Round about when the upper grades began crowding the stairwell to celebrate Advent with heartfelt singings of O Come, O Come Emanuel, the girls in Emma’s class organized a secret Santa club. Not just any girl could join. You had to be asked. Emma’s heart leapt when the girls asked her. She had made it past the weird kids.
Now when she arrived for school, she needn’t stroll the playground perimeter, pretending absorption in her shoes while waiting for the morning bell. She could park her shivering self in the huddle of popular girls.
Bernadette explained how the club would work. Once a week or so each secret Santa was to brighten her secret Santa recipient’s days with things like Bonnie Bell Lip Gloss, spray bottles of Jean Naté, and 1928 brand costume jewelry, although smiley face pens, chocolate bars, fat sticks of peppermint, and Hallmark quality or better Christmas ornaments were also acceptable.
Angie, Bernadette’s second-in-command, wrote down everyone’s name on scraps of notebook paper and placed the scraps in Bernadette’s cupped hands. Emma drew Terry B. She sighed, thankful she hadn’t drawn Bernadette or Angie. Only now were the secret Santa responsibilities dawning on her. But Terry was only a second tier girl so if Emma screwed up, the consequences would be less severe.
The problem was her gift list was already hopelessly long—siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—and her 50 cent a week allowance hopelessly small. The thought of dipping into her bank account made her shudder. She was saving for college and her account was still well under three figures.
That afternoon she sat on her bed, trying to come up with a gift.
The previous spring Laurie S. had returned to school after an Easter vacation in Hawaii with a puka shell necklace, sparking a puka shell fad. Over the summer, Emma had painstakingly collected tiny nautiluses at Holiday Island. The nautiluses were mostly dull shades of gray or brown. They weren’t pearly like the pukas, but they were shells. She had enough for a bracelet, but every time she tried to poke a hole through one so that she could string them together, the shell shattered.
Fleetingly she thought of asking her sisters to let her have the beads off their old Camp Fire Girl vests and stringing them up into a bracelet or perhaps a Christmas ornament.
Another idea was to break into her agate collection. She had been collecting them on Holiday Island every summer since second grade and had amassed two pint jars of them. She could spend hours looking at them. She would spill them out onto her bedspread, hold them up to the light one by one, and peer into their translucent ambers, oranges, and reds. It felt good just to hold the smooth stones in her hand, feel their weight, roll them along her palm or between her fingers. But what would she do? Give Terry a jar of agates?
If she knew how to work with metal, or if she had some agate boring tool, she could fashion one into a pendant, but she didn’t. Plus her agates were raw. They had only been polished by sea and sand. Some still had barnacles or sea weed lodged in their crevices.
Days passed. Other girls were getting tiny stuffed koala bears and boxes of Russell Stover’s. So far Emma had only got Terry a handful of Hershey’s Kisses.
The trick was to fashion something that the girls in the club would ooh and ahh over. Her gift needed to have sophistication. Or at least be cute.
She could make Terry an egg shell collaged cigar box. Egg shells, by themselves, were nothing or worse than nothing. Just stuff you put into the garbage. But if you crushed them and dyed them different colors, you could make a collage and stick it on a cigar box. In Girl Scouts Emma had covered a cigar box with a red egg shell rose surrounded by pure white egg shell bits and edged with green and red egg shell bits.
Such a box would clearly be an acceptable gift. Only maybe it should be a poinsettia flower, for Christmas, and to distinguish it from the boxes they had made for Mother’s Day, because what if Terry thought Emma was passing on the Mother’s Day box second-hand? But she would have to get enough egg shells. And find a way to dye them. And find a cigar box.
The plant on her window sill? It had never flowered and Emma didn’t really like it and often forgot to water it. Geraldine, who was also in the secret Santa club, had given it to her so that was a danger, but maybe Emma could disguise the plant. She could cover the pot with tin foil or tie a bow around it or both. But the plant was scraggly and draggy and not even particularly green anymore. Plus, the plant seemed like something you would give an old person, or someone you were visiting in a nursing home. Plus, a whitish-green film was covering the soil and the outside of the pot.
She thought about waiting until a night when Mom was working and asking Dad to take her to the store and getting him to pay for a secret Santa gift. But she was afraid of Mom finding out. Mom would surely say Emma should pay for the gift herself.
She could sneak down into the fabric cupboard and snip off a piece of brown corduroy or dotted Swiss. If she only took a little and rearranged stuff so the dotted Swiss was on the bottom of the pile, Mom might not notice for months. She imagined a miniature stocking in dotted Swiss or a Frosty the Snowman Hat in brown corduroy. Maybe not.
Maybe she could make a poster with construction paper and pictures and letters cut from old Sunset magazines.
It all seemed too hopeless. All her gift ideas would either look too home-made, or wouldn’t be cute, or take too long to make or even get the materials together, or would be constructed out of the wrong stuff or seem like a school project. Or, as with the agates, be something she couldn’t bear to part with.
It was the third week of Advent. They had sung O Come, O Come Emanuel in the stairwell for the last time. Terry was probably starting to get peeved. Emma needed to act. Soon the other girls would start to talk about how Terry was getting shafted.
The solution came to her after dinner. The dishwasher was going and Dad and her sisters were downstairs watching The Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Mom was at work. She laid a length of plastic wrap flat on the counter and dumped on chocolate chips, raisins, marshmallows, and salted nuts left over from her parents’ bridge party. She was careful not to take so many of anything that Mom would notice. The treat didn’t look too bad. Not festive exactly, but not too bad. She hummed along with The Peanuts’ Gang singing Christmastime is Here as she twisted up the corners.
The next morning she set it inside Terry’s desk along with a secret Santa note.
Terry showed it around at morning recess. “Look what my secret Santa gave me,” she said with mock enthusiasm, twirling Emma’s gift by its plastic wrap ends.
“She could have at least made chocolate chip cookies,” Angie said.
By lunchtime everybody knew.
Emma’s heart ached as Terry held out the wad of homemade candy mix for her classmates’ disapproval. Trapped inside the wrinkled wrapping, the nuts and chocolate chips and marshmallows indeed looked festiveless. She hadn’t even adorned the “candy” with a cheery bit of ribbon. If she had done that and not simply knotted together the ends of the plastic wrap, maybe her gift would have been judged satisfactory.
“Marshmallows,” Bernadette said, plucking one from the mix. “Fresh and tasty.” She popped it into her mouth, looking straight at Emma. “They’re not stale at all,” she said, making exaggerated chewing motions.
“They’re perfectly good marshmallows,” Emma wanted to say, but knew she would choke on the words. She thought about saying that it wasn’t her, that an imposter Santa had forged her handwriting; she thought about pretending unconcern or turning the joke inside out, chiming in about what a dumb gift it had been, and laughing heartily, but the fight wasn’t in her.
That night she got out the shoe polish kit. The next morning she took her place with the weird kids circling the playground perimeter, peering down at her spiffed up shoes.