Byron has had his nose pressed to the window for most of the morning, backing away only when the cold air seeping through the glass becomes too much to bear.
Vanessa keeps vigil with him for a while, but wanders back to the kitchen frequently to listen to Adam and Jordan quizzing Dee.
"But how does he get down the chimney?" Jordan asks.
"Magic," Dee says, pulling another tray of gingerbread from the oven. She takes her time straightening up, still feeling a little queasy from an early-morning bout of morning sickness, courtesy of baby number eight.
"Does he put the fire out?" Adam asks. "Does it burn him?"
"He puts it out and lights a new one when he leaves," Dee says.
"How does he carry all the presents?" Jordan asks.
"He's very strong," Dee says.
"Can I have a gingerbread man?" Mallory asks.
"They're not ready yet, honey, they're still hot."
Vanessa speaks up, sounding much older than her four years. "Daddy's at work," she announces, looking at Dee with a knowing expression.
"That's right," Dee says.
"But Santa's coming."
"Daddy will just have to see Santa on Christmas Eve," Dee says. "When everyone else is asleep."
Vanessa wanders back into the living room with a thoughtful expression.
"Do his reindeer really fly?" Jordan asks doubtfully. "Do they have wings?"
"It's magic," Dee says again. "Why don't you go and keep watch with Byron? Santa will be here soon..."
John whistles to himself as he swings the last gate open. He always saves this house for last – it's his favourite. (Though he loves them all – the Thomases were more pleased to see him than ever before, except David Michael, who screamed his head off – and Mary Anne Spier, at eight years old, was actually brave enough to hand him her letter herself this year.)
"He's here!" Byron shrieks from the living room. "Santa's here!"
John swings the door open, taking a giant stride inside, big black boots clodding on the floor. "Ho, ho, ho!" he shouts, and he waves his hands so all the bells on the cuffs of his Santa suit jangle loudly.
Margo screams and starts to cry.
Any skepticism Jordan was showing goes out the window as he bounces around in excitement, waving his letter back and forth, showering the floor with glitter.
"Santa's come to collect his letters!" John says in a deep voice. "Who has a letter for Santa?"
His children all bounce around him in delight, eyes focused on the big red suit, the big black boots, the big white beard, and less on the familiar blue eyes twinkling behind the gold spectacles sitting on his nose.
"Hello, Santa!" Dee says, arriving amongst the chaos. Margo clings to her leg.
"Mrs. Pike!" Santa says. "You get more and more beautiful every year."
"And you're as charming as ever, Santa," Dee says, grinning at him. She looks down at Margo and touches the top of her head gently. "We've all been busy writing letters, haven't we, kids?"
"I wrote mine all by myself!" Mallory says, clutching her letter to her chest breathlessly.
Santa lowers his voice a little, for Margo's sake. "I remember little Mallory Pike," he says, bending down to peer at her. "Little Mallory Pike has very, very good spelling."
Mallory's face goes bright red with pleasure. She passes her letter to him with trembling hands, and Santa places it carefully into the big red sack he's brought – already rustling with letters written by all the other neighbourhood children.
"I wrote one too," Byron says, but he dances on the spot, too nervous to come closer. "Mom helped."
"Byron Pike!" Santa says, reaching for the letter. "You're almost as tall as Santa!"
Byron gives a heady giggle and looks at Jordan with bright eyes. "Am I?"
Jordan scrutinises him for a moment. "Nope," he says. "But maybe he'll give us all magic to make us tall."
"You don't need magic, Jordan," Santa says, holding his sack out so Jordan can drop his letter in. "You're tall enough already."
Jordan stands on his toes and looks inside.
"Wow," Jordan breathes, "there's eight hundred letters in there already!"
"Let me see!" Adam demands, pushing forward. He holds his nose over the edge of the sack and drops his letter in on top of Claudia Kishi's rainbow-coloured envelope.
"And where's Vanessa?" Santa asks, standing straight again, pillowed belly out, looking around at the earnest faces gazing back at him.
Four-year-old Vanessa is half-hiding behind Dee, regarding Santa with a shrewd expression. "I'm right here," she says.
John bends down to peer at her though his glasses. "The letter you wrote me last year had such lovely handwriting, I read it five times," he said, holding five fingers up.
Vanessa lets go of Dee's hand, eyes wide, a wide smile lighting up her face. "Really?" she asks.
"Really," Santa says solemnly.
"It'll be even better this year, won't it, Vanessa?" Dee asks. "We've been working so hard on your letter."
"And you're not even in school yet!" Santa says. "Clever girl."
Vanessa beams and drops her letter into the sack.
Santa hefts the sack a little. "It still feels a little light," he says. "Is that everybody?"
"Margo hasn't put her letter in," Byron says. "She's too little. She just scratched on the paper."
"Santa can read the languages of all children," John says in his deep voice. "Even scratches."
"Wow," Jordan breathes. "Because of the magic?"
"That's right." Santa winks at him, and Dee drops Margo's letter into the sack. Margo has escaped to the safety of the bottom of the stairs, clutching the safety-gate. Mallory is trying to tempt her closer with promises Santa won't hurt.
"Hmmm," Santa says thoughtfully, pulling the drawstring on the sack closed. "It still feels a little light."
"Nicky," Mallory says. She tugs on her brother's hand. Nicky takes two steps forward and one back, holding his letter tightly, looking up at Santa with wide eyes. Mallory leads him forward until his arm stretches out as far as it will go, sliding the letter in over the edge of the big red sack.
"Nicky Pike," Santa says proudly. "Getting braver every year."
Nicky backs away with a shy smile, clinging tightly to Mallory's hand.
Santa hefts the sack again. "Hm," he says.
"But we all put our letters in," Adam says.
"What about you, Mrs. Pike?" Santa asks, raising a bushy white eyebrow at her. "What would you like for Christmas?"
"Another healthy baby," Dee says, patting her stomach.
Santa gasps. "Pregnant again?" His eyes twinkle. "That husband of yours sounds like a rogue."
"Can't turn my back on him for two seconds," Dee says mischievously.
"Mrs. Pike?" Santa asks, a positively wicked gleam in his eye now. "Is Mr. Pike home?"
"He had to work," Byron informs him, gazing up at Santa adoringly. "He said to say hi."
"Tell him hi from me, too," Santa says. "Give him my best regards. He's a great man, your daddy."
"He certainly thinks he is," Dee says, returning the cheeky look she can see beneath the beard on her husband's face. "He'll be sorry he missed you."
"Do you think," Santa says, slinging his sack over his shoulder with a swing that almost topples the coat rack, "he'd mind if Santa gave you a kiss, Mrs. Pike?"
"Don't do it, Mom," Mallory gasps, mortified. "Dad might find out!"
"I don't think he'll mind," Dee says assuringly. "He and Santa are very good friends."
"They are?" Nicky asks rapturously.
"There's mistletoe," Adam says helpfully, pointing above Santa's head. "That means it doesn't count."
"That's right!" Santa says. "Mr. Pike can't possibly mind if it's a mistletoe kiss."
Vanessa's eyes narrow, and she gives Santa another knowing look.
"Come here then, Santa," Dee says, grabbing the bottom of his beard and tugging gently.
"Is his beard real?" Jordan whispers loudly.
John kisses Dee, wrapping his free arm around her waist and lifting her off her feet. She gives a squeal and laughs against his shoulder. "Put me down, brute," she says. "Or I'll tell Mr. Pike you did more than just kiss me."
"You never know," John mutters against her ear. "He might be into that."
She laughs and thumps her fist against his chest. "You need to get back to the North Pole," she says. "You need to read all of those letters before Christmas Eve."
"And your elves have to make the toys!" Byron says.
"Ho, ho, ho!" Santa cries, swinging the front door open again. "Merry Christmas, Pikes!"
"Santa said to say hi," Byron says drowsily, rubbing his eyes once his head has emerged through his pyjamas.
"He did?" John asks, guiding his arms through the sleeves. "Did he say nice things about your letter?"
Byron nods, and John pushes him gently towards his bed. Adam and Nicky are already sleeping. Jordan gives a loud whisper as John goes to turn out the light.
"Dad," he says, "do you really know Santa?"
"I sure do," John says. "Why?"
"Do you know magic?"
"I'm afraid not, Jordan."
"Oh," Jordan says, clearly disappointed. He rolls over.
John shuts the door and stops off at the girls' room. Margo is asleep in the crib in the corner. John can only see the very top of Mallory's head, the rest of her burrowed right in under the comforter.
Vanessa looks wide awake.
"Time for sleep, Vanessa," John says.
"Daddy," Vanessa says. She beckons to him seriously. He bends over her bed. "I need to ask something."
"Shoot," John says.
Vanessa whispers softly, so he has to bend further to her, his head tilted.
"How do you fit down the chimney?" she asks.
He chuckles and pulls the comforter up around her shoulders. "Santa uses magic to get down the chimney," he says.
Vanessa sighs thoughtfully, but doesn't ask anything else. John kisses her brow and shuts the light off, leaving the door ajar.
Dee's sitting up in bed, waiting for him. She grins when he closes the door. "Hello, Santa."
"Hello, Mrs. Pike." John crawls across the bed to kiss her. "A little early for bed, isn't it?"
"The house is nice and quiet, after several longs days of waiting for the North Pole's mail man," Dee says, raising her eyebrow. "I want to enjoy the peace."
"I'm not sure your chances of that are much good," John says, dragging her down the bed by her hips.
Dee laughs and grabs the headboard. "I'm already pregnant," she says.
"We're just doing this for the magic," John says.