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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. The giddy 6-year-old rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't dreaming. Standing in the mall's center court, the tree rose three stories from the marble floor to the glass ceiling. Thousands of tiny lights flickered on its limbs like fireflies. Red and green 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.
   The enchanted boy tilted his head up to see the top. He leaned so far back that he might have fallen over, had he not been holding the hand of his teenage sister, Holly. She was in charge of looking after him while they were on school break.
   Circling the tree's pedestal, a toy train steamed through a miniature alpine village, towing a cargo of colorfully wrapped presents. Michael spotted the train entering a long tunnel. Following the tracks to its exit, he held his breath in anticipation.
   "Not too close, Michael," said Holly.
   That old saying about talking to a brick wall fit her warning perfectly. It would take more than a nagging sister to dampen Michael's wide-eyed curiosity. A moment later, a toot from the train's whistle, and out chugged the smoke-puffing, click-clacking locomotive.
   Holly had no problem with watching over Michael. With their mother a busy professional, it was the least she could do to help lighten her workday. Arrangements of this sort, however, have their drawbacks. Its a well-known fact that children on their own tend to get into mischief. But Holly's mom never worried about hers. Holly was an uncommonly responsible 16-year-old, and made sure her mom knew where they were at all times.
   Michael could have spent hours admiring the tree. But as magnificent as it was, beyond it lay an even grander spectacle: a holiday wonderland, full of fun things to do and sweet treats to eat. There were slopes to sled down, ice to skate across, and a carousel for kids to ride. In less than an instant, Michael ran off to explore that world of candy canes and nutcrackers. Needless to say, keeping up with 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 her brother's eyes filled her with happiness too.
   Holly helped Micheal down off a carousel giraffe when a trumpet fanfare caught their attention. The overhead lights dimmed, and down from the high ceiling floated millions of tiny snowflakes. A wave of "Oohs" and "Aahs" swept through the mall, as people cast their eyes skyward. Bing Crosby's classic recording of "White Christmas" began to play.
   Children gazed up in wonder. Young couples embraced. Old women wept.
   Holly, too, would have been carried away by the sentiment of the moment, but she was more intrigued with the people around her. She saw all shapes, sizes, colors, and nationalities -- standing together like they were old friends. It was hard for her to imagine them being hostile to one another. Yet images of folks clashing violently over their differences were everywhere. Regardless, Holly believed that under the storm clouds of hate, the human heart longs to find shelter. So, here they had come, desperately seeking the goodness that had somehow escaped them. Here was a gathering of total strangers, yet no one quarreled. None were mistreated. 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 fresh-baked goodies. With his sister in tow, he followed the enticing aroma to a whimsical gingerbread house. There he discovered a tray full of yummy cookies. Though free for the taking, two imposing wooden soldiers stood by to enforce the posted cookie limit: one per visit. Michael rapped on the guard's pinewood knee caps and listened. Thump! Hollow. He stood at attention, saluted, then grabbed a cookie.
   Smacking the last bit of sweetness from his fingers, he turned to his sister. "Just one more?"
   Holly looked into his hopeful eyes. "You think those big soldiers will let you?"
   Michael cocked his head like a bewildered puppy. "What are you talking about? They're made outta wood."
   Holly lovingly stroked his silky brown hair. "One more, then." What else could she say? Anyone could have read in the dark by the light in her brother's face.
   But savoring that sweet morsel would have to wait. While reaching for his cookie, Michael felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned 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 white beard. Alarmed at his sudden appearance, Michael's fingers tightened around his sister's hand. But the friendly eyes peering over the man's eyeglasses eased his concern.
   The man let out a hearty laugh, then in a deep voice, said, "And what would you like for Christmas, young man?"
   A faint smile spread across Michael's face.
   The gentle soul tapped the tip of the boy's nose. "Have you been good this year?"
   Michael nodded excitedly.
   Holly tugged on her brother's arm. "I'm sorry, sir," she said. "We have to be going."
   But as the man reached out to shake Michael's hand, a woman suddenly shrieked in terror. Mothers covered the eyes of their small children. Panic quickly spread among horrified onlookers. In a matter of seconds, two burly security guards charged in their direction. Michael threw his arms around Holly's waist, as the man-in-red was wrestled onto his stomach. In the scuffle his fake beard slipped off his head and now hung around his neck. Police officers soon arrived and handcuffed the intruder. And with his pinched lips pressed to the floor, the man turned to Michael and howled, "Ho-ho-ho!"
   The officers hoisted the disgraced man to his feet, then whisked him away to a waiting patrol car.
   Holly led Michael through the murmuring crowd and rested him on a nearby bench. Michael sat quietly, clearly upset by all the commotion. Then he looked up into his big sister's eyes 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. How could he possibly know he had just met the legendary gift-giver? Not a single image of Santa was visible anywhere in the mall. Nor were there any references to his Christmastime activities:
   No miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer;
   No sack of toys for good girls and boys;
   No mallet-wielding elves in a North Pole workshop.
   There wasn't even a regal throne, where children could visit Santa to whisper their Christmas wishes. It was the same all over town -- and all over the country. The reason was quite simple: displaying the likeness of Santa Claus was against the law!
   Who can forget the sensational trial that started it all?

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