A 6-year-old granddaughter doesn't deal in subtleties. "Why does Santa need a helper?" comes directly to the point -- followed by the intense stare of an upturned face, squinting somewhat in concentrated puzzlement. It is also waiting for an answer. So is her 4-year-old brother. He interrupts the project of building a wall of sugar cubes in the puddle of orange juice on the kitchen table and adds his stare to his sister's. It's remarkable how much he looks like his maternal grandmother's older brother -- the one who was county prosecutor for many years.

"Well, there are so many little boys and girls -- who have been good," it dawns on me to add, "so it gets to be an awful lot for Santa to handle all by himself." So far, so good. There's a flicker of questioning across the two little faces, but no real challenge. And the mother-daughter shopping expedition that left Grandpa in charge will be only "to pick up a few things."

"It's hard to get all the way around the world in just one night."

"I'll bet an astronaut could."

Kids watch entirely too much television these days. And it dawns on me that "pick up a few things" has, in the past, been known to last until my bedtime.

"Like Buzzy," confirms her brother. "He jus' jets off like barooooom," he demonstrates with the remains of the orange juice in a wide, flying arm movement that splashes a colorful liquid crescent across the floor. The dog gets up from atop the heat vent and methodically laps it up. Wordlessly, the three of us watch her. Somehow, we know this will never be mentioned to either Grandmother or Mother. Never.

Personally, I am still struggling with the vision of a space-suited Saint Nicholas, twin jet thrusters strapped to his back, making ghostly contrails through the night sky. The real question is, how would he carry his pack? And what did he do with Donder, Blitzen, et al.? Did he pension them off?

But younger minds do not become entangled in trivia. "What do Santa's helpers do in the summertime?" She has the persistence of her mother, at her age -- when she was peeling off the wallpaper in her bedroom.

"They get reassigned within the corporate structure." Just in time, I recall something from the morning's business news reports on the latest takeover. "With full benefits," I add, nailing it down, as it were.

"Do the helpers get Christmas presents?"

"Baroooooom!" comes from the younger sibling, as he flies Buzz into the wall of sugar cubes.

"Grandma says we shouldn't give her sugar. She'll get worms." But the elder's warning is moot. The dog hasn't moved that fast in years, as the spilled sugar cubes follow the orange juice.

"See?" comes redundantly, apropos of nothing in particular, as the dog plops back to slumber. "Who do they help in the summertime?" It takes a moment to realize that the subject has shifted from worms back to helpers.

"The Easter Bunny." Pride in my own creativity makes me practically shout the answer.

"Uncle Holly and Aunt Mistletoe, too?"

The department store promotion at the super mall has had its impact.

"They take care of the reindeer." It's the only thing I can think of. And even to me, it sounds preposterous with its mental image of a cherubic elderly couple in quaintly old-fashioned dress, now augmented with rubber boots, as they pitchfork hay to a stable full of reindeer with Germanic names -- and one with a glowing red nose.

"Oh, yeah," comes back, and the flicker of skepticism melts before a smile of pleasant discovery, but soon to be erased by frowning concentration. "Then what do Flopsie and Mopsie and Cottontail do?"

Somehow the depth of this is getting beyond all of us. "I think I hear Mommy and Grandma coming back from shopping," I sing out.

"I don't hear anything." The 6-year-old realist thinks some more. "Do they help Santa Claus at Christmas?"

"Why, of course they do." I'm sure Beatrix Potter won't really mind a bit of poetic license here. This is, after all, something of an emergency. "They load up the sleigh." Something tells me this shoddy elaboration is one detail too many.

"That's what the Grinch did! And then he stole Christmas!" Her appalled tone has its effect. Her brother bursts into tears.

It is another long hour and a half before Mother and Grandmother pull into the driveway. By then, desperate for distraction, we've eaten the chocolate chip batter we found chilling in the refrigerator, and we've assigned toy-making chores to each of the Seven Dwarfs while Snow White makes popcorn balls and Mr. Magruder frosts Christmas trees. If the stores had stayed open another 30 minutes, we'd have had Tinker Bell working, too.