Paola had mixed feelings about Christmas. She’d spent most of her life living places where it wasn’t widely celebrated, although the embassy had always put up a Christmas tree. (That was weird in and of itself, since most of Christmas that wasn’t religious was all about family, and it was strange seeing adults who normally acted cool and professional toward each other suddenly decide that they had to be warm and friendly.) She’d never truly felt like she’d fit in at the few DeMarco family Christmases she’d attended, and while Dad did his best to make the holiday fun and festive when it was just the two of them, Paola was all-too aware of where the limits of Dad’s best were. Things got slightly better once Aunt Tima and Aunt Sara were around, but half the time they jaunted off to visit Aunt Sara’s parents or Aunt Tima’s dad, and Dad always insisted that Christmas Eve was family time anyway.
But Paola really, really, really wanted to like Christmas. She wanted the candle-lit feeling of warm togetherness as a blanket against winter’s bleakness that came through every Christmas movie the embassy had played and every Christmas card she’d seen in the store and the scents of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg that wafted from the kitchen non-stop from November through the end of December. She wanted presents that were as exciting after they were opened as they were before. She wanted to give presents that the recipient wouldn’t leave unread on the bookshelf for months until Paola casually asked, “So how do you like that book I picked out for you, Dad?” (To pick a hypothetical example, of course.) And so when Headmaster Toby announced a Secret Santa Extravaganza (complete with verbal capital letters), Paola signed up, and owled to Dad for spending money. She’d asked Rhia if she was interested in signing up as well, but her roommate had been nose down in a book and made a non-committal noise.
In any event, Rhia hadn’t been Paola’s giftee. Paola had no idea who her giftee was (not another first year, in any event) and had had to discreetly ask around to determine who her recipient was. Dad had had actually sent the gift money in time, and Paola had headed up to Pearl Street to face the daunting task of shopping for someone she didn’t know, and not spending more than two galleons. It was probably fortunate that she didn’t know her giftee’s taste in books; most of the new books at Lighthouse Books were priced slightly above that budget. Paola bypassed the used book racks with a longing sigh—she was not here to shop for herself, but maybe she could stop on the way back—and headed out to investigate the numerous little shops along Pearl Street Mall.
It was a glorious, clear day with enough of a breeze that the chilly air felt crisp rather than icy, but Paola was still glad of her warm coat and hat. She supposed she would get used to the cold eventually, but for now, the fresh air stung her nose and throat with its coldness. She kept her hands jammed in her pockets while she was outside. Perhaps because her feet stayed cold no matter how many shops she went in and out of, Paola settled on a pair of fuzzy socks that would change color in response to the wearer’s mood and automatically warm up if they detected cold feet. Everyone liked fuzzy socks. She could wrap them once she got back to RMI—which she needed to do quickly, she realized as she spotted a clock. No time to browse the secondhand book racks at Lighthouse. At least running back to the elevator warmed her up.
Paola didn’t have wrapping paper or a gift back, and she didn’t think she had much skill at drawing, so she wrote out Christmas carol lyrics in her best handwriting in red, green, and silver inks, and wrapped the socks in that.
On the day of the exchange, Paola wore her favorite green dress for the first time since the Opening Feast. She had to turn back because she had forgotten her gift but still made it to the Diner in plenty of time. And oh, it smelled like gingerbread, and Paola couldn’t wait to try some. (She hoped it was soft gingerbread and not the hard stuff that half the flavor baked out of.) But first, everyone had to listen to Headmaster Santa, er, Toby explain how this worked. Paola was torn between finding her person and finding gingerbread when she heard someone calling her name.
“Yes? That’s me!” she answered, turning toward the voice and half waving in case they couldn’t see her. (She was only average height for an eleven-year-old girl.) The person who'd been calling her name pressed a festive package into her free hand. “Thank you!” Paola answered. “Merry Christmas!”