Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent Calendar Day 6: I KNEW It! I KNEW Santa Was Real!

Did you believe in Santa?

Boy, howdy, did I ever. I was a faithful – and I do mean faithful – follower of Santa. He did not always bring me everything on my list (above you see me reciting my list, and from the intense look of concentration, it was probably a long one), but he would always deliver on one or two items that absolutely delighted me.

It was so exciting to see Santa in the stores when I went shopping with my mother. At some point, I realized that there was more than one Santa around town, but I had also come to have an inkling that there were thousands, maybe even millions of kids around the world, so it stood to reason that Santa must need helpers – not just for making toys back at the North Pole (that was what elves were for), but also here in the regular world. I figured these guys must be specially initiated helpers who helped to make sure that Santa had lists and input from every single child in the world. My logic was impeccable.

Then second grade and Scott happened. Scott was a snotty, superior, Scut Farkas-like brat who just had to announce to everyone that Santa was a fiction created and maintained by our parents and only babies still believed in him. Well, that didn’t hold water with me. Because I had additional information: I was convinced that Scott was stupid and that was why he would say such a stupid thing. Every time Scott would repeat this heresy I would stomp away in indignation. One of my worst faults is that I hold a grudge. Over the years I have tried to learn to let these grudges go and forgive people but, I am sorry to say, Scott is still on my list and is most likely going to be the very last one I let go.

But as second grade wore on and then third grade came, especially Christmastime, the doubts began to creep in. By this time, many of my classmates did not believe in Santa. But to me, to abandon my faith in Santa seemed to be equivalent to killing Santa. I just could not do it. By fourth grade, however, the cause was lost. I began to notice the winks and nods adults would give one another when Santa’s name was mentioned. I began to think about the improbability of eight reindeer flying around the world with a large man and enough presents for every child in the world. Hmmmm…. I even pretended to still believe in Santa that Christmas, even though I saw my parents sneaking presents under the Christmas tree on Christmas eve.

The loss of faith stung for a while, but by fifth grade I was reconciled to the fact that I was no longer a True Believer. I would smile benevolently as I saw Santas in the shopping malls, listening to the wishes and dreams of little children.

Then I had children. I looked forward to promoting the “myth of Santa” with my own children. We decided to take our then-11-month old daughter, our first child, with us to pick out some Christmas tree ornaments at the local garden center. When someone mentioned that there was a “wonderful Santa” with his own shop right on the grounds of the garden center, my husband and I decided, “Why not? We can at least get her picture taken with Santa, and it will be so cute.” So we headed on over to one of the outbuildings. It just looked like a little wooden outbuilding on the outside. But on the inside …. ohhhh …..

It was a little bit dark inside; most of the light was provided by Christmas lights. But it was beautiful. There were lights and painted figures everywhere. I do not remember the theme that year – it may have been a Dr. Seuss Christmas or it may have been Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; we learned the next year that the theme changed from year to year. There was a train set with a winter/Christmas theme – the main part was in a window display set-up, but there was also a train that traveled around on a track overhead. There was a big box for children to bring used toys in good shape to help Santa and the elves bring a little bit of extra joy to children whose parents could not afford to give them much for Christmas. There was a little area with pencils and pads so that children who had not yet made up their list for Santa could do so at the last minute. And there was a special display, prominently located, of Santa kneeling before the bed of hay in which Jesus lay.

There was an entire wall containing letters from children to whom Santa had given much joy over the years – and from what people wrote, it was obvious this had been going on for quite a few years. Many people who wrote to thank Santa were parents who had themselves seen Santa when they were little. The stories were amazing, and I began to see the outlines take shape for the logic behind Santa and all the magic he needs to use. It all made sense now. Suddenly, we heard bells jingling.

And then Santa arrived. These four words do not give justice to what actually happened. It was earth-shaking. It was triumphant. The children cheered. The parents cheered. Some of us even jumped up and down.

Santa took his place in a beautiful sleigh set up a room separated from the larger room by glass. I got a good look at him. I was hit by a thunderbolt. My arms went rigid by my sides, my hands clenched into fists. In a whisper that was so piercing that those around me turned to look, I hissed: “I knew it! I knew Santa was real!” The parents smiled and looked at me knowingly; some nodded. (If this quote rings a bell and you have ever seen Galaxy Quest, you have some idea of the intensity of my reaction. And this was before that movie was made.)

You may not know it, but the real Santa is a bit more slender than the image we have. Oh, there is plenty of adipose packed in there, but behind that beautiful white beard, the face is rather slender, and his long, eloquent hands are also thin. (Just an FYI on the beard: Santa loves milkshakes when he visits our houses, but he prefers vanilla ones because they don’t stain his beard as much as chocolate ones do. It’s true. He says so, himself.) Some people have described him as looking more like a lacquer-box Santa. Perhaps.

Before talking to the children individually, Santa went up to a lectern set up on the second level, above our heads. His voice was gentle, but he could be heard by everyone. The roar of noise had quieted to a rustle. He didn’t go on for a long time, but he did explain a few things: how the elves were organized to do what they did (they were divided up by the types of toys they made, with each different type having a different color or pattern of elf hat), how reindeer fly (magic dust, DUH), how they were able to fly around the world (there is some serious messin’ with the time zones going on), what it’s like at the North Pole, and most importantly, why Santa and the elves need some extra help in providing toys for children whose parents can’t do as much. Santa also laid out the rules for what is expected of everyone’s behavior leading up to Christmas. He included the parents in his instructions: we may get tired and impatient, but we must always remember how precious the ones are for whom we do so much. We all then sang some Christmas carols, followed by the snow dance: “Snow! Snow! Snow! Ho! Ho! Ho!” accompanied by a lot of hopping and jumping around. (If you ever visit Santa, be careful with this song. It works a little too well.)

Then it was time to begin. The children and parents were led into the little room with the sleigh. Some sat on a bench, some on the floor. Santa took each family into the sleigh one by one to sit with him, with time allowed at the end to take pictures. He was absolutely patient, listening to everything the children had to say, discussing certain things with them and their parents. It turns out there are certain procedures that have to be followed. First of all, it’s a good thing to leave some munchies out for the reindeer so that they can keep going. What do they like? Mostly greens, but a few nuts and M&Ms mixed in doesn’t hurt. Special Santa presents will need to be marked, so he may give the kids a long piece of plastic tape to put on the tree, which will then be incorporated into the wrapping of the present. Mom may be asked to leave her shoes out, and a special present for her will show up inside one of the shoes.

All this attention to each child and family means that the lines can get a little long sometimes. But then there are so many things in Santa’s house to entertain us.

And this is where it gets truly spooky (but in a good way). Santa really does know whether you have been naughty or nice. And he knows a lot of other stuff besides. He knew that I needed to straighten up my bedroom. He knew that a family friend who came along with us was an artist – “a truly gifted artist” (even at the age of 7, she was) – and he said there would be some art supplies for her. And one year, when my four-year-old younger daughter earnestly asked Santa to help her find her missing beanie babies, Eiger (aka Chops) and Rudolph, he replied: “I’m not sure I can, but I’ll try my best.” No need to have worried. Rudolph and Eiger, who had been missing almost four weeks (and we had been tearing our hair out trying and turning our house upside down to find them), were found about an hour and a half after we got home that day. One of the girls was playing near our breakfast table, which in a previous life was a billiard table, and noticed something in one of the tubes for the balls: there were Eiger and Rudolph. True story.

And what does Santa do when he is not making and delivering presents? The rumor is that, like many older people who like to escape the long stretches of cold winter weather, he comes down South – to Virginia, to be specific – and spends a good deal of time here. That he is incognito for most of this time, ditches the beard and perhaps a bit of the weight, and pretends to be just an ordinary garden center employee (maybe even a retired one at this point) named Dr. John. That would be to avoid causing unnecessary excitement and commotion at the proximity of such a celebrity in our midst.

According to this same grapevine, the “back story” behind this fictional alter ego is that he was raised in an orphanage and at the age of 14 decided that the yearly Christmas present given to each child in the orphanage – the exact same present for each one – was not enough. And so at that young age, for the first time, he donned a Santa suit and found a way to give a little something extra to children in unfortunate circumstances. Further, he has been doing this every year since then. Throughout the years he has headed up numerous charitable endeavors and even has a couple of programs, one on gardening and one on living our Christian faith, on the local TV channel.

And on Christmas eve, he assembles the best of the presents donated by the many families who come to visit him, takes them into the very poorest parts of the city, and delivers them to families with children.

At least those are the rumors.

For my money, he is the real Santa, the true embodiment of the spirit of St. Nicholas of Myra. His generosity is very real, as is the aura of magic that surrounds him. And, as the living icon of that generous Saint, he would probably want me to forgive Scott. I’m trying, Santa.

We no longer make the annual pilgrimage with our daughters to see Santa in person, but my husband and I bring him toys every year. We don’t want to let Santa down.

I lost you once, Santa, but I will never lose you again.


  1. It's always a great gift when a long blogpost just isn't long enough - loved this, Greta!

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  3. One of your best, and that is really saying something! WOW!

  4. A story to become a tradition -- told and retold, year after year!

  5. Thank you for this beautiful post...would you believe I can still remember some of your graduation speech from high school? You've always been a great writer!

  6. Thanks to all for your kind comments. They mean a lot to me for this article in particular, because the two connected stories have had such significance in my life - "straight from the heart," as they say.

    And Mrs. Mickey - you have a fantastic memory! The only reason I remember anything from the speech was that Cousin Fred sent me some of my high school stuff that his mother had after my mom died, and in the box with everything else was a copy of the speech!

    Also, major thumbs up on your article on Barbara for the Banner (which someone sent to me). I really enjoyed reading about Barbara and the role she has played in people's lives.