Joe Naylor stared at the department store display. "I can not believe this."
"What?" His girlfriend, Noelle Winters, gave him a puzzled look.
"This!" He made a sweeping gestures with his arm to indicate the shelves. "It's October fifteenth and they're putting up Christmas decorations!"
He scowled at the Santas, elves, miniature trees and other Yuletide paraphernalia that sat mere feet from more appropriate seasonal wares. Pumpkins, witches, and skeletons grinned at him from their perches, their oranges and blacks an odd contrast to the reds and greens. It just wasn't right.
Noelle laughed. "Oh, come on. What's wrong with getting a head start on the holiday spirit?"
"You would say that." He shook his head. "That's what I get for having a girlfriend named Noelle."
"Oh, ha ha." She put her hands on her hips. "I didn't pick the name."
"I know." He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. "I love you anyway."
"Smart ass." Noelle glared and smacked his arm.
"Seriously, don't you think there's something wrong with having this stuff out so far ahead of time? Can't we enjoy one holiday before starting another? Everyone knows when Christmas is; it isn't like it moves around. And what about Thanksgiving?"
"I don't know. On the other hand, what's so bad about Christmas? My grandmother decorates for it all year round. Maybe if we had more reminders of the Christmas spirit during the year, the world would be a little better off."
"You're such an idealist." He pulled her close and chuckled at her token resistance. "Still, it does make one appreciate the less commercial aspects of things like Buddhism."
Noelle rolled her blue eyes. "Right. I can see you sitting and meditating with the incense. It'd last fifteen minutes. You can't sit still and you have allergies."
"I'll get odorless incense."
"You're lucky you're cute, or I'd break up with you right here." The twitch at the corner of Noelle's lips belied her words.
"Cute?" Joe's eyes darted around to see who might have heard. "Jesus, can't you say 'handsome' or something like that? Rugged? Craggy?"
"Well." Noelle tilted her head and pretended to study him. "Let's see. Tall; blond hair that needs a trim; hazel eyes; a crooked nose that adds a little charm. Okay, I can go with handsome."
"I feel so much better now."
Noelle laughed and squeezed his arm. "Come on. Let's go, we still need to get a birthday present for my mom. You've bitched enough about the Christmas display."
"Christmas creep," he grumbled.
"Christmas creep. That's what this is. It gets earlier and earlier every year and next thing you know, we'll be buying reindeer in the summer."
"You're cute when you're indignant."
"Handsome, damn it. I'm handsome."
"Noelle, you going to watch the game?" Joe called from the other room.
"I'll be there in a few minutes. Just trying on something I bought today."
Noelle smiled to herself as she looked in the mirror. She didn't usually buy things like this, but it had been on sale and she couldn't resist. She'd found a green teddy trimmed in white fur, and had paired it with her red heels. A Santa hat on her dark hair completed the ensemble, and she laughed at herself. "Sexy elf" was not a look she'd ever thought she could pull off, but she thought Joe would like it. She decided it would be part of his Christmas present.
She agreed with him that it was ridiculous that Christmas merchandise came out almost as soon as fall started. On the other hand, she loved Christmas and everything that went with it and couldn't get too upset about the "creep."
As she'd told Joe, her grandmother did keep her house decorated for Christmas all year round. As a child, Noelle had loved to visit and see the elves and reindeer and angels during summer vacation. She would make paper snowflakes in July and frost Christmas cookies in August. As she got older, her grandmother had taught her to crochet, and the two of them had turned out tree ornaments by the dozens.
Noelle didn't decorate as her grandmother did, but she kept Christmas reminders out. A little elf sat on her nightstand, and she had strewn various reindeer, angels and snowmen through the apartment.
When she'd met Joe, he'd thought it was odd. His family had been much more traditional, and his mother had been adamant that there would not be so much as a pine needle in the house before December 1. She wouldn't even decorate a tree until Christmas Eve, which Noelle thought was sad, not to mention a waste of time and tree.
Every year Joe groused about the Christmas merchandise coming out earlier, and this year she'd decided to have some fun with it. Her plan wasn't finalized, but she had a feeling it was going to be fun the rest of the way. At least for her.
As Thanksgiving approached, Joe's stress levels rose. He sat at his desk, staring at a full email inbox. Christmas loomed like a big red and green Jabba the Hutt, demanding tribute of presents, candies, oversized socks and sappy orchestral music.
It wasn't that he didn't like Christmas, Joe thought. He did. He got a kick out of seeing his nieces and nephews open presents, visiting with family and eating the never-ending supply of turkey, pies and cookies. There were lots of good things about the Christmas season.
The stress came from having to get ready for Christmas. Every year he intended to shop early and every year he forgot, or got distracted. The closer it got to Christmas, the worse it felt. There was less and less time to do everything.
Noelle took it all in stride, and he was jealous of that. She offered to help him shop, but that made him feel like a wuss. It was shopping, for God's sake, not anything difficult. Noelle didn't have as many people to shop for, he consoled himself. That's why she didn't stress over it like he did. She should try shopping for close to fifteen people, then she'd see how sanguine she was about the Christmas spirit.
Joe snorted to himself. Nicole could probably shop for an army of strangers two days before Christmas and think it was fun. Fun!
Plus, he thought as he glowered at his monitor, she'd invite the strangers over for hot chocolate and cookies.
His phone rang and he grabbed at the distraction. "Good afternoon. Joe Naylor speaking."
He relaxed. "Hi, Noelle. What's up?"
"Not much. Just checking to see how you were."
"Stressed. Why are holidays so damn stressful?"
She laughed. "Oh, poor baby. You need to relax."
"I can't relax when I've got to decide whether we spend Thanksgiving with Mom or Dad, and you know how they are. No matter which I pick, the other will pull a guilt trip on me. Then there's Christmas, which is even worse."
"I can help you with the shopping, you know that."
"No. I can do it. I just need a break. I'm going to take a couple of days off after Thanksgiving. I'll take care of it then."
"Look, forget about it for tonight. I'll meet you after work and we'll hit a couple of stores, then we'll get a nice dinner."
"Can we just go straight to dinner?" The Christmas onslaught was worse now that November was nearly over. Joe wasn't sure he could face it.
"We won't be long at the stores, I promise."
"Noelle, I'm not sure I can face one more smiling, singing snowman right now without strangling it with its scarf."
"You'll manage. Bye, sweetie. I'll meet you outside your office."
The day straggled to a close and Joe was glad to pack it in. Even shopping with Noelle would be better than work. He hoped.
He smiled when he saw her waiting, wrapped in a bright red coat with a green scarf and holding a few bags. He strode over and pulled her into a deep kiss. "Hi."
"Hey." She laughed and kissed him back. "How are you?"
"So much better since you're here." He gave her a pleading look. "Can we skip the stores, please? I mean, you love me, right?"
"I do. Which is why I took care of the shopping already. We'll go to dinner at your favorite restaurant." She tugged him closer and kissed him."
"You are an angel. A beautiful, sexy, considerate Christmas angel."
Noelle laughed. "You sounded so stressed I figured I should get it out of the way. Now we can enjoy dinner and look forward to later."
Joe raised an eyebrow as he took her hand and led her to his car. "Later? What's going to happen later?"
At the restaurant, after he'd enjoyed a medium-rare filet mignon and a baked potato along with a glass of shiraz, he asked Noelle if she wanted dessert.
"No, that's okay." She shook her head. "We'll get dessert at home."
Joe was curious about that. He didn't recall that she'd made anything recently, and there hadn't been any food in the bags she'd had when she'd met him at the office. He shrugged to himself; whatever it was, he wasn't going to be picky. It was Friday, the weekend was ahead of him, and he had Noelle and no other plans.
At home, he hung up his coat and shoved his bag into the closet. He didn't want to see any reminders of work until Monday morning. He wandered into the kitchen and found Noelle sorting through her purchases.
"I'm going to get changed, okay?"
"Sure." Noelle nodded. "I'm going to get organized here, then I'll get changed, and then we'll make cookies."
"Cookies? We have to make cookies?" Joe groaned but Noelle just laughed.
"Oh, it'll be fun. You'll see."
"Sure. Can we at least listen to some music while we do it?" Joe asked.
.... There is more of this story ...