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An Unacceptable Christmas
By Bruce Edwards

Chapter 1

The Most Wonderful Time

It was the tallest Christmas tree Michael had ever seen -- taller than the Empire State Building, higher than the peaks of Mount Everest. Really? It was that big? Of course not. Who ever heard of a tree the size of a mountain? But to a 6-year-old who had never seen those lofty landmarks, its impressive size would stir any child's imagination.
   Towering over the shopping mall's center court, the tree rose three stories from the ground floor to the glass ceiling. A thousand points of light flickered like fireflies from every limb. Ribbons of silk garland cascaded over its branches. And at its very tiptop, a silver star scattered daylight in all directions, flooding the indoor marketplace with the colors of Christmas.
   Around the tree's pedestal circled a charming toy train. Its little steam engine traveled through a wintry landscape, towing a cargo of colorfully wrapped presents. It curved around snow-capped mountains, wandered through misty forests, and crossed a trestle spanning an icy waterfall. Michael's wide-eyed gaze followed the train as it disappeared into a dark tunnel. Racing to its exit, he held his breath in anticipation. A toot from the train's whistle, and out chugged the smoke-puffing, click-clacking, child-endearing locomotive.
   What a sight! Michael could have spent hours admiring the display. But as marvelous as it was, an even grander spectacle awaited him. Beyond the tree was a holiday wonderland that welcomed both young and old alike. Sled down a snowy slope in a wooden toboggan; take your date ice dancing across a frozen pond; and for the little ones, an orchestra of animatronic cartoon animals kept them thoroughly entertained. The robot band performed holiday favorites, under the direction of a teddy bear conductor in a plaid bow tie. Michael laughed at the character's zany antics, especially the tuba-playing turtle, teetering on his shell while lying on its back.
   The scent of fresh-baked goodies next led him to a gingerbread house. There he found a silver tray piled high with chocolate chip cookies. Though free for the taking, two imposing wooden soldiers stood guard to discourage visitors from taking more than their fair share. By now the mall crowd was nearing capacity, and Michael had to stand in line to collect his treat. No matter. It would take more than a little inconvenience to dampen his spirit.
   Licking the last bit of chocolate from his fingertips, Michael wasn't watching where he was walking. His toe struck something large and solid: the size-30 boot of a giant nutcracker. Taking in the huge doll, Michael leaned so far back that he might have fallen over, had he not been holding tight to the hand of his teenage sister, Holly. They were both out of school on holiday break, and it was the 16-year-old's job to look after her little brother. Their working mother was too busy to manage Michael's free time, so Holly graciously stepped in as his surrogate guardian. As you might already know, keeping tabs on a perky 1st-grader can be a challenge, but you heard no complaints from Holly. It was the season of joy, after all, and seeing the delight in Michael's face filled her with happiness, too.
   The lights dimmed. The mechanical teddy bear lowered his baton, and a trumpet fanfare played over the mall's sound system. Millions of artificial snowflakes began floating down from the high ceiling. A wave of "Oohs" and "Aahs" swept over the crowd, as Bing Crosby's rendition of "White Christmas" echoed through the cavernous space. Everyone, including the hurried shoppers, all stood motionless, spellbound at the sight.
   Children smiled. Young couples hugged. Old men wept. But no such display of emotion crossed Holly's face. No sentimental tears flowed from her big blue eyes. To Holly, the symbolism of Christmas was a fine and noble thing, and she could have easily been swept away by the sweetness of the moment. But Holly was a practical girl and very particular about showing emotion. She didn't cry at funerals. If something annoyed her, you'd never know it. Tickle her funny bone and you might get a chuckle out of her, but that was it. Holly was not an unhappy girl, however. She was active in school and cheerfully performed her chores at home. She simply preferred keeping her feelings to herself, and was content to be that way.
   As the last snowflake fell, Holly pulled a napkin from her pocket and wiped Michael's chocolate-smeared lips. "It's getting late," she said. "Mom will be home soon and we need to get back."
   "One more cookie?" begged Michael.
   Holly looked into his hopeful eyes and said, "You think those big soldiers will let you have another?"
   Michael cocked his head like a bewildered puppy. "What are you talking about?" he said. "They're made outta wood."
   Holly lovingly stroked his silky brown hair. "Just one more, then." It wasn't a hard decision for her to make. What else could she say? Anyone could have read in the dark by the light in Michael's face, aglow with childhood innocence.
   Returning to the gingerbread house, Michael saluted the wooden statues and reached for a scrumptious cookie. He had just taken his first bite when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned 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 curly white beard. Michael's fingers tightened around Holly's hand, frightened by the man's sudden appearance. But the gentle eyes peering over the man's eyeglasses eased his concern.
   The kind stranger let out a laugh, then said, in a rich, deep voice, "And what would you like for Christmas, young man?" A faint smile spread across Michael's face. The man gently tapped the tip of the boy's nose, asking, "Have you been good this year?" Michael's eyes widened with wonder as he nodded excitedly.
   Holly tugged on Michael's arm. "I'm sorry, sir," she told the man. "We have to be going now." Holly's sudden insistence on leaving puzzled Michael. He had only just started in on his cookie, and wanted to get to know the jolly old gentleman better. But as the man reached out to shake Michael's hand, a woman behind them suddenly shrieked in terror. Mothers covered the eyes of their small children. Panic quickly spread among the horrified onlookers. In a matter of seconds, two burly security guards came charging in their direction. Michael threw his arms around Holly's waist as the guards wrestled the man-in-red onto his stomach. In the struggle his fake beard slipped off his head and now hung around his neck. With his rosy cheeks pressed to the cold floor, he turned toward Michael, and through pinched lips howled, "Ho-ho-ho!" Police officers soon arrived and handcuffed the intruder, then whisked him away to a waiting patrol car.
   Holly and Michael squeezed through the spectators and rested on a nearby bench. Michael sat quietly for a moment, clearly upset by all the commotion. Then he looked up at his big sister and asked, "Who was that guy supposed to be?"
   Michael's failure to recognize Santa Claus might seem shocking to you and me, but it was no surprise to Holly. For no images of the iconic figure were displayed anywhere in the mall. All things associated with Santa were also absent. There were 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. There wasn't even a throne for Santa to sit on, where gleeful children could come to rattle off their Christmas wishes. It was the same all over town.
   The reason for this was simple: displaying the likeness of Santa Claus had been outlawed! Even mentioning his name was forbidden. Reciting poems, reading stories, or singing songs about Santa were punishable offenses. Singing "Santa Baby" got you thirty days in jail. "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" got you twice that. Reciting "The Night Before Christmas" in public was the worst offense of all.
   How could this have happened?

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