Most of us are familiar with the iconic tale of Ralphie and the coveted Red Ryder BB gun (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”). Likewise, nearly every family I know has at least one version of the tale, some particular story of Christmas that continues to shine year after year. These are mine:
Long after the kids have grown and gone off into their own lives, the trip to get the Christmas tree continues to be a big deal for Ed and me, an event looked forward to with anticipation and delight. The first year we moved to Connecticut, we chose a tree from the temporary lot set up by the Lions at a local grocery store. That tree proved to be such a disappointment (raining needles with such speed that the poor thing was almost nude come Christmas), we vowed to purchase from a ‘cut-your-own’ enterprise in the future.
So it was that we found ourselves the following December driving toward Mystic to a Christmas tree farm recommended by an acquaintance. On the back seat of the car lay a blanket to protect the roof from sharp needles, a bow saw, and plenty of stout rope to secure the tree (plus a silent reminder to not tie ourselves OUT of the car as we did one year).
The farm proved to be everything we’d hoped for — quintessentially Currier and Ives, rustic and without all the hoo-haws adopted by too many places that turn the yearly Christmas tree endeavor into an amusement park. There was a machine to net the tree (a lovely invention), a small fire, plenty of friendly farm dogs with waving tails, and oodles of helpful folk. They pointed us toward the area where the Fraser firs grew and we set off.
It was a wonderfully crisp day, the sort that chars the hair in your nose. A dusting of snow had fallen the night before and lent itself to the magic of the moment. (There’s nothing quite so depressing as going to look for a Christmas tree in the rain.) As we plodded along, scuffing our boots through tall stands of dead grass and bits of glittery snow, we heard all around us the voices of other families in search of the perfect tree.
This part of the farm was dense with trees, hardly a space between them, so all we could see of our fellow shoppers was a vague outline or a sense of motion behind the screen of boughs. Off to our right, we could hear the crunch of boots in icy snow and three voices — two children (a boy and girl by the sound of it) and a woman (probably their mother). We couldn’t make out what the kids were saying, but there was a certain petulant whine to their tone that made it easy to take a guess — they were cold, they were hungry, they were (fill in the blank). Whatever they were, unhappy was a big part of it.
Then the boy’s voice lifted slightly. We still couldn’t make out the words, but the tilted lift at the end marked it as a question. His mother’s reply — exasperated and loud — rang clear for everyone to hear: “Because it’s the spirit of Christmas, dammit! Now SHUT UP!”
Dead silence — for all of two seconds — and then the entire tree lot, all those hidden families burst into laughter. I’m not sure what happened to that woman and her kids, but I’m fairly certain she skulked them out of there PDQ. As for us, she left us with a great memory, knowing we’d been visited by the Spirit of Christmas Dammit.
I’m a huge fan of Santa Claus. In my personal pantheon, he’s right up there next to Captain Kangaroo, a kindly gent who loves you no matter what. Consequently, while my friends grew into coveted adulthood and put aside childish things with a rapidity that was, frankly, startling, I chose to hang tight to my childlike (as opposed to childdish) belief in Santa and all he stands for.
“You don’t really believe in Santa, do you?” I’m often asked.
I nod. “Sure I do.”
“Oh, come on! You really believe that a fat man comes down your chimney on Christmas Eve and leaves presents?”
I shrug and smile and leave it at that. There’s no point arguing with non-believers or folks who think there’s something wrong in the notion of peace and goodwill. Besides, I know how many Christmases we’ve unwrapped gifts only to find one or two beneath the tree that NO ONE remembers purchasing.
The first year we lived in Connecticut, we found ourselves out at BJs on Christmas Eve afternoon. Don’t ask me what brought us out that day. Our shopping was done, our packages and cards mailed. The kids weren’t with us that year, so we were looking forward (well, maybe forward is the wrong word) to yet another quiet day of just us and the three cats. Ed had to work part of Christmas Day (he was on shift-work at the time), and we hadn’t met many people, at least not the sort who would invite strangers to their homes on Christmas. All in all, it was gearing up to be a very low-key and depressing holiday.
As was my habit, I was wearing my Santa hat. As we passed the candy aisle, Ed said, “Hang on. I forgot to get a cart, ” and off he went back outside. As I stood waiting for him, a voice spoke behind me, a voice in a decidedly German accent: “Are you in competition vis me?” I turned around…
…and as God is my witness, there stood Santa Claus!
He was around five foot tall, comfortably chubby (‘huggably chubby’ if you know what I mean), dressed in black boots, red pants, suspenders, and shirt. (No coat; we’d yet to have snow and it was unseasonably warm for Christmas). Beard. Wire-rimmed glasses of an old-fashioned design. An empty shopping basket across one arm. Sparkling eyes and impish smile. Heck, I don’t have to describe him to you. You know what Santa looks like. But there he stood, for-real and one-and-only.
My mouth dropped open. Then I laughed. “Competition?” I said. “Never with you!” I spontaneously hugged him and he hugged me back. “What are you doing here on Christmas Eve?” I said.
“Buying candy, of course,” he said. He gave me a wink and went off down the candy aisle.
Ed returned less than a minute later and stood looking at me. “What happened to you?”
I was beaming. I could feel it; my cheeks stretched so high they ached. “Santa buys his stocking candy at BJs,” I said.
“Just look down the candy aisle.”
He looked. “What?” he said again. I looked. Santa was nowhere to be seen. That quickly, in seconds, he had come and gone. I scoured that store, scoured it, but he had vanished…leaving behind a touch of Christmas magic to someone badly in need of it.
So you believe what you like. I know the truth.
Merry Christmas, everyone.