New York Times bestselling author Greg Kincaid takes us back to rural Kansas to share the comforts of family and the power of our four-legged companions during the holiday season in Noelle: A Novel (A Dog Named Christmas) (Convergent Books, 2017). Kincaid sheds light on the predominantly male Christmas characters from Rudolph to the Grinch and brings Mrs. Clause back to the forefront to lend a fresh approach to the holiday season.
Mary Ann McCray had been on the board of the Crossing Trails Public Library for what she considered to be too many years. Like most small Kansas towns, Crossing Trails was losing population. With a shrinking tax base, the library struggled for funding. Mary Ann was not sure she understood the other board members. They seemed too easily diverted from their primary mission, fostering literacy, as well as raising the money, volunteers, and awareness to support that cause. The problem was serious. Not only was there not enough money, but people weren’t reading like they used to.
The use of the library was shifting too. It was easy to measure. Book loans were down, but they did a booming business in DVDs, CDs, and video games. The demographics were changing before their eyes. The patrons of the library were older, like her, and the young people who did come in seemed to be there for the free Internet access. They needed to get kids reading books, in her opinion. As a longtime teacher in Crossing Trails, she believed with all her heart that books ignited a passion for learning.
But other issues seemed to continually divert the board’s attention, including today’s topic. Mary Ann had tried to keep quiet, not make waves, but this latest discussion was upsetting, particularly because it involved one of her oldest and closest friends. She leaned forward and raised her palm, like a conversational traffic cop. “I disagree, totally. We don’t need to do this.”
“Why not?” one board member asked. Carol Sampson seemed surprised that something so simple as finding a new Santa Claus for the library’s annual holiday program would prompt such a reaction.
“It’s a matter of loyalty. Hank Fisher’s been playing Santa for us for forty years. We never paid him a dime, and he’s never asked for a thing in return. It’s an important part of who we are — part of our tradition.” Mary Ann tried to check her indignation before adding, “I just can’t imagine Christmas or Crossing Trails without Hank as our Santa.” She thought for a moment about dear Hank, whom she’d known since she was a little girl. True, Hank was over eighty, but asking him to hang up his Santa suit after all these years — it didn’t sit well with her.
“I disagree,” Marsha Thompson, the youngest board member, countered. “Our responsibility is to the library and the children of this community, not Hank Fisher. I hate to sound harsh, but children shouldn’t have to see Santa in a wheelchair or with oxygen tubes up his nose. They’ll worry that Santa might not make it to Christmas.”
Another member, Catherine Evans, also spoke out. “Marsha is exaggerating. Hank doesn’t always need oxygen and isn’t in the wheelchair all the time, but here’s the real point — Hank isn’t the tradition, Santa is the tradition. Sooner or later Hank has to retire, and maybe the time has come.”
“I agree,” the head librarian, Tammy Larson, gently interjected, her tone kind, “but before we ask Hank to step down, shouldn’t we find someone else willing to do it?”
“Lots of people could do it.” Marsha looked back to Mary Ann. “How about your son, Todd? He’s back in town, right? Let’s put a fresh face on Santa. He’d be a great Santa. Or your husband, George? He could do it.”
“Todd’s just now moving back, and all his spare time is taken up with the new animal shelter. And as for George ... well, he’s not all that fresh!” The board members chuckled a bit, but Mary Ann shook her head soberly. “Besides, George wouldn’t take this away from Hank.”
“I adore Hank,” said Louisa Perkins, a longtime friend of Mary Ann’s. “We all do, but he’s so fragile. If we can’t find a volunteer, maybe it would be best if we just hired someone to do it. That way we’re certain that Santa has been professionally trained and vetted. You can’t be too careful these days.”
Refusing to give up on Hank, Mary Ann argued, “I don’t think this has anything to do with Hank’s health or how an aged Claus might affect the children in our community. Having a thin old man dressed in a red suit just upsets our vision of what we think Santa should look like. The kids won’t care a bit. We should just get over it and let Hank do his job for as long as he’s willing to do it.”
“I’m sure we could all be pretty flexible on Santa’s appearance,” Catherine Evans observed. “I really don’t think appearances are the issue.”
“Really?” Mary Ann echoed, incredulous. “Are you so sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure,” Catherine responded. “This has absolutely nothing to do with appearances.”
She might have spent the last thirty years as a guidance counselor and music teacher at the Crossing Trails High School, but the activity that Mary Ann enjoyed most was coaching the debate team. If nothing else, she knew how to argue. “I think I’m right about this. I’m telling you, it’s all about appearances.”
“Why do you say that?” Catherine asked, worrying that the increasingly uncomfortable conversation was about to become quite heated.
Mary Ann set her pen down on her pad of paper. “I’m willing to go meet with Hank and tell him that his forty- two years as Crossing Trails’ St. Nick is about to come to an end, not because he looks too old and feeble — because, we all know, appearances don’t matter. It’s just that we’ve decided to go in a different direction this year.”
“Yes?” Arthur Lee prodded. Arthur was the only male board member, and he was also the chair. He’d been silent up to now, willing to hear out Mary Ann’s point of view but also unsure of how to reach a compromise on something that suddenly seemed more complicated than just picking a new Santa.
Mary Ann held everyone’s attention now. “Instead of Hank doing it,” she began, pulling the reductio ad absurdum argument directly from her debate playbook and pausing for effect, “I’ll do it.”
The room went quiet as each board member wondered if Mary Ann McCray was serious or just being contrary. Every person would agree she was a major asset to the board, but from time to time she showed her prickly side.
She continued, “Think about it. Mr. Claus is tired. He needs to take this year off. Santa has no 401(k), so he can never retire. He’s been doing this for a few hundred years. Never complains about his bad back or the arthritis in his fingers. The man needs a break. This year he sent Mrs. Claus to Crossing Trails. Women do the shopping, wrap the gifts, and do the decorating, right? They can wipe children’s noses, change their diapers, so I suppose they can take gift orders from adoring children. That’s the easiest part of Christmas. I’ll do it. Do you want me to be Santa Claus instead of Hank? Appearance isn’t the issue. Right?”
There was a long silence as everyone in the room tried to take in her point. Arthur Lee wasn’t sure what to think. There was something rather clever about the idea, but at the same time he wasn’t sure it added up. “Well, that certainly would be going in a different direction, but don’t you think that children are accustomed to seeing Santa as a grandfatherly figure? Would they be disappointed?”
Placing her hands flat on the conference- room table and leaning in, Mary Ann said, “Crossing Trails — the only town in America that Mrs. Claus cared enough to visit. It wasn’t easy, but she left her cozy kitchen at the North Pole, took off her apron, and came to see us. Aren’t we lucky?”
Marsha Thompson, jumping in to break the tension, quipped, “The elves will revolt — who’ll do the laundry?”
Catherine laughed but then said, “I thought it was supposed to be Santa Claus, not ... Anna Claus.”
Mary Ann could not help crowing. “See, that’s my point! It is about appearances. It’s hard for us to envision Santa as anything but a robust old man with twinkling blue eyes. So what if he’s getting older? What difference does it make? Don’t we all get older, just like Hank Fisher has? It’s not how Santa looks, it’s what he does that matters, and Hank is a great Santa.”
As he cleared his throat, all eyes turned to Arthur Lee. Mary Ann was confident that she’d won the argument and that Arthur would side with her — Hank could keep his job, at least for now. She’d always found Arthur to be a very reasonable man. There was no reason to believe that today would be any different.
He began to speak. “I have a twelve- year- old daughter. Most of you know Lilly. I think she’s pretty special.” His face seemed to light up at the mere mention of his daughter’s name. He continued, “I want Lilly to believe that she can be anything she wants. I read once that traditions are not so much abandoned as disregarded — like bobbing for apples — because they don’t change with the times. Mary Ann, I think you’re right. We’ve ignored the other partner in the Claus family for too long. I think you’ve stumbled across a novel and intriguing idea whose time has come. Why not extend Anna Claus an invitation to visit Crossing Trails for Christmas? Let’s have fun with it. Let’s do press releases. Let’s put Crossing Trails and Mrs. Claus both back on the map this year. After all these thankless centuries she deserves some recognition!”
A certain excitement filled the room. Each board member glanced across the table and smiled. There was an obvious consensus: this could be fun.
Mary Ann raised her hand and stammered. “No ... no, you don’t understand. I don’t really want to — ”
Louisa, thinking she’d do her old friend a good turn and show her support for this new idea, broke in with “I agree! How delightful!”
“All in favor, raise your hand,” said Arthur.
Mary Ann kept her arms folded across her chest while all the others raised their hands. While they assumed she was just being polite and didn’t want to vote for her own idea, she was making a mental note to change one of her debate lesson plans. Reductio ad absurdum, indeed — this one can backfire, kids.
She felt like slinking down into the conference- room chair like one of her bewildered students. She’d be the laughingstock of Crossing Trails. Why couldn’t she just keep her mouth shut and let Hank Fisher retire? It wasn’t even Thanksgiving, and her husband, George, would still be laughing at her — a woman in a Santa suit — when the glittering silver ball dropped in Times Square. He would never let her live this one down.
“Mary Ann,” said Carol Sampson warmly, “you’ll be a wonderful Anna Claus. Thank you so much for volunteering.”
The chairman smiled and began singing an old familiar tune, to slightly different lyrics: “ ‘Anna Claus is coming to town.’ ”
Mary Ann dropped her purse on the kitchen table. The television was broadcasting the evening news in the living room, so she hung her coat in the hall closet and walked in that direction. As she expected, George was getting a head start on a good night’s sleep. His bad leg, wounded in Vietnam, was fully extended. It seemed to hurt less that way. His left hand rested on the head of his aged Labrador, whom their son, Todd, had named “Christmas” years ago. The old dog looked up lovingly at Mary Ann, and his big, thick tail brushed slowly back and forth across the floor. After giving Christmas an acknowledging pat, she gently nudged her husband’s shoulder. “George.”
Startled, George sheepishly rattled the paper that rested on his lap as if to wake himself. “Oh, I must have fallen asleep.”
“Oh, you must have,” Mary Ann teased. “Did you and Christmas get Todd moved into his new apartment? I can’t believe he’s already back in Crossing Trails. His time at Heartland sure went by fast,” she marveled. “They’re going to miss him.”
“I called. He said he was already moved in.”
“I guess so. I doubt that funny- looking little dog of his was much help. What’s her name? Elle?” George stretched. “How was your board meeting?”
“Not good.” She paused, thoughtful. “Actually, it was awful.”
George looked up, surprised. Library board meetings had been described by Mary Ann in a lot of ways over the years, but never like that. “Why? What happened?”
“You promise to not make this worse for me than it already is?”
George sat up straight, now wide awake and intrigued. If Mary Ann was expecting him to be critical of her, George had a pretty good idea what had happened. The affronted look on her face all but sealed his suspicions.
“You were fussing with someone, and they kicked you off the board or you quit?”
“No!” Mary Ann scolded. “Why in the world would you say such a thing?”
George cocked his head sideways, as if surprised she had to ask. “Well, let me see.” He held his right fist up and extended one finger at a time as he ticked off his points. “Number one, you’re outspoken. Two, you’re bright but like to debate. Three, you champion your principles at the expense of other people’s principles. Any of those applicable? Am I getting warm?”
“You make me sound wicked.”
George reached out and pulled her closer to him. When she was close enough, he gave her a hard tug so that she fell onto his lap. He whispered into her ear, “Deliciously wicked. Just the way I like it.”
“George, I’ve been a real idiot, and now I have myself in a fix.”
“Okay, what happened?”
She rested her head on his chest. “They wanted to fire Hank from being Crossing Trails’ Santa Claus. After all these years! Can you imagine that?”
“I’m not surprised.”
“They said he was too old. They said his oxygen tubes would scare the children.”
“They may be right. It’s time for Hank to turn over the reins, but they never should have said that to you.”
Mary Ann squirmed from George’s grip and leaned away from him. “What do you mean?”
“They slighted someone you love!” His eyes sparkled. “That will provoke the Charge of the Light Brigade, with you riding front and center, saber rattling, accepting neither prisoner nor counsel. Shoot first. Ask questions later.”
“Am I that bad?” When he only smiled but didn’t answer, she returned her head to his chest. “Still, I can’t imagine Christmas without Hank.”
“Hank knows that he needs to hang up the red suit. He’s afraid he’ll drop some kid on the floor.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“Sure. Last week.”
She looked at George, surprised. “I sure wish you’d told me that before I opened my mouth at the meeting. So what does he want to do?”
“He asked me to take over Santa’s sled. I told him I would think about it. Do you remember when I was Santa Claus in the sixth grade?”
“Yes, George, I remember,” said Mary Ann. And she could remember — childhood sweethearts, they’d known each other most of their lives, and it wasn’t hard for her to summon up a picture of a very young George McCray, when his eyes still gleamed with boyish mischief. Actually, she thought, they still had the same twinkle. “You were a very cute Santa.”
George drew Mary Ann even closer to him. “Hank and I were talking. Maybe you could just sew up my old Santa suit. Hank’s suit is a bit big for me.”
Mary Ann freed herself from George’s grip and got out of the chair, going from charmed to incredulous. With her hands on her hips, she asked, “Sew up?”
“Yes. You know, fix it, so I can wear it again.”
“You want me to make the alterations to a fifty-year-old suit you wore when you were a kid so you can be Santa?”
“Yes, that’s it. Do you mind?”
“Yes. I do mind.” She held up three fingers, mimicking George’s early efforts to accentuate his points. “First, I can’t sew up a size-twelve boys’ into a forty-four men’s. Second, I have the elves’ laundry to do. Third ... you can’t be Crossing Trails’ Santa!”
“Why not?” George asked. “Ho, ho, ho! See, I can do it.”
Mary Ann covered her face and blurted out, “You can’t do it, because I’m doing it. The library board wants me to be Santa!” She headed for the kitchen, as if she were making an escape.
George yelled after her in a surprised tone, “Whose crazy idea was that?”
George got out of the chair with more gusto than he had recently managed and followed her into the kitchen.
“You can’t be Santa.”
Mary Ann turned on him. “Of course I can be Santa. Anyone can be Santa!”
“Are you serious?”
“Ho, ho, ho!”
George was not particularly interested in the task, so he shrugged it off, though he still was amazed at this turn of events. “Mary Ann, if you want to be Santa, be Santa.” He couldn’t resist a slight grin. “Can I be the first one to sit on your lap?”
“Did you ever ask to sit on Hank Fisher’s lap?”
George looked up as though giving the question considerable thought. “Well, let me see.... I don’t think so. Well, not recently anyway. No. The more I think about it, I don’t believe I have ever asked to sit on Hank Fisher’s lap. By the time he was the Crossing Trails Santa, I was trying to get you to marry me.”
“All right, then. So why does it have to be any different with Mrs. Claus?”
“ ’Cause you’re better- looking than Hank Fisher?”
“Forget it. If you’re going to be critical like everyone else probably will be, you be Santa!”
George grabbed Mary Ann’s wrist and pulled her back to him. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re not getting out of this that easily. You wanted the job. You volunteered. You can’t disappoint the library board. You can’t disappoint Crossing Trails.”
Mary Ann finally broke down and laughed. “Just to be clear, I didn’t want the job, but I suppose you’re right — someone needs to do this for Crossing Trails. As for you, Anna Claus thinks you’re a very bad boy, and you’re not getting a thing from Santa this year.”
“I’m on a first- name basis with several elves.”
“Good, that’ll give you someone to talk to in the late hours of the night.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because you got off on the wrong foot with Mrs. Claus, you’ll be spending the entire holiday season sleeping on the Claus sofa. It gets lonely out there in the living room all by yourself in the dead of winter. You’ll see.”
“Can I set cookies and milk out for you?”
“Knowing you, you would eat them all yourself.”
He poked playfully at her midriff. “You know, Mary Ann, at our age it’s a bit harder fitting down that chimney.” Mary Ann feigned taking a notebook from her back pocket, opening it, and writing something down. She put a vivid exclamation mark at the end of the imaginary list and flipped the hair from her face. “ ‘George McCray. Decidedly naughty.’ ”
“Perhaps,” George admitted.
She jammed her finger into his chest and sang out, putting yet another twist on a holiday tradition, “ ‘Three scrawny roosters, two snapping turtles, and a possum in a pear tree.’ ”Reprinted with permission from Noelle by Greg Kincaid and published by Convergent Books, 2017.