Christmas Is Coming . . . No, It’s Here!
“Hurry, hurry! It’s time to go!” the furry white dog barked. He raced across the tundra toward the grazing reindeer. Snow was falling softly and, as usual, the air smelled of gingerbread and pinecones.
One of the reindeer, Vixen, lifted her head. “Keep it down, youngster,” she said, peering at the dog. “We’re trying to eat, here.”
“Right,” added her friend Cupid. “We’ve got a big night coming up, you know.”
From the direction of the snow castle on the horizon came the call: “Ahoy, reindeer!” Santa Claus’s jolly voice boomed over the North Pole. “Shake a hoof—it’s almost Christmas! Bring ’em in, Peppermint Bark!”
“See?” The dog, Peppermint Bark, let his tongue loll out in a grin. “Told ya so!”
“Fine, fine,” the lead reindeer, Dasher, grumbled. “Let’s go, gang.”
“This way—follow me!” Peppermint Bark cried, turning and racing toward Santa with his tail wagging. Behind him came the thundering sound of hooves, but a second later there was silence as the reindeer took flight, soaring over Peppermint Bark’s head.
“Go, go!” the young dog barked. “Hurry! It’s almost Christmas!”
An hour later, all eight reindeer were hitched to the enormous red-and-gold sleigh parked in front of the North Pole’s towering peppermint-striped gates. Brightly wrapped packages of all shapes and sizes piled higher and higher in the back as dozens of elves bustled to and fro, between the sleigh and their workshop. The elves were dressed in their usual uniform of spruce-green tunics and red tights, their tiny boots trampling a path through the snow.
“Watch it, short stuff,” an elf said, dodging around Peppermint Bark.
“Who you calling short stuff, short stuff?” Peppermint Bark said with a laugh.
Two more elves hurried into view, teetering under the weight of a shiny red bicycle with a bow on the handlebars. “Faster!” the taller elf exclaimed, tugging on her end of the bike. “We have to stay on schedule if Santa is going to leave on time!”
The second elf huffed and puffed. “Sorry, Juniper,” he said. “I’ll try to do better.”
“Can I help?” Peppermint Bark asked Juniper. She had been elected Head Elf this year, and she was taking her job of running and organizing the workshop very seriously.
Juniper rolled her eyes. “Can you help? What do you think?” she said, peering down her long, pointy nose at Peppermint Bark. “It’s Christmas! That means all hands on deck.”
“All paws on deck too,” the second elf, whose name was Happy, added with a chuckle. He blushed. “Er, that was a joke.”
Peppermint Bark laughed. “It was funny,” he assured his friend. Happy was cheerful and helpful and kind, but he could be a little shy.
Just then several elves rushed over to help wrestle the red bike onto the sleigh, so Peppermint Bark bounded off toward the workshop to look for other ways to help. A package wrapped with a shiny silver ribbon sat just inside. The little white dog carefully grabbed the ribbon in his mouth and carried the gift out to the sleigh.
Santa was there, tying down some packages so they wouldn’t fall out when he soared through the sky. “Thanks, buddy,” he said, taking the silver-ribboned gift and adding it to the pile. Then the man in red stooped to give Peppermint Bark a rub behind his ears.
“You’re welcome.” Peppermint Bark swelled with pride knowing that he was Santa’s helper, his faithful canine companion, and his best friend. He was the only dog in the world who could say that!
A few minutes later, Peppermint Bark glanced at the clocks built into the front of Santa’s snow castle. There were lots of them—one for each time zone on Earth. The first showed the time on Kiritimati, also known as Christmas Island, and some other islands in the Pacific Ocean. They were in the first time zone to welcome Christmas every year. Right now, that clock stood at five minutes to midnight.
“Ready to go, everyone?” Santa called out.
Juniper stepped forward, her face red with exertion and her striped cap slightly askew. But she looked proud as she saluted.
“The sleigh is loaded and ready to go, Santa,” she said. “Right on time!”
“Good job.” Santa saluted her back. Then he glanced at the reindeer. “Everyone ready up front?”
“We’re ready, Santa,” Dasher replied.
The other reindeer nodded. Peppermint Bark leaped forward, wagging his tail.
“I’m ready too, Santa!” he barked. “I want to go with you this year!”
Juniper snorted. “No way. Nobody rides with Santa,” she said. “It’s just him and the reindeer. Always been that way.”
“But why?” Peppermint Bark exclaimed. “I could help, I know I could!”
Santa kneeled down. “Oh, Peppermint Bark,” he said gently. “You’re always so helpful around the North Pole—I don’t know what I’d do without you to fetch my slippers and keep an eye on the workshop to make sure the elves don’t get too distracted playing with the toys they’re making . . .” He winked at the elves, who giggled.
“Thanks, Santa.” Peppermint Bark felt his heart leap, and he shot Juniper a smug look.
But Santa’s next words made the little white pup’s whole furry body droop. “However, I’m afraid you’ll have to stay home as usual.”
“What? Why?” Peppermint Bark cried. “I want to be a real Christmas puppy! I want to come with you and see all the children of the world! I know I was still too young last Christmas, but this year . . .”
“I’m sorry, little buddy.” Santa patted him. “It’s just too risky. If you got out of the sleigh and were left behind—if I couldn’t find you before the last time zone strikes midnight . . .”
He glanced toward the huge scrolled gates. Peppermi...