Christmas is a time of magical elves, gift-bearing saints, and the births of mystical saviors. The holiday season is everything that Joyeax Miller loves in life, since it’s the one time of the year large swaths of the world embrace the natural wonder, magic, and spiritual side of things. Ask anyone if they care about the actions of such strange folk like sugar-plum fairies and other odd creatures at any other time of the year and they’ll shrug you off. That, or if it’s Halloween, dismiss them as monsters and demons if they even bother to listen. Te world of imagination and creation is at the heart of everything Joy holds dear.
Despite all that, Joy despises Christmas.
Her mom and dad met in the Philippines while Mr. Miller was in the Navy. Mr. Miller and the then Ms. Dumlao met, fell in love, and got married before Mr. Baker retired from active service. The first time the now Mrs. Miller met her husband’s family was at Christmastime. He was from the upper midwest, and they celebrated about as “traditionally” as you could expect.
Joy’s mom was hardly unfamiliar with Christmas, but this was her first time seeing “the real deal” as she put it, and it became something of a defining moment. She insisted on keeping the Christmas tree up a little longer than most would allow, not taking it down until it was almost February of the next year. She bought every Christmas movie she could find on VHS, which at the time wasn’t too many since VHS was all but new, and watching them became her favorite hobby. When she gave birth to her first child, a girl, she insisted that she be named Christmas. Mr. Miller shrugged and went with it, not realizing this would become a trend.
Joy has four older siblings. Christmas and Kringle got the “brunt” of the naming scheme. When fraternal twins came along after that, they were “blessed” with the alliterative names Dasher and Dancer. By the time the two youngest siblings were born, Mrs. Miller realized her naming scheme might be a bit extreme. She wasn’t sure if Christmas got teased first for being half-Filipino or for her first name, but the name certainly didn’t help. Kringle got it worse, if only because he ended up with the unfortunate nickname “Pringles.” Dasher and Dancer were too young to be in school, but their mother could see their names not going over well either. At the same time, the naming convention was already tradition, and she refused to give up just because “kids are assholes in need of ass-whupping.” She compromised, naming her next two children Joyeax and Noel. She got to indulge in her tradition while giving her youngest ones names that wouldn’t ring so true.
When Joy finally reached school age, whatever teasing she encountered came from her heritage and not her name. Not exactly a victory, but it was something. No, Joy’s hatred of Christmas wouldn’t come from the same source as her elders.
Christmas Eve, 198X, was the first of his visitations.
It was the first Christmas where the Miller clan had moved from Mr. Miller’s hometown to San Antonio, Texas. More than anything related to the holidays, Joy looked forward to her grandmother baking cookies every day during the week leading up to Christmas Day. Grandma didn’t make the trip down south, having been placed in a nursing home up north before the move, so Joy had to do without those cookies all pre-Christmas week. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve that her mom finally had the time to test out her mother-in-law’s recipe book and bake a batch of the infamous cookies.
Joy was used to grandma letting her swipe a cookie while they were cooling. Grandma would give her a shocked look, as if she were about to scream for help, only to give Joy a big smile and a wink as the cookie disappeared without a trace. Unfortunately for Joy, her mom was tired from a busy week and wasn’t up on the game. When Joy tried to sneak a cookie, her mom caught her and swatted her hand with the mixing spoon.
“Don’t be like that blue guy on Sesame Street. What’s his name? Always munching on cookies? Munch Monster? Yeah! Don’t be Munch Monster!”
Joy knew not to press her luck and gave up after that first attempt, but she watched over those cookies like a hawk. She watched them as her mom decorated them with icing. She wanted to join in, but got swatted again with the spoon.
“Munch Monsters don’t get to help! They say they’ll help, but they just munch!”
Joy kept watching the cookies, even after they were dressed with icing and sitting on the kitchen counter. She didn’t dare eat one, even after her mom left the kitchen to join the rest of the family. Joy was willing to break with her tradition and wait until Christmas morning to “munch,” as her mom put it. Joy’s watch even persisted as most of the family sat around the TV to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. To Joy, a “wonderful life” wasn’t some black and white borefest, it was the longing for her grandmother’s cookies. She wasn’t going anywhere.
About halfway through the movie, right after Kringle came into the kitchen to grab a cup of water, a figure stepped into the kitchen from the dining room. Even in the bright lights of the kitchen, the figure was dark, blurry, and shadowy, as if the light stopped just short of its body, refusing to come any closer. The figure didn’t seem to give much attention to Joy as it walked over to the cookies and picked one up with a tendril-like appendage.
Joy gave out a little gasp. Not audible enough for her family to hear, but loud enough for the figure to notice.
What appeared to be its head turned slowly. Joy couldn’t make out any real defining features, as it appeared fuzzy like television static. A large black void opened and formed a shape that looked to Joy like a smile, and she heard a voice in her head.
“You’ve been a good girl, watching these cookies. Good girls get rewarded. What do you want for Christmas?”
Joy didn’t say anything, but for a second her subconscious thought about the thing she wanted most for Christmas: an easel and watercolor paints. The voice returned to her head.
“An artist? Great! I see that your parents already bought you what you want, but I’ll make the present better!”
Another tendril drifted off of the being’s body and wound its way to the living room. No one noticed as the appendage wrapped itself around the large package with Joy’s name on it. After a second of embracing it, the arm quickly retracted back into the being’s form.
“Joyeax Noël, Joy. Stay good, and we shall meet again!” The figure began to fade away, but not before it dropped the cookie it was holding into its “mouth.”
Later that night, after everyone had gone to bed and Joy’s parents began prepping the remaining presents, Mrs. Miller noticed a cookie was missing. Joy may have received a set of watercolors that never exhausted themselves– the blessing given to them by the mysterious cookie-munching monster– but she didn’t get a cookie that Christmas morning.
“Sneaky munch monsters are lucky they still get presents!”
That wasn’t the last Christmas Joy would go without getting one of her grandmother’s cookies, and it wasn’t the last time Joy would be visited by the being she would christen with her unwanted cookie-stealing nickname.