Construction of a new house began early this year on a road Willie and I walk nearly every day. We’ve watched and listened from a distance as the foundation was poured, as the framing was completed, and as the roof and windows slowly appeared. “They plan to be in by Christmas,” the excavator told me one summer morning as we chatted by the side of the road and Willie sniffed his boots and the tires of his big red truck. That’s never going to happen, I thought, calculating the months of carpentry and finish work ahead.
As it turns out, I was right.
The house-in-progress sits high on a hill, overlooking our property and the Shawangunk Ridge beyond. I looked at it again late this afternoon as Willie and I walked past; the exterior walls are still sheathed in plywood, and doors have yet to be hung on the main entry and the double garage. But wait – what’s that? Is that some sort of manger they’ve got set up out front, just beyond all that gravel and mud?
Intrigued, I changed course and headed up the driveway to investigate, with Willie in tow. Yes, I was trespassing, but I was trespassing on Christmas Eve and I felt fairly certain no homeowner or contractor would show up this late in the day to surprise me.
As Willie and I crossed the threshold of the garage, I spotted three hand-prints set into the cement floor. There, beneath the presumable surname of our soon-to-be-neighbors were the impressions of a large, masculine hand, a smaller, feminine hand, and a tiny, child’s hand. Papa bear, Mama bear, and Baby bear, I thought as I continued inside, passing beneath a swaying artificial Christmas wreath suspended in the framed doorway.
A cold wind blew threw the open structure as Willie and I surveyed the scene inside, and I tried to imagine where the kitchen was going to be – and where I would want it if this were my house.
In a wide, open doorway that might one day hold French doors knelt the Holy Family: a plastic light-up Joseph, Mary, and a blonde, blue-eyed baby Jesus in molded, plastic swaddling. A length of white lamp cord with a plug at the end trailed uselessly from Joseph’s back, lying inert on the wet plywood floor. I glanced about to confirm that no electrical or plumbing work had yet begun, but grinned when I saw a single stocking had been tacked up where a fireplace would one day appear.
Willie was tugging at the lead, so we stepped closer to the Holy Family. That’s when I noticed the plate on the floor beside them – a plate containing a single chocolate cookie beside a glass of milk – a treat set out for Santa on Christmas Eve.
The family that had hoped to be moved in by Christmas must have come by earlier today, and I smiled imagining Mom and Dad explaining about Santa and his sleigh, and why they were leaving food here on the floor of a construction site.
With his every fiber, Willie strained against the lead to pull me toward the plate with Santa’s cookie, but I pulled back, and the two of us headed down the hill for home where I told Richard about what we’d found. Richard smiled and nodded when I told him my idea, and the two of us snapped into action.
I wrote the card as Richard wrapped a large Toblerone chocolate bar in Christmas paper and ribbon: “Welcome to your new home,” I printed in a careful hand, “and thank you for the milk and cookie – I shared them with the reindeer. Merry Christmas from Santa.”
Back up the hill I went, now carrying a flashlight, and placed the gift on the floor beside the Holy Family. Then I spilled the milk out into the mud, pocketed the cookie, and headed back home to Christmas dinner, grinning.
I may never tell them.