Seven-year-old Conner Galloway enjoyed it when his father read to him every night before he went to sleep, even though many of his friends in Mrs. Burckhardt's first grade class considered themselves too old for bedtime stories. One of the reasons for this was that Kelly Galloway didn't read the usual children's fairy tales handed down from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, for he was a writer and a former college professor of folklore and mythology. His vast knowledge and love of old legends and folktales was evident in the nightly stories he told his young son.
Mind you, not all of Kelly's tales were suitable for bedtime. The more frightening ones were reserved for family camping trips and the annual Halloween parties. Some of Conner's favorite stories, which dealt with the local legends of Puritan Falls and the surrounding New England towns, fell into this category. They included tales of bloodthirsty pirates and their buried treasure, men and women executed for witchcraft and ghostly ships searching for a safe harbor.
Despite his fondness for the macabre, young Conner also enjoyed listening to stories that reflected his father's heritage. Unlike his wife, Kelly Galloway was not a native of Puritan Falls. In fact, he wasn't even a New Englander by birth; rather, he had been born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Conner loved to hear his father talk about his former Amish neighbors. Kelly often described the horse-drawn buggies and brightly colored hex signs that farmers hung on their barns to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. He also told his son about the powwowers who practiced hexeria, a form of "Pennsylvania Dutch" witchcraft that involved powerful charms and incantations.
It was no surprise to anyone, then, that Conner believed in magic and in all the fantastic creatures he'd heard about. To him, his father's tales of fire-breathing dragons and forests populated with pixies, elves and leprechauns were as real as Mrs. Burckhardt's stories about the exploits of George Washington, the inventions of Thomas Edison and the New England fishermen's search for great sperm whales that swam in the Atlantic. The boy's unquestioning belief in fantasy even extended to the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and especially Santa Claus.
Eventually the day arrived when Conner came face to face with the skepticism of his peers. It began with one student but soon spread through the classroom like an outbreak of measles. The day before Thanksgiving vacation, Conner came home from school with tears in his eyes and told his mother what his classmates were saying.
"Chaz told me that Santa Claus is a fairy tale and that the presents we get for Christmas each year aren't really made by elves at the North Pole."
It was the moment Stacy Galloway had long dreaded, yet one she had been expecting since she sent her son off to school. Now that it had finally arrived, she hated seeing her son's childlike notions disappear, to be replaced by the dawning realization that magic and make-believe didn't exist. It was, she felt, the first step in disillusionment and the eventual loss of innocence. Naturally, such a step was inevitable. As the boy grew and matured, he would learn that life was not always fair, that good did not necessarily triumph over evil, that crime in many instances not only paid but paid well and that the best things in life were usually not free.
"Chaz is just a big, fat liar! And I told him so, too!" Conner declared with all the passionate conviction of a seven-year-old boy who had spent the past year being extra good so that he could ask Santa for more presents than he had received the previous Christmas.
Stacy breathed a sigh of relief, fairly confident she could postpone the discussion of Santa Claus—at least for this holiday season.
"I'm sure Santa will be very pleased with your faith in him."
Conner beamed with joy and hope.
"You think so?"
"Oh, yes! In fact, I'll bet your name moved up even higher on his list of good boys and girls."
* * *
The long Thanksgiving weekend came and went, and the Christmas season arrived with its myriad of attendant seasonal activities. The first weekend in December Kelly and Stacy Galloway took their son to see Santa in the center court of the Puritan Falls Mall. After the boy had his picture taken sitting on Kris Kringle's lap, the family went home and decorated the house with garland, ceramic snowmen, potted poinsettia, cardboard cutouts and colorful twinkling lights.
Once the house was decked in its Christmas finery, Kelly brought the artificial tree down from the attic and placed it in front of the large bay window in the living room. Stacy allowed her son to hang the non-breakable decorations on the lower branches while she and her husband hung the delicate glass ornaments at the top. When the tree was finished, the parents and child stood back and admired their handiwork.
"We did a beautiful job, if I do say so myself," Stacy remarked.
"Let's just hope that mean old Mr. Grinch doesn't sneak down the chimney and try to steal our tree," Kelly teased his son. "Or even worse, take all the presents Santa will put underneath it on Christmas Eve."
"That reminds me. Aren't we forgetting something?" Stacy asked with a mischievous glint in her eye.
Her son looked at her questioningly, and she pointed toward the fireplace mantel.
"I forgot to hang my stocking," the boy cried and began rummaging through the half-empty carton of decorations until he found the red velvet, fur-trimmed stocking with his name embroidered on it with metallic gold yarn.
After his stocking was hung on the mantel, Stacy went to the kitchen to wash the dinner dishes. Meanwhile, Conner asked his father to read him a Christmas story.
"I know just the one," Kelly said as his son climbed up on his lap. "'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there."
Conner listened with rapt attention as his father recited the beloved poem by Clement C. Moore about a man who encounters St. Nicholas in the act of delivering presents on Christmas Eve.
All too soon, his father read, "But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight, 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!'"
"Speaking of goodnights, I believe it's past your bedtime, young man," Stacy announced from the kitchen doorway.
Conner appealed to his father.
"Can you tell me just one more story?"
"You heard your mother. It's time for bed. I'll tell you another story tomorrow night."
* * *
More than eight inches of snow fell during the early morning hours, and Conner woke to a glistening winter wonderland. After a breakfast of homemade pancakes, Stacy bundled her son in his snowsuit, and Kelly took him outside to play. Father and son built a snowman on the front lawn from the snow Kelly had shoveled from the driveway. After topping their creation off with an old red-and-green- striped woolen scarf and matching hat, they went sleigh riding down Naumkeag Hill. Kelly and Conner had so much fun that they didn't go back inside until it was nearly dinner time.
"Good heavens! You two must be freezing!" Stacy exclaimed and made them both a steaming cup of hot cocoa with a generous helping of miniature marshmallows. "You go warm up by the fire while I set the table."
Several times during dinner Kelly saw Conner yawn and rub his eyes.
"You look like you're ready to fall asleep," the father observed.
"Not until after I hear my story."
While his wife cleared the table and washed the dishes, Kelly got his son ready for bed.
He tucked Conner beneath a thick down comforter and asked, "What kind of story do you want to hear tonight?"
"Another story about Santa Claus."
"Which Santa Claus? He goes by many names around the world: St. Nicholas, Winter Grandfather, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, Father Frost, Père Noël. When I was your age, my grandfather used to tell me about Belsnickel."
"Belsnickel gives candy and other treats to good girls and boys, but ...."
Kelly, a consummate raconteur, paused to create suspense.
"Bad boys and girls aren't so lucky, for Belsnickel also carries a wooden switch that he uses to punish wrongdoers."
"You mean he hits them with his stick?" Conner asked, his eyes wide with astonishment.
"That's his job. He rewards the good children and punishes the bad."
"Does he come here to Massachusetts?"
"I don't think so. I believe he only visits children in the Pennsylvania German communities around Lancaster."
"Does he wear those black clothes without zippers and the flat black hats that the men who ride in horse and buggies wear?"
"Belsnickel doesn't dress plain like the Amish. In fact, people that have seen him say he looks like a poor peddler dressed in rags and dirty old animal skins."
"Does he slide down people's chimneys like Santa?"
"No. When Belsnickel finds a household with children, he clangs an old cowbell and taps on a window with his switch, and when the front door is opened, he goes inside. Then he makes the children kneel in front of him and confess their wrongdoings. Afterward, he lays sweets at his feet for good boys and girls. The bad children, however, are struck across their hands with Belsnickel's switch if they dare reach for one."
"I just wouldn't open the door if I saw him standing there," Conner cried with childlike reasoning, fully accepting his father's legend as truth. "I'd leave old what's-his-name outside in the cold. Just like when those witness people come to the door, and Mommy tells me, 'Don't answer it. They'll get tired of waiting and go away.'"
Kelly suppressed a smile. His son's logic never failed to amuse him.
"But you would have nothing to fear; you're a very good little boy. Belsnickel would surely reward you with treats, not punish you with his switch."
Conner yawned. He'd had a fun but exhausting day. Now it was getting late, and his eyes were growing heavy.
"I think you've heard enough about Belsnickel for one evening," his father announced and kissed his son on the forehead. "You've got to get some sleep. You have school tomorrow."
* * *
The countdown to Christmas was drawing to an end. Most of the doors on Conner's advent calendar had been opened. Thankfully, there had been no more questions concerning the existence of Santa Claus. In fact, there was a new player in Conner's roster of imaginary heroes: Belsnickel had joined the ranks of Kris Kringle, his elves, Rudolph, Father Time and Jack Frost.
On the evening of December 20, just four days before Santa was due to arrive, the Galloways had to attend Stacy's employer's annual Christmas party. Accordingly, Stacy had asked Mrs. Krauss, the next door neighbor, to baby-sit Conner while they were gone.
"Of course," the old woman eagerly agreed. "I'd be happy to have the company. Conner can help me bake Christmas cookies."
The seven-year-old had fun helping Mrs. Krauss roll out the dough with a rolling pin, cut out trees, snowmen, Christmas bells and gingerbread men with cookie cutters and decorate the unbaked cookies with colored sugars and candy sprinkles. But after the baking trays went into the oven, Conner lost interest and grew bored.
"Once the cookies are baked and have had a chance to cool off, we can have some milk and cookies," Mrs. Krauss promised him. "Until then, why don't you go into the living room and watch television? There must be a Christmas program on one of the channels."
Conner surfed through the channels with the remote control until he found Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which was one of his favorite animated Christmas specials. Every year he watched Sam the Snowman weave the tale of Rudolph, Clarice, Hermey and Yukon Cornelius.
Halfway through the program Conner saw through Mrs. Krauss's living room window a movement on the side lawn of his own house. Assuming his parents had come home early, he went to the window to investigate.
Conner caught his breath. He felt like Clement C. Moore must have surely felt on the night before Christmas when St. Nicholas landed on his rooftop, for outside on the Galloways' lawn, with his sack nearly empty of goodies, stood Belsnickel, using his stick to enter the house through the dining room window. The fabled Pennsylvania German Santa was just as Conner's father had described him. His clothes were old, ragged and dirty, and he also carried a switch, although it looked like it was made of metal, not wood.
The little boy watched with amazement as Belsnickel forced open the window and climbed inside the house. Conner was glad he'd been extra good the past year; he would hate to have to kneel down in front of Belsnickel and have his hands struck with that metal stick.
But what's going to happen when Belsnickel sees that no one is home? Will he go away and take his sweets with him? That's not fair! Connor reasoned. I've been extra good all year long; I deserve those treats.
The little boy peaked into the kitchen and saw Mrs. Krauss taking cookies off a baking pan with a spatula and putting them on wire racks to cool. He waited until she turned back to the oven. Then he quickly tiptoed down the hall, got his coat off the wooden rack in the foyer and snuck out the front door. With any luck, he would get his treats from Belsnickel and sneak back into Mrs. Krauss's house before she noticed he was gone.
* * *
It was after ten when the Galloways' Subaru pulled into their driveway.
"I'll go get Conner," Stacy announced as she got out of the car.
"Wait. I'll come with you," her husband said. "He might be sleeping, and he's getting too heavy for you to carry."
"You're not fooling me," Stacy laughed. "You just want some of Mrs. Krauss's cookies."
Kelly didn't bother to deny it.
When no one answered her knock, Stacy opened her neighbor's front door, stuck her head in and called, "It's me, Mrs. Krauss. We're back from the Christmas party."
"I'm in here, dear," the old woman replied.
Stacy was surprised to find the woman alone in the kitchen.
"I'm just finishing up," she said. "Help yourselves to some cookies. Can I get you a cup of coffee or perhaps a glass of milk?"
"Where's Conner?" the boy's mother asked as his father eyed a plate of snickerdoodles.
"In the living room. He fell asleep on the couch watching television."
"I'll go and wake him him. He's got to get home. It's way past his bedtime."
"I'll put his cookies in a Tupperware container. You can take them with you. I'll also put some in for you and Kelly."
When Stacy saw that her son was not in the living room, she was not immediately concerned. He was probably down the hall in the bathroom. But when she turned her head and saw that Conner's winter parka was missing from the coat rack, she called to her husband.
"What do you mean gone? Where could he go?"
But Stacy was already out the door, searching for her son.
"Look!" Kelly said, pointing to the small footprints in the snow. "He must have gone home."
"Without telling Mrs. Krauss? Why would he do that?"
The elderly neighbor was on the verge of hysterics.
"I had no idea he'd left the house," she sobbed. "When I checked in on him, he was watching television."
"It's all right," Kelly assured the distraught woman. "His footprints lead to the widow in the dining room."
Stacy, who already had her key in the front door, suddenly froze with fear.
"That window was locked. How did a seven-year-old boy open it and get inside?"
Kelly stepped protectively in front of his wife.
"Let me go in first. You wait here while I make sure everything is all right."
When Kelly walked past the dining room doorway, he noticed the antique silver candlesticks that were usually kept on the mahogany dining table—a wedding present from his brother and sister-in-law—were missing. He didn't bother to close the widow, even though the cold December air was streaming in. His only concern at the time was the whereabouts of his son.
The anxious father quickly scanned the living room. Conner wasn't there, nor was the boy in the kitchen or the family room. Kelly raced up the stairs, his heart pounding with fear. A strangled cry escaped his mouth when he saw a small, bloody handprint on the wall.
"What's wrong?" Stacy called from the bottom of the staircase. "Is it Conner? Has he hurt himself?"
"Stay there!" her husband shouted.
But the frightened mother had no intention of remaining on the sidelines. If her son was injured, she wanted to go to his rescue.
Kelly barged into the master bedroom, his wife not far behind. Both of them saw that their room was in shambles. Drawers had been pulled out of the dresser, and their contents strewn about the room. Lying in a pile of Stacy's lingerie and sleepwear was the body of the robber who had broken into their house. A bloody crowbar was on the floor next to him.
The mother's scream of terror rent the air.
Kelly raced down the hall to his son's bedroom, fearing the worst. He braced himself and opened the door.
"Oh, no!" Stacy shrieked behind him when she glimpsed her son lying on his bed, his pajamas stained with blood.
At the sound of his mother's cries, Conner stirred.
"Mom. Dad," he said sleepily.
"Thank God! He's still alive," Kelly said as he ran toward the boy.
Miraculously, the child was unharmed; the blood on his nightclothes was not his own. Once Stacy was sure that her son was in no danger, her fear turned to anger.
"What are you doing here? Why didn't you stay at Mrs. Krauss's house?"
"I saw Belsnickel," Conner explained, his eyes wide with wonder.
"That wasn't Belsnickel," Kelly said, suddenly feeling guilty about filling his son's head with stories. "It was a thief who broke into the house and tried to rob us."
"Don't you realize he might have killed you?" Stacy cried. "You should never have come into the house while we were gone."
It was Kelly who finally realized the danger his son faced. There was a dead body in the next room, and the corpse's blood was on Conner's pajamas.
"What happened to the man who broke into the house?" the father asked.
"He was a bad man," Conner replied.
"Did he try to hurt you, darling?" Stacy asked, her anger temporarily forgotten.
"He wanted to hit me with his metal stick. Lucky for me, Belsnickel came then. He wasn't supposed to come until Christmas Eve, but he came early this year because I was extra good and I needed his help tonight. He ...."
"Son," Kelly interrupted, "there is no Belsnickel. He's only a legend, a myth, a story parents tell their children to get them to behave."
"But he isn't! At first I thought the bad man was Belsnickel when I saw him trying to get into our house through the dining room window. I didn't want him to leave when he saw no one was home, so I snuck out of Mrs. Krauss's house while she was taking the cookies out of the oven."
"And you owe that poor woman an apology, young man!" Stacy chastised her son.
The boy nodded and continued his story.
"I came in through the same window and heard the man upstairs. I went into your bedroom and kneeled down in front of him, waiting for him to give me some candy. At first he looked scared, but then he looked mad. He said some bad words, the ones you told me I should never say. He then raised his metal stick and was going to hit me with it. I said, 'Belsnickel, I'm a good boy. You don't have to punish me.' Then I heard someone behind me say, 'Yes, Conner, you are a good boy, and you deserve to be rewarded.' I turned around, and there was the real Belsnickel!"
Kelly was worried. Had the little boy been so traumatized by the night's events that he now took refuge in a child-like fantasy fueled by his father's bedtime stories?
"The real Belsnickel doesn't wear rags, though. He looks like one of the old-time Santas Grandma puts on her Christmas tree, except the long coat and hat he wears are green. And he has a white beard like Santa. Anyway, Belsnickel took the metal stick from the man and hit him with it. I screamed because the man started to bleed."
Conner pointed to his stained pajamas.
"See. I even got some of his blood on my jammies. Belsnickel told me not to feel sad. He said the man had been bad for a long time, and he deserved to be punished."
"So it was Belsnickel who kill—who punished the bad man?" Kelly asked.
The boy nodded.
Kelly grabbed his wife's arm and took her out into the hall.
"Listen closely, honey. I want you to take Conner back to Mrs. Krauss's house. I'm going to phone the police and tell them I came upstairs, surprised the burglar and we fought. I'll swear I hit him in self-defense. They should believe me. However, if the police insist on questioning you, I want you to tell them that as soon as we got back from the party, I went into the house and you went next door to pick up Conner."
"But what if Conner tells them about seeing Belsnickel?"
"We'll say he must have been dreaming, that he was sound asleep on Mrs. Krauss's couch when you got there. And for God's sake, get rid of that bloody pajama top."
"But what about ...?"
Stacy's question was cut off by the sound of an approaching siren. Mrs. Krauss must have called 911. Now there was no time to get the boy safely out of the house. Kelly went back into his son's room and removed the blood-stained pajama top. Stacy got a clean one out of the dresser drawer and quickly pulled it over the boy's head.
"I want you to lie down and pretend you're asleep," she instructed. "Daddy and I are going to talk to the police. If they ask you any questions, all you're to tell them is that you fell asleep watching television at Mrs. Krauss's house. Do you understand? Don't say a word about Belsnickel or the bleeding man in the bedroom."
"That would be lying."
"Don't worry. It's only a little white lie, like when you told Grandma you liked the sweater she got you for your birthday."
Stacy turned the boy's light off and shut the bedroom door. Kelly had already cleaned the bloody handprint off the wall and was now in the bedroom wiping Conner's fingerprints off the crowbar and leaving his own.
There was a loud knock on the door; the police had arrived. Stacy looked panic-stricken.
"You stay here. I'll go down and talk to them," Kelly offered.
"No," his wife bravely insisted, "we'll go together."
* * *
"Well, if it isn't our old friend, Francisco Martinez," Officer Shawn McMurtry said when he saw the dead body in the Galloways' bedroom.
"You knew him?" Stacy asked, her heart sinking with apprehension.
"Oh, yeah. Francisco here has been a thorn in the side of the Massachusetts State Police for many years now. He's also wanted for questioning in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont."
The cursory investigation was over quickly. The police apparently believed every word Kelly and Stacy told them. They hadn't even asked to speak to Conner.
"Let the poor kid sleep," McMurtry said. "No need to drag him into this."
Stacy turned her head away when the body was brought downstairs and taken out of the house. McMurtry sympathized with the poor woman. Such a terrible thing to happen—and so close to Christmas, too.
"I think that about wraps things up here," Officer Greg Pierson announced. "I'll have your statements typed up. If you don't mind, would you stop by the station at your convenience and sign them?"
"Of course," Kelly assured him.
After the police left, the relieved parents went upstairs to check on their son. Surprisingly, Conner had fallen asleep. Stacy leaned over to kiss the boy goodnight and noticed several bulges beneath the blankets.
"What has he got in bed with him?"
She pulled the covers down and was amazed to find a large assortment of candy. It was not the usual packaged brands found in grocery stores and movie theater lobbies, though. There were no Hershey bars, Tootsie Rolls, packages of M&M's or Twizzlers. Instead, there were brightly wrapped fudges, taffies, gumdrops, toffee, licorice and candy canes of many flavors—all of which looked homemade.
"Where do you suppose all these sweets came from?" Stacy asked her husband.
"He must have gotten them from Mrs. Krauss."
"Belsnickel gave them to me," Conner said sleepily, his eyes still closed. "It was my reward for being extra good all year."
* * *
Stacy never had to answer the dreaded question concerning the existence of Santa Claus, for her son never asked it. He didn't need to; he already knew the answer. Even after he outgrew his father's bedtime stories, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, Conner retained his belief in Belsnickel—the forerunner of St. Nicholas and our modern day Santa Claus.
You see, that jolly old elf, clad in his long, dark green, fur-trimmed coat and hat, had not only saved the boy's life that memorable December night, but he had also given the child tangible proof that magic does exist, that the world was not limited to the grim reality around him. That affirmation may very well have been the greatest Christmas present Conner Galloway ever received.
Santa already knows what you want for Christmas, Salem: a stocking filled with Godiva chocolate!