest teen and his sister to keep what seems like the last dwindling spark of our Christmas tradition alive. I can't help thinking this, a little sadly.
We bundle up and go out together, just the four of us, to where trees are heaped all over a path on the main street and we quickly fall to arguing over which one is too tall, too small, too bushy or too spindly. But I can't help wishing all six of us were here.
The tree is in its stand in the front window and the boxes of battered decorations in a heap on the sitting room floor when the second eldest gets in from school. "We waited for you," I tell him.
The eldest barrels in too, home from college early. "Where did the fake snow on the front windows come from?" he says.
"Santa," I tell him.
"Looks good," he says.
"I did that," says his sister.
The two younger teens set about untangling lights. The eldest starts to string them up around the kitchen and we all sort through the glittering ornaments, unwrapping them from their tissue paper and rediscovering things we haven't seen for a year; the six of us, finally, if unexpectedly, together, making short work of it all.
When the boxes are all stashed away again and everything is plugged in and flashing and someone has found some sort of Christmas music on an iPod, the transformation is complete.
"Zero to Christmas in a day," I say to no one in particular. "Pretty good, really."
"One last thing," I say, fetching a rather large, weather-worn wooden relic and handing it to the youngest. She takes it outside and plants it in a pot.
The sign is a little smudged after all these years, but you can still make out the words.
'Santa Please Stop Here' it says.