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An Unacceptable Christmas

Chapter 1

The Most Wonderful Time

It was the tallest Christmas tree Michael had ever seen. From the shopping mall's center court, it rose three stories to the glass ceiling. It glistened with thousands of flickering lights. Ribbons of silk garland cascaded over its branches. And at its very tiptop, a crystal star scattered daylight in all directions, showering the indoor marketplace with the colors of Christmas. The boy leaned back to take in the tree's height, and thought, It's taller than the Empire State Building! Needless to say, the tree was nowhere near that big. But to a 6-year-old who had never seen that towering landmark, its size would stir any child's imagination.
   Circling the tree's pedestal, a model train steamed through a miniature alpine village, towing a cargo of colorfully wrapped presents. As the engine sped toward a long tunnel, Michael couldn't resist running over for a closer look. This meant dropping the hand of his 16-year-old sister, Holly, who had volunteered to look after him. "Not too close!" she cautioned. It's no secret that keeping tabs on a perky 1st-grader can try your patience, but you heard no complaints from Holly. It was the Season of Joy, after all, and seeing the delight in her brother's eyes lifted her spirits, too.
   Michael could have easily spent hours admiring the tree, if he hadn't spotted the holiday wonderland spread out behind it. Everywhere he looked were fun things to do and sweet treats to eat. Ride a penguin carousel, board a teddy bear train, ice skate across a frozen pond, or simply stroll among the candy cane castles and giant nutcrackers.
   Holly and Michael were about to explore the attraction when a trumpet fanfare echoed through the building. Down from the high ceiling floated millions of soap bubble snowflakes. Over the sound system came Bing Crosby's rendition of "White Christmas." A wave of "Oohs" and "Aahs" swept through the open space, as everyone stopped what they were doing to cast their eyes upward. Smiles brightened the faces of bedazzled children. Young couples embraced and old men wept. Not one person was unaffected by the feel-good moment. Even the hurried shoppers, grumbling under the weight of their purchases, were moved by the spectacle.
   Holly, too, marveled at the sight, but was more amazed by the other people watching it. How wonderful to see everyday folks, united in the spirit of togetherness. Total strangers stood side by side, like they were old friends. And to think how often people clashed over their differences — sometimes violently. Thank heaven that beneath those storm clouds of hostility, the human heart seeks shelter. So, here they had come, seeking the goodness that had somehow escaped them. Holly wasn't one to believe in miracles, but this was truly magic of some kind. For sure, nothing conveyed the meaning of Christmas more.
   As the last snowflake fell, Michael's nose detected the scent of something sweet. He towed his sister over to a charming gingerbread house, where a tray full of fresh-baked goodies lay free for the taking.
   "Just one," said Holly.
   The wide-eyed boy reached for a cookie, but then abruptly pulled his hand back. Someone had just patted him on the head. He spun around to find an elderly gentleman, in a red velvet suit and fur-rimmed hat. His white-gloved hands were folded across his large belly, just below his flowing silver beard. Alarmed by his sudden appearance, Michael's fingers tightened around his sister's hand.
   The man let out a hearty laugh, and in a deep voice, said, "And what would you like for Christmas, young man?" He leaned down and tapped the tip of the boy's nose. "Have you been good this year?"
   Holly tugged on her brother's arm. "I'm sorry, sir," she said. "We have to be going." Her insistence on leaving puzzled Michael. Why the rush? He was just getting interested in the old guy.
   But as the gentle soul shook Michael's hand, a woman suddenly shrieked in terror. Mothers covered the eyes of their small children, as panic quickly spread among horrified onlookers. In seconds, two burly security guards charged toward the commotion. Michael threw his arms around Holly's waist and watched the man-in-red wrestled onto his stomach. His fake beard slipped off his head and now hung around his neck. And with his pinched lips pressed to the floor, the man turned to Michael and howled, "Hooo-hooo-hooo!"
   Michael witnessed the scuffle in utter bewilderment. The applause from observers further confused the boy. Holly led him through the jubilant crowd and rested him on a nearby bench. "You okay?" she asked.
   Michael sat quietly for a moment, then looked up into his big sister's eyes, and said, "Who was that man supposed to be?" As incredible as it seems, Michael had failed to recognize Santa Claus!
   This was no surprise to Holly, for not a single image of the jolly old elf was visible anywhere in the mall. All references to his Christmastime activities were also missing: no miniature sleighs with eight tiny reindeer; no sacks of toys for good girls and boys; no mallet-wielding elves in a North Pole workshop. It was the same all over town — and all over the country.

-- End of Excerpt --

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