Secret Santas.

Bah humbug. That’s my tiding of comfort and joy. There is no magic at Christmas. And yes, there is no Santa Claus. My husband B, though, lives to spread the spirit of the season. So every year, we host Christmas Eve. I grumble and groan, but also know my misery doesn’t give me the right to sour B’s, or anyone else’s, holiday.

This year, though, my grinchness tested everyone’s tolerance. I admit it was overbearing to follow my nieces with a hand vac and disinfectant wipes. So at 9 pm, I was banished. The adults didn’t phrase it that way, but the message was clear.

“Hey girls,” said B excitedly. “Take Aunt Nanny into the study. She can go online and tell you where Santa is.”

Traitors, I thought, as the girls swept me toward the study, and the adults raised their glasses and cheered. I adore my nieces, though, and allowed four-year-old H to jam an itchy Santa hat onto my head. So much for my carefully styled pixie cut.

The girls pressed against me. They watched my lap top and held their breath like they were waiting for the Powerball numbers.

“Where is he, Aunt Nanny?” asked eight-year-old E.

The other three shushed her so forcefully they sprayed my screen. I sighed, and added my desk and computer to the list of items to wipe down once the girls left my child-free home.

“Patience, ladies,” I said. “Let me type in the magic code for Jersey City.”

Only for my nieces, I thought, as visions of my unattended martini danced in my head. I typed distractedly, and hit the enter key. Information for Minnesota popped onto the screen.

“Goddammit, crap!” I spit.

The girls gasped.

“Aunt Nanny said a bad word,” whispered H. “Maybe Santa heard!” She looked as if she would cry.

“Those aren’t G-rated words, Aunt Nanny,” E informed me.

I inhaled deeply, mortified I’d upset the girls — and at the possibility they might rat me out.

“I know. I am very, very sorry,” I said reassuringly. “Girls, Santa is real busy, maybe he didn’t hear me. That doesn’t make it okay, though, right?”

The four of them nodded solemnly.

“Aunt Nanny is real, real sorry. Santa, if you’re listening, I should know better. Now, let’s see where Santa is, okay?” I hoped if anyone was listening, they would have mercy and bring me my goddamn drink.

I made certain I entered the correct zip code, and hit the enter key with great flourish.

“Aha!” I exclaimed. “Santa has left Puerto Rico, and is on his way to the United States! He’ll be in New Jersey in…”

The girls squealed as I paused.

“When?” screamed E.

All four girls were breathless as they hopped and tugged at my fragile sequined top.

“Oh Aunt Nanny, when will Santa be here?”

The question plunged me into the depth of the sadness I’d been treading since Thanksgiving.

Santa’s not coming, my darlings, I thought. He never will. Your grown-up Aunt Nanny is too chicken shit to believe in Santa. Or anything. I’m not brave enough to hope because I’m not strong enough for pain or disappointment. So I bah humbug my way through my grinch life, sacrifice potential happiness because I avoid risk, and become a bitter bitch who upsets her beloved nieces. I knew that answer was not G-rated and inappropriate for any one, especially those little girls.

I looked at the four of them, bouncing off each other and me, their beautiful faces shining as much as their eyes. They trust me so freely, hold my hand for reassurance, consider me wise, and open their hearts to me. I’d worried all evening these girls would break anything they touched in my home — yet their little hands touch and keep my heart like a most precious treasure.

“Santa’s on his way, girls,” I said. “He knows how extra good you’ve all been. Santa will be in New Jersey by the time you’re home and in bed.”

They screamed and jumped like they were winning-ticket holders. I clapped with them — not because I’d return to my cocktail, but because for that brief moment, Santa had arrived for me in Jersey City.

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