The Noel Clause

How a little elf ended up doing the dirty work

Jessie Hynes illustration

The Swan household was a trio: My mother, my sister, and me. My mother's birthday often fell on Thanksgiving, and her name was Nöel. Being festive came with the territory.

I remember clearly what we were always told: "Santa won't be coming if the bedrooms are messy."

This reminder prompted images in our minds that the only items under the tree — adorned with reflective spheres and mechanized ornaments with clicking gears; a porcelain angel perched up on high frightened me — come Christmas morning would be loose pine needles, fallen from grace.

As Christmas Eve drew to a close, I realized my sister and I had continued to procrastinate when it came to the ominous chore. We'd been far more interested in plucking chocolates out of Advent calendars as the countdown wore on. The matriarch of our trio, warm and Franzia-faced, cooed along with the soulful stylings of Aaron Neville that had played on repeat since the end of November.

My bedroom, a decently organized disaster, required little in ways of cleanliness. Clothes damp from Cascade rain were scooched under the bed with care, little boots placed in an orderly fashion at the foot of the bed — just a few minor and superficial alterations added to the façade.

I wandered down the hall back to the evening's quaint festivities, only to discover matriarch and sister in peaceful slumber, the sounds of gears turning in the mechanical ornaments intertwined with their snores. I gently interrupted their dreams of presents and dancing sugarplums, nudging them off to bed. On the way back to my own bed, I peeked into my 5-year-old sister's room to see a frenzy of Polly Pocket landmines, disheveled blankets and clothes spilling out of everything.

What else could I do but clean the mess? I'd have felt guilty unwrapping fresh socks while my sister wailed at the absence of her own gifts. So I returned, armed with the Yuletide spirit, trash bags and Lysol. I stepped around the room lightly, finding new and more infectious messes as I worked quietly, so as not to wake the snoring matriarch in the next room. I hid the piles of tossed-aside clothes in garbage bags and shoved them into the closet, cleaning as methodically as a 7-year-old could. I remember recoiling as I found a partially rotten apple core tucked under a sweater — the filthy little animal! I worked for what seemed like hours until, at last, the room sparkled like tinsel.

It was then I heard a stirring from the next room — the sound of crinkling paper. Staring through a crack in the door, I caught sight of my mother with gifts in wrapping I'd not seen before. Without the forewarned bedroom inspection, I watched her place the packages from Santa carefully beneath the tree. Then I crept off to bed, with the newfound knowledge that my rosy-cheeked mother was St. Nick. ♦

Jason Still, currently an arts and culture intern for the Inlander, is studying International Affairs at Eastern Washington University.