Lessons from a Small Town: Santa
I need to know if you are real.
My friend Joanie said of course you are real. She asked me, “Where else would all of the presents come from? Nobody has that much money!”
She is the smartest kid in my class. I want to believe her but I am still not sure. A boy in my class, Danny, tells me you are a fake. Danny says the parents buy the gifts and reindeer can’t fly. He has a book about animals that he reads over and over. He even has his own library card at the public library.
By the way, we always have a fire in our fireplace on Christmas Eve. I beg Mom and Dad to put it out when I put your cookies and milk on the hearth and go to bed. But I know they don’t. I can still smell the wood burning up in my bedroom after I go up. So how do you get down our hot chimney?
My mother says you are watching me and that I need to be good and eat my brussel sprouts. Are you really watching me eat? Do you like brussel sprouts? I bet you just eat cookies and drink hot chocolate because you are very fat. I am skinny.
Did you see me break the handle on the glass sugar bowl? I was climbing up on the kitchen counter to get a spoonful of chocolate sauce that was cooling on the back of the stove and the bowl fell on the linoleum floor. Mom was out getting the mail at the Post Office. I tried to glue the piece back on with Elmer’s glue but it didn’t stick. Sorry! Mom already yelled at me so you don’t have to.
Maybe you could send me a letter from the North Pole to tell me you are real. My Post Office box is 63. And please, let me know how your reindeer fly so I can tell Danny he is wrong.
Merry Christmas!!! (December 1959)
I did not hear from Santa that year so the next year I took matters into my own hands. The results were disastrous.
A discovery window of opportunity opened one Saturday morning two weeks before Christmas. Dad was at his office six miles away in Canajoharie and would not be home until noon. My older sister Chris was up in our bedroom on the second floor with her nose in one of her Nancy Drew mystery books like usual. My two younger sisters were with Mom down the street at our church. The Ames Methodist Church put on a Christmas pageant each year and Mom was the cherub choir director. She had just ironed all of the white robes and matching red satin bows and wanted to hang them in one of the Sunday school rooms for safekeeping. I did not want to go. I helped her last year. I had other morning plans.
After I heard the kitchen door close, I cracked opened the cellar door. I flicked on the light switch on the right hand side of the landing. Slowly I crept down the wooden stairway trying to avoid the steps that creaked. When I reached the dusty concrete floor at the bottom of the windowless cavern, I opened the door-like partition door to the adjacent side of our basement. Unlike the other side, this section had a dirt floor. There were rows of sagging, wooden shelves all along the perimeter hosting Mason jars filled with assorted preserved fruits and vegetables. A cloud of cobwebs hung from the ceiling beams. I knew mice lurked in the corners. Sometimes one was caught in the wooden traps Dad set with smelly cheese. There was a single light bulb in a white ceramic circle in the middle of this smaller space. I turned off the fixture on the main side of the cellar with the lower switch to avoid any attention. I pulled on the long string of the lone light on the other side. A dim glow filled the musty space.
For the past few weeks I had become suspicious of the numerous trips Mom was making to the cellar. When I passed by the closed cellar door I noticed a beam of light shooting out from underneath. Mom was supposedly making a lot of trips to the downstairs freezer. I suspected that was just a decoy. She didn’t need that many frozen blueberries.
I also discovered extra empty shopping bags stuffed in the outside trash cans when I offered to feed the cats in the barn. This further evidence fueled my desire to get to the bottom of the seasonal mystery.
Yep! I knew it! There on the old picnic table in the center of the room was a huge display of wrapped presents. Big ones, small ones. All wrapped in brightly colored paper. Some even had shiny bows. On the end of the table were extra rolls of unused paper and a roll of Scotch tape and scissors.
I didn’t waste any time. My tiny hands started unwrapping each present just enough so I could inspect the contents. Once I determined what the present was, I slapped a new piece of tape over the old one and sealed it back up and quickly went on to the next. I was careful to keep the presents in order.
Some presents had gift tags so I could see who was getting what. Of course, Chris was getting more books and Jill and Van were getting a pink Barbie car to share and more Barbie clothes. I was getting an Etch a Sketch and a doll that you could dress with outfits that you cut out from a vinyl sheet like the McCall patterns that Mom used. All good stuff!
Nervous that I would be caught, I raced through my detective work at rapid speed. I didn’t unwrap the squishy packages that I knew were clothes, socks or underwear. I stuck to the important ones.
When I reached the end of the long table I checked back to see that all of the wrappings were secured. I tiptoed out pulling on the light bulb’s string behind me. Darkness disguised the gifts once again. I tugged on the thick hinged barrier to close it.
When I got to the top of the cellar steps I heard the kitchen door open. Thinking quickly, I grabbed Dad’s shoe shine kit and an old rag from the floor in front of me to ward off any suspicion. In an innocent voice I greeted Mom from the cellar doorway. “Hey, can I shine your snow boots?”
“Sure, that would be very nice Kim. Use the clear Kiwi polish and make sure to use a clean rag.”
Whew! Safe. Mission accomplished.
That night at dinner, I continuously beamed. I knew the truth about Santa. I knew what my sisters were getting for Christmas. I knew the secret to the season!
However, during the last few days leading up to Christmas I started to get an unfamiliar sick feeling in my stomach. One night I turned down extra marshmallows in my hot chocolate and when company came over, I passed on a second round of Mom’s Christmas meringue cookies, my favorites.
“What’s wrong Kim?” Mom asked when she noticed a deviation from my usual insatiable sweet tooth.
“Oh, I think my stomach is not growing as fast as the rest of my body,” I weakly rationalized. That excuse bought me an extra portion of stewed prunes for breakfast the next day.
Christmas morning in our house always brought so much excitement and energy that I swear a glow radiated from our house and could be seen all the way down the single street of Ames.
First, the four of us opened our stocking that waited outside our bedroom doors while Mom made coffee downstairs. Dad got dressed and shaved in his upstairs bathroom. Then the all clear signal was given and Christmas music blasted out from the family room stereo. Lights were lit, even the votive candles on the room divider leading into the family room. The four of us would run downstairs to see what Santa brought us.
A mountain of wrapped gifts spread out from the tree skirt to the middle of the room. Dad stood in the far corner with our Super8 movie camera in front of his face. Blinding flood lights from a plugged in metal contraption on top of the upright piano illuminated the action.
But that year I did not feel the Christmas spirit. My face was not aching from a deep smile. I did not dance in front of the spotlight with glee. My eyes did not constantly blink with disbelief.
My punishment had come from my own hands. No outside force had to intervene. I did myself in. I alone was to blame for my disappointment and melancholy.
It took all of my energy to hide my sorrow. I pretended to be surprised when Vanessa showed me the Barbie car. I forced out a reaction. Oh wow! was the best I could muster. I kept my head down and pretended that I was busy making a picture on my new Etch a Sketch.
Fortunately everyone was spinning in his or her own Christmas orbit that morning. The holiday was not ruined for them like mine was from my previous foolish, covert activity.
Yes, that year I learned the truth about Santa that I had been so anxiously craving. But I did not experience the anticipated satisfaction and joy with my discovery.
It took me a few more years to understand the real truth about Christmas. The iconic response to Virginia’s letter helped. When I read this unsigned editorial that was published in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897 I felt better. http://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia/
If only Santa had written me back when I was eight years old. I think his response would have kept the spirit of Christmas alive on that 1960 morning and satisfied me until I was ready for the more mature message.
Yes Kim, there is a Santa Claus.
I know that now. There will always be a Santa Claus for me. That whisper will always be in my head.
Merry Christmas to all! May the magic of the season stay in your hearts forever.