"And just to prove that we aren't celebrating actual Christmas," said Dink, "let's just give each other whatever gifts we think of on any day at all in December. It can be Hanukkah. It can be...hell, it can be Sinterklaas Day, can't it? The day is still young."
"If Dink would give us all a gift," intoned the Jamaican kid, "that would give our hearts a lift."
"Oh how sweet," said the Brit.
"Crazy Tom thinks everything's sweet," said the Canadian, "except for Tom's own mold-covered feet."
Most of them laughed.
"Was that supposed to be a present?" said Crazy Tom. "Father Christmas is doing a substandard job this year."
"It would be pleasant to get a present," said Wiggin. Everybody laughed a little. Wiggin went on, "It would be better to get a letter."
Only a few people chuckled at that. Then they were all quiet.
"That's the only gift I want," said Wiggin softly. "A letter from home. If you can give me that, I'm with you."
"I can't," said Dink, now just as serious as Wiggin. "They've cut us off from everything. The best I can do is this: At home you know your family's doing Santa stuff. Hanging up stockings, right? You're American, right?"
"Hang up your stocking this year, Wiggin, and you'll get something in it."
"Coal," said Crazy Tom, the Brit.
"I don't know what it is yet," said Dink, "but it'll be there."
"It won't really be from them," said Wiggin.
"No, it won't," said Dink. "It'll be from Santa Claus." He grinned.
Wiggin shook his head. "Don't do it, Dink," he said. "It's not worth the trouble it'll cause."
"What trouble? It'll build morale."
"We're here to study war," said Wiggin.
Zeck whispered: "Study war no more."
"Are you still here, Zeck?" said Dink, then pointedly turned his back on him. "We're here to build an army, Wiggin. A group of men who work together as one. Not a bunch of kids hammered down by teachers who think they can erase ten thousand years of human history and culture by making a rule."
Wiggin looked away and said, sadly, "Do what you want, Dink."
"I always do," answered Dink.
"The only gift that God respects," said Zeck, "is a broken heart and a contrite spirit."
A lot of kids groaned at that, but Dink gave Zeck one last look. "And when were you ever contrite?"
"Contrition," said Zeck, "is a gift I give to God, not to you." Only then did Zeck walk away, back toward his bed, where he'd be hidden behind the curvature of the barracks room.
Rat Army was only a small percentage of the population of Battle School, but word spread quickly. The other armies began picking it up as a joke. Someone would pick up some scrap of leftover food and drop it on someone else's meal tray, saying, "There you are, from Santa with love." And everybody at the table would laugh.
But even as a joke, it was a gift, wasn't it? Santa Claus was giving gifts all over Battle School within days.