As Christmas approaches, Ellie and Brenda become “obsessed” with buying presents for their boyfriends at school. Mrs. Aarons attempts to remind them that there’s not enough money to spare for such things. Ellie and Brenda tease Jess about what he’s getting for his girlfriend—before declaring that no one in their right mind would call Leslie a real girl. Jess becomes hurt and angry, and he wishes that Leslie were his sister instead of Brenda. He begins to fantasize that he doesn’t belong to his family at all and was instead found at birth in a basket like Moses.
Jess feels that his and Leslie’s relationship defies categorization. They are both outsiders who deviate from social and gender norms, and yet his family doesn’t seem to understand the ways in which their friendship is special—as a result he feels defensive and misunderstood. He longs for the feelings of support and freedom he feels around Leslie.
Jess is, in fact, upset that he has nothing to give Leslie for Christmas. He considers giving her some drawings, but the gift seems too intimate and personal, and he doesn’t feel he could make any drawings good enough for Leslie. The last week of school before the holiday, as Jess pools his money with his sisters to buy May Belle a Barbie doll, he frets over being unable to afford anything for Leslie. He wishes he could buy her a TV, but he knows it’s stupid to even think about such an extravagant gift. One day, riding the bus home from school and looking out the window in misery, Jess spies a sign out the window and asks the bus driver to let him out right away. The sign reads “PUPPIES, FREE.”
As Christmas draws near, Jess frets that he won’t be able to find a gift for Leslie that will really show her how much she means to him. Luckily, however, when he spots the “free puppies” sign, he is inspired by a gift that says more than an object ever could—a living, breathing emblem of all the comfort and joy their friendship has brought him.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Jess and Leslie meet in Terabithia. Jess has put a ribbon around the puppy’s neck, and keeps it in his jacket as he swings over the creek bed, believing that crossing into Terabithia any other way would be bad luck. Leslie is delighted by the gift—she decides to name the dog Prince Terrien and appoint him guardian of Terabithia. Leslie gives Jess his gift next—it is a large, beautiful art set, complete with a pad of fine paper. Jess hardly has words to thank Leslie for the beautiful present. As the two of them spend more time with the silly, energetic Prince Terrien, they realize he’s more suited to the role of fool than guardian, but they decide that even princes can be fools.
As Jess and Leslie exchange their Christmas gifts, it becomes even more apparent just how special a place Terabithia is—it is truly the one place Jess and Leslie can be fully themselves and celebrate their quirks and secret passions. They even extend this grace to Prince Terrien—even the hapless pup isn’t bound to a certain role or set of behaviors within the realm of Terabithia, as he can be both a prince and a fool.
That night, the “glow” of the magical afternoon with Leslie and Prince Terrien remains with Jess even as his family bickers and squabbles. The next morning, May Belle gets her Barbie while Jess receives a racing-car set. Jess struggles to set the thing up—much to his father’s dismay. Mr. Aaron calls the toy a piece of “junk” and nearly kicks it. As the day dissolves into misery, Brenda expresses jealousy over Ellie’s gifts and Joyce Ann breaks one of her new toys. Mrs. Aarons sends Jess outside to milk Miss Bessie. Out in the yard, he runs into Leslie, who has come over to wish him a merry Christmas. As Prince Terrien yips and jumps around Miss Bessie, Jess feels himself flooded with Christmas spirit for the first time all day.
This passage shows how Leslie and Prince Terrien have become closer to family to Jess than his actual blood kin. At home, Jess is constantly subjected to outbursts of strife, rage, and discord; he is continually a disappointment to his father, who is always on edge, and his mother, who is always exhausted and frazzled by the chaos in the house. With Leslie and Prince Terrien things are simple and easy, and Jess is free to be his truest self.