The first week of December, Mr. Guareschi announces that every student in school will be taking the New York State Standardized Achievement Tests and should take practice tests over the break, as to not embarrass the school with poor results. Mrs. Baker rolls her eyes. Mr. Guareschi reads a note from Mrs. Sidman as well, wishing everyone a happy holiday season. Holling explains that the student body was already pretty happy, as teachers and students had begun decorating the hallways with Christmas trees and menorahs. A fifth grader named Charles, who can write calligraphy, writes holiday greetings and puts them up in the halls.
Although the war has dire consequences for many people Holling knows, Mr. Guareschi's mention of these tests shows that life on the home front will still go on as usual. Holling’s descriptions of the students decorating the hallways suggests that there's a strong sense of community among the student body of all grade levels, but Holling just needs to look for it.
All the teachers except for Mrs. Baker decorate their rooms. She takes down the menorah the first graders put on her door and refuses a crock of apple cider from a second grade teacher. Holling explains that he isn't in much of a holiday spirit either, given that he cannot get out of playing Ariel in the Holiday Extravaganza. Mr. Goldman insists that the part is an honor. Finally, Holling shows his yellow tights to his mother. She insists the feathers will be cute, and nobody from Camillo Junior High will be there. Holling's dad has much the same reaction, though he mentions that Mr. Goldman, of Goldman's Best Bakery, might someday need an architect to remodel his bakery—thus, Holling must wear the tights.
Again, Holling's dad’s chief concern is the reputation of the family business, showing that in his mind, his family is obligated to support Hoodhood and Associates no matter what. Holling’s dad isn’t particularly proud of his son’s role in the play or empathetic to his concerns about wearing yellow tights. Instead, Holling’s dad makes the situation about himself.
Heather is the only one who expresses concern, though she's mostly concerned about news of the tights getting to the high school and ruining her reputation. On the night of the first dress rehearsal, Holling is mortified when the entire cast applauds when they see the tights. Holling knows they actually want to laugh at his feathers but don't want to scare him off by laughing, since nobody else can play Ariel the Fairy.
As different as Heather is from their dad, her concern for her reputation mirrors her dad's concern for the business's reputation. Even though Heather rejects everything her father stands for, he still has a major influence on how she looks at the world.
After the applause, Holling tries to tell Mr. Goldman again that he can't wear the tights because he looks like a fairy. Mr. Goldman reminds Holling that that's exactly the point, and his classmates will be thrilled to see him in a Shakespeare play. Mr. Goldman also says that he never attended school because he was too busy working in the fields, so Holling should be thrilled to get this honor. Holling backs down, and he finally admits to the reader that the feathers are on his butt.
The fact that Holling didn't want to tell the readers where the feathers are reinforces his embarrassment about the costume, which in turn reinforces his youthfulness. He doesn't see this costume or role as an honor in the least; he just feels as though he has no choice at this point.
The awfulness of December lifts one day when Mrs. Baker announces that Mickey Mantle, a famous Yankees baseball player, will be in town to sign baseballs at the Baker Sporting Emporium. After the cheers die down, Mrs. Baker says there's more: Holling will be playing a part in the Long Island Shakespeare Company's Holiday Extravaganza on the same night that Mr. Mantle will be signing baseballs. Mrs. Baker promises extra credit for anyone who brings in their ticket stub from the play, and she smiles at Holling. Holling thinks her smile looks just the same way it did before the Doug Swieteck's brother assassination attempt.
When Holling associates Mrs. Baker's "assassination smile" with her smile here, it shows that he is once again misinterpreting her intentions and reading his own insecurities into her expression. She is probably just proud to have a student performing Shakespeare. Mickey Mantle functions as a legend in the novel: he's thought of as a hallowed hero, which sets Holling up to learn to think critically about him.
After lunch, Meryl Lee, Mai Thi, and Danny corner Holling to ask about the part in The Tempest. When Holling admits he's playing Ariel, Meryl Lee insists that's a girl's name. Holling insists that Ariel is a warrior, and Danny suggests he might come. Before they enter the classroom, Mai Thi stops Holling, looks at him, and says that it's not good to be a warrior. Holling asks Mr. Goldman at the next rehearsal if Ariel could wear armor since he's a warrior, but Mr. Goldman refuses.
When Holling tries to reinterpret Ariel's part and divorce him from being a fairy, it's humorous, but it also shows Holling learning to think more critically about the part. Mai Thi’s cautioning about warriors, which Holling largely ignores, emphasizes the emotional impacts of the war and the way she’s been targeted as a Vietnamese refugee.
The next Wednesday, Mrs. Baker tells Holling that Mr. Goldman said that Holling is doing well, but needs to work on interpreting the lines. She tells him to open his book so they can run lines, and immediately corrects Holling's reading: she says that he must stay "on a knife's edge." This suggestion works, and Holling feels the freedom that he thinks Ariel feels at the end of the play. Later at rehearsal, Mr. Goldman is thrilled with the results. Holling spends the next week telling his classmates that the play will run very long, and nobody will be able to both see the play and see Mickey Mantle.
Holling's emotional reaction to changing how he says his lines tells the reader that even if Holling doesn't want to admit it, he does like performing and feels a connection to the play. However, this personal revelation isn't enough to take away his embarrassment, hence lying to his classmates about the runtime of the play. Essentially, he's trying to give more weight to the legend of Mickey Mantle than to Shakespeare, playing into his classmates’ preexisting biases.
On Saturday night, Holling puts on his tights, grabs a new baseball, and his dad drops him off at the theater. Holling lurks backstage and scans the audience for faces he knows. He finds Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Bigio, and Danny Hupfer's parents. This is shocking: Holling reasons that the Hupfers must not care about Bing Crosby's Christmas special on TV like his own parents do, which is why they're not in the audience. He doesn't see anyone from school, though he can't see the front row.
When Holling is shocked to see parents in the audience, rather than at home watching television, it suggests that he considers his parents’ neglect as something normal and expected of all parents. Here, it seems that Mrs. Baker is starting to take on a motherly role for Holling, as she supports him when his own parents do not.
This belief that none of his classmates are in the audience makes Holling's entrance, in yellow tights with waving feathers, much easier. He stays “on the knife's edge” and feels as though he wants Ariel's freedom as much as he wants Mickey Mantle's autograph. Finally, the curtain call arrives and Holling walks onstage. He looks out at the audience and notices Danny, Meryl Lee, and Mai Thi in the front row—crying. Holling watches a look come over Danny's face and knows that he remembered Mickey Mantle. Danny rushes his parents away.
When Holling realizes his friends are not going to laugh at him, it shows him that he likely underestimated their loyalty and capacity to act mature and kind. Further, the fact that they're at the play suggests that Holling’s friends are far more loyal to him than Holling's blood family is.
When the curtain falls, Holling runs backstage to the dressing room and finds it locked. Mr. Goldman is still onstage, though Holling finds Prospero's blue floral cape in the wings. Holling grabs it and races for the entrance, where his dad is supposed to pick him up. Holling waits for five minutes in the freezing cold. Finally, Holling hears the crosstown bus come around the corner, and Holling sprints across the street to catch it. The driver stops a ways after the bus stop and takes his time opening the doors for Holling. Holling realizes he has no money, but the driver agrees to take him to the Baker Sporting Emporium anyway.
When Holling's dad apparently forgets him, it reinforces again that his dad doesn't care about anything that doesn't include either the TV (in the form of Walter Cronkite or Bing Crosby) or the family business. Going to his son’s play and getting his son a signed baseball from a Yankees player are apparently unimportant to him. A stranger (the bus driver) seems to show Holling more kindness and love than his own father does.
The driver drives slowly and arrives at the Sporting Emporium at 9:37. Holling races off the bus but halfway down the steps, the driver asks if he has a ball somewhere in his cape. Holling stops dead: his ball is back at the theater. He almost starts to cry, but the bus driver reaches under the dashboard and pulls out a brand new baseball. He hands Holling the baseball and wishes him a Merry Christmas.
Here, the bus driver's kindness shows Holling that other people in the world have an amazing capacity for kindness and care—unlike his own father. This begins to develop Holling's sense of being part of a community that's greater even than his school community.
Holling sprints inside and comes face to face with Mickey Mantle. Mantle is sitting at a table with Mercutio Baker, Mrs. Baker's brother-in-law. Holling thinks that Mantle looks huge as he watches him sign Danny's baseball. Holling approaches the table, holds out his ball, and in a whisper, asks Mantle to sign his ball. Mantle takes the ball, looks at Holling, and asks what he's supposed to be, since he looks like a fairy. Holling explains he's Ariel the warrior, and Mickey Mantle declares he doesn't sign baseballs for kids in yellow tights. With this, he tosses the baseball onto the floor.
Here, Holling is forced to reevaluate his idolization of Mickey Mantle, as he's clearly not the hero Holling thought he was. It's notable that the only person to be mean to Holling because of his costume is an adult figure whom Holling previously idolized—even Holling’s school friends, who often tease and insult him, don’t make fun of his costume. This implies that Holling will have to reevaluate who he trusts and looks to for help and guidance.
Holling feels as though his world is splitting in two. Danny, who saw the entire situation, steps up, puts his signed ball on the table, and says he doesn't need it. He calls Mickey Mantle a pied ninny. Holling gives Danny his clean ball, and the boys leave. Holling muses that when gods die, it's the most painful thing in the world—and worst of all, it makes a person unwilling to let another god in.
When Danny gives up on idolizing Mickey Mantle in order to support Holling, Holling learns that his friends are some of the most loyal "family" he has. Holling's musings about dying gods shows that he is thinking about the situation as though it's a literary work to be considered using critical thinking.
The Hupfers drive Holling back to the theater. Holling goes to retrieve his clothes and feels unable to tell Mr. Goldman where he's been and what just transpired. He leaves his tights in a locker and the Hupfers drive Holling home. His parents are still watching Bing Cosby's Christmas special, and his dad comments that Holling is done early. He makes Holling assure him that Mr. Goldman was happy with Holling's performance. Holling goes upstairs to feel sorry for himself in peace.
Holling's dad offers no indication that he even remembers he was supposed to take Holling to the Baker Sporting Emporium. When contrasted with the kindness of the Hupfer family, the bus driver, and Danny, this shows just how cruel, selfish, and careless Holling's dad is. He cares only that Holling didn't embarrass the family, not that Holling just got his heart broken by his idol.
On Monday, there are only three more days before the holiday break. Classes are, according to Holling, supposed to be easy, and lunch should be special. Lunch, however, is even worse than usual, but Holling doesn't complain. He remembers Mrs. Bigio's grief and says nothing when she snaps at students who stop to inspect their meals. On the last day before break, Mrs. Bigio tells Mai Thi to be glad she's even getting food, since the American soldiers should be in America for Christmas, not her. Mai Thi keeps her head down, and Holling notices Mrs. Bigio trying not to cry. He sees Mai Thi doing the same thing, and he wonders if gods are dying in both of them.
Here, Mrs. Bigio's cooking symbolizes her overwhelming grief over the loss of her husband, and the fact that Holling connects the two shows that he's beginning to think of her as a human with thoughts and emotions. When he watches Mrs. Bigio be cruel to Mai Thi, he humanizes both of them (but notably, doesn't stand up to Mrs. Bigio, which is indicative of his fear and lack of self-confidence) and understands that this is a consequence of the war.
In class, Mrs. Baker keeps her students on their toes. They diagram sentences and work on projects all the way until Wednesday afternoon. As the Jewish and Catholic students get ready to leave, Mrs. Baker calls to Danny and Doug to stay at school. When the rest of the class is gone, Mrs. Baker pulls three brand new baseballs and three brand new mitts out of her drawer and hands them to Danny, Doug, and Holling. She explains that they're a gift from the Baker Sporting Emporium, and she's arranged for them to break the mitts in down in the gym.
This gift from Mrs. Baker is proof that she doesn't hate any of her students, even Doug Swieteck. This in turn brings Holling's assertion that Doug is a one-dimensional troublemaker into question, as Mrs. Baker evidently sees that there is more to Doug. In addition, Mrs. Baker’s kindness shows that she understands the power of connecting with her students on their level and seeing them as full humans.
Danny, Doug, and Holling gleefully walk to the gym, where they find Joe Pepitone and Horace Clarke, two amazing Yankees players, waiting for them. They all throw the balls with each other and then go outside to the baseball diamond, where they practice pitching and hitting. Afterwards, Joe Pepitone and Horace Clark sign the balls and the mitts and give each boy two tickets for Opening Day in April. They give Danny and Doug their caps, and Joe Pepitone gives Holling his jacket. Holling feels as though a place inside of him is filled again.
Just as the Hupfers and the bus driver were so kind to Holling, the kindness that Joe Pepitone and Horace Clarke show the boys reinforces the idea that kindness and community can be found in unexpected places outside of one's blood family. This experience also shows Holling feeling better about letting go of his idolization of Mickey Mantle, now that he has new and far more worthy "gods" to look up to.
Holling, Doug, and Danny run upstairs to find Mrs. Baker, but they find only a note on the door telling Holling to read Macbeth for the first Wednesday in January. Doug goes into the classroom anyway and comes back out with the box for “Number 166.” Holling never sees it again. The next day, President Johnson declares a Christmas ceasefire in Vietnam, and the happy holidays begin.