The first-person narrator of this story, a young boy named Larry, learns an important lesson about growing up, about childhood beliefs, and about family relationships. Young Larry, who is not even ten years old, dislikes his younger, more studious brother, Sonny, because he believes that Sonny is mother’s favorite child. Encouraged by their mother, Sonny concentrates on spelling words correctly, on displaying his learning in other subjects, and on attending school, whereas Larry, much to his mother’s chagrin, dislikes his studies, favors playing with his boyhood “gang,” and prefers skipping school. As the story unfolds, however, Larry discovers why his mother seems to favor Sonny and simultaneously discovers an important lesson about Christmas.
Instead of studying, Larry spends his time playing with the Doherty gang and dreaming of becoming a soldier. He believes that studying is not commendable and, perhaps, is better suited to sissies.
As Christmas approaches, Larry hears, but adamantly refuses to believe, that there is no Santa Claus. The neighborhood Doherty boys, who reveal this information, are a “rough class of children you wouldn’t expect Santa to come to anyway,” Larry observes.
Four days before the holidays, Larry is caught skipping school. Because he has not bothered to learn his required math lessons, he and Peter Doherty have cut classes and have been spending their time in a store on the quay. When his mother reprimands him for his truancy, Larry discovers that his lies have been more offensive to her than has been his failure to attend school. However, at this point in his life, he fails to understand why lying is such an important failing in a human being.
In contrast, Sonny behaves particularly well during the Christmas season. When the two boys retire for the night, Sonny warns Larry that Santa surely will not visit any boy who has skipped school and who has associated with the rough Doherty boys.
Larry, therefore, decides to remain awake on Christmas Eve to discuss his plight with Santa Claus—man to man. Surely Santa, because he is a man, will understand Larry’s behavior. That evening, Larry rehearses several explanations of his behavior. Failing to realize that these explanations to Santa would simply be more lies, he awaits Christmas Eve and Santa’s arrival.
Although the boys eagerly anticipate Christmas Eve, their mother is quite frustrated. When the father returns home after work and begrudgingly offers her only a few coins, the mother argues with him in an attempt to obtain extra housekeeping money for toys, cake, and a Christmas candle. However, the father tosses her only two extra half-crowns, shouts at her to make the best of the situation, and storms out of the house. An embittered woman, she takes the money and realizes that the father will spend the remainder of his salary on liquor.
Returning from her shopping trip on Christmas Eve, mother carries her cake, her Christmas candle, and a few packages. When father fails to return home, the three silently eat the cake, sip tea, light the candle, and hang Christmas stockings. Around eleven o’clock, a drunken father returns home. He attempts to sing Latin hymns but does not remember the correct words.
Although he struggles against sleep, Larry finally succumbs. When he awakens early the next morning, Larry is terribly dismayed to discover that Santa has made a grievous error. In his own stocking Larry unhappily discovers a book, a pen and pencil, and a bag of sweets. In Sonny’s stocking Larry discovers a bag of sweets and a popgun. Larry knows that he can use the popgun but has absolutely no use for the book and writing instruments; therefore, a clever idea pops into his head. Perhaps he could switch the presents. Sonny would never be any good in a gang, Larry reasons, and could, at least, learn many new spellings from the book. Besides, only Santa knows what gifts each boy has received. Perhaps, Larry finally reasons, Santa has indeed made a mistake. Larry carefully makes the switch and returns to bed only to be awakened later by Sonny, who has discovered the presents, and who rushes to show mother and father. Because he has nothing to fear—only Santa and himself know of the switch—Larry joins Sonny in their parents’ bedroom.
When his mother asks Larry where he got the gun, Larry answers that Santa brought it to him. Instantly, and perhaps without thinking, his mother accuses Larry of stealing the gun from Sonny. The father seems to understand the boys’ plight and offers them a few coins. Mother, however, does not understand Larry’s lying and mentions that she does not want her child to grow up to be a liar and a thief.
The climax of the story occurs when Larry suddenly realizes that the Dohertys were right after all: There is no Santa Claus. There are only the gifts that parents give their children. However, perhaps the most important lesson that Larry learns is that his mother has been relying on Larry to extricate her from her miserable existence. Larry painfully understands that the fear in his mother’s eyes “was the fear that, like my father, I should turn out to be mean and common and a drunkard.” Thus one Christmas morning a young boy grows up to understand adult relationships and adult hardships.
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