A Santa Claus story*
I believe that everybody in America still alive who was a child in the innocent forties and fifties remembers when they believed absolutely in Santa Claus, and how old they were when doubts began to creep in.
It was easy to believe in Santa Claus in the house I was born in and lived in until I was eleven years old. Remembering as a child instead of an old man, the house seemed vast, its eleven-foot ceilings lost way up there in shadows and able to accommodate a nice big Christmas tree in front of the floor to ceiling windows of the living room.
The vastness of the house, big enough to hold mysteries, is all tied up in Christmas memories that live vividly in my mind’s eye.
In point of fact, years later when I went to look at the chiropractor’s office that moved in when we went to Florida in 1954, it was just a small frame house with high ceilings.
The living room was in front behind the wide front porch, one bedroom was across the entrance hall in front, and the dining room behind that. An L-shaped screen porch backed up to the living room and you had to go around the L to get to the bathroom on the back of the house, as if the builders still were thinking of outhouses and wanted to put it as far from the living quarters as possible. The L bent around the kitchen. The second bedroom was off the kitchen and behind the dining room.
Yep, just a two-bedroom, one-bath house — but ever vast in memory. I describe the floor plan because it figures prominently in this Santa Claus story the year I was ten and my brother was seven.
The city had finally gotten around to paving Merry Street, which ran along the side of the house. No more red dust clouds when cars went by in the dry weather; instead, a smooth slick expanse of macadam, perfect for roller skating. Every afternoon, it seemed, the neighborhood kids were out there racing up and down, or gliding in smooth circles.
My brother and I wanted roller skates badly.
My grandmother, who ruled the family, decreed they were too dangerous.
My mother deferred to her judgment. My fireman grandfather considered roller skates to be for sissies and didn’t even join the debate.
It is hard to express how badly we wanted roller skates. But we knew the word of law when we heard it, and suffered the enormous frustrations that only the very young can suffer in such straits.
The short dark cold days of December were upon us, moving toward Christmas at a snail’s pace. The house of course was innocent of insulation. We huddled the big old DuoTherm oil heater in the dining room, and its chuckling gurgling roar sang us to sleep under all the home-made quilts we had, plus some wool Army blankets smuggled home by my soldier uncles at the end of the Second World War.
We had fireplaces in both front rooms, open hearths where we burned coal instead of wood when it was so cold the DuoTherm’s output wouldn’t reach. We knew the living-room fireplace was where Santa put in an appearance, getting soot and coal dust on his fine red suit. My grandmother always read us “The Night before Christmas” several times in December to set the mood. When the big walnut radio console in the living room broadcast Lionel Barrymore playing Scrooge, Morley and the ghosts of all those Christmases scared the daylights out of me:
Sometimes I couldn’t make it past that first chilling appearance of Morley, calling to his old business partner. I’d abandon the living room and come back for the happy ending.
As much as I believed in Santa Claus, I was terrified of ghosts. My grandmother, on the other hand, seemed to be their familiar, and talked about walking ghosts as casually as about live people. She said restless ghosts needed something from the living and wouldn’t leave until they got it.
But — blending superstition with religion as only a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter could — she told us that Christ protected us from the dead.
“All you have to do is say: ‘In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, what do you want here?’ and if they are good spirits they will appear and talk to you — if they are bad spirits, they will go away. And you must make the sign of the cross to be sure they leave.”
She told us this in the same quiet voice that she told us to look both ways before crossing a street, and don’t take candy from strangers.
I was ten that year, and the grand adventure of December was to go with my grandfather and my favorite uncle across the river to the South Carolina pine plantation of my Great Uncle Luke. I got to select the tree to cut. They gently tried to steer me to small ones that to my eye looked far too small for our gigantic living room.
I found the perfect tree. The grownups sighed and went to work, my grandfather muttering that he would have to cut four feet off the bottom to get it under the ceiling. I just knew he was wrong. He wasn’t, of course. But even shortened, everybody agreed I had indeed found the best-looking tree they’d ever seen. It took every decoration we had, and some new ones, to cover it adequately. My grandfather bought the first strings of bubbling lights I had ever seen, and I could sit for what seemed like hours watching the colored bubbles dance in the fragile glass tubes.
My grandfather, who supervised all the firemen’s pig roasts and other food events, became a baker for Christmas. The big galvanized dish-washing pans came onto the dining room table and formed an assembly line as he mixed the mountains of dough, covered up to his elbows. Everybody else was pressed into the line to cut up candied fruits and shell pecans from Uncle Luke’s pecan grove, and chop Brazil nuts and other delicacies from far away.
I hated candied fruit but loved pecans and the other nuts, and he would bake a small cake with just nuts in it for me. The house smelled like a bakery and the smell lingered deliciously all through the rest of December, enhanced by the aroma of the baked cakes soaked in port and “breathing” in decorative metal gift pans with the lids off, the finishing touch.
None of this dimmed my brother’s and my longing for roller skates that year, but a full-fledged Georgia Christmas was in full swing. Our vast extended family, out to third cousins, always dropped in for a visit and an exotic “highball” in heavy green-stemmed glasses only seen at Christmas.
Then would come the firemen and their wives or girlfriends, Cracker Party functionaries, and my grandmother’s friends. The firemen would vanish into my grandfather’s bedroom to sample the white lightning with peaches soaking in it out of quart Mason jars lined atop his wardrobe.
There was constant coming and going right into Christmas Eve night. The well-favored went away with an aromatic fruit cake. I would begin to worry that grownups would still be hanging around the crackling fireplace, cluttering up the living room, when Santa Claus arrived. Maybe he’d give our house a pass if they didn’t leave.
They always left though, because we had to be on time for the Midnight Services at the Church of the Good Shepherd up on the hill. My brother and I got to stay up late that night, but Santa had never come when we got home. We’d put out the obligatory green bottle of Coke and plate of cookies and go to sleep across the hall while trying not to. In the morning the “big Santa Claus,” as my grandmother called it, would be arrayed in all its splendor around the tree. Bicycles, ball gloves, badminton sets — but of course no roller skates.
There were plenty of presents beneath the tree before Santa showed up. My grandmother took us shopping to buy a gift for our grandfather and mother, and our grandfather took us shopping to buy for her. A lot of the guests came bearing gifts.
I was ten, and beginning to wonder about Santa Claus.
The weather had turned cold and frosty, all the trees and lawns and houses coated in white almost like snow. We’d never had snow at Christmas. On this particular Christmas Eve in the early afternoon, with dusk already gathering, my brother, mother, grandmother and I were in the kitchen eating some of the leftovers from the previous night’s snacking tray.
The front door, which was always locked, slammed open so hard we all jumped.
We heard footsteps approaching down the hall, stepping out onto the screen porch, coming toward the closed kitchen door. The footsteps stopped. The door did not open.
My grandmother stood up with a beatific smile on her face. “It’s a ghost,” she said. “It won’t come in unless we speak to it.”
A ghost? I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Don’t speak to it — don’t let it come in…
But she was up and around the kitchen table, making a perfect sign of the cross at the closed door.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, what do you want here?”
If I had known what a heart attack was, I would have thought I was having one. Time seemed to stop as I stared in dread at that faceted glass door knob.
The front door slammed shut.
But I hadn’t heard any departing footsteps.
“It’s gone,” my grandmother said. She sounded so dreadfully disappointed. “I thought maybe Inez…”
Inez was her older sister, number six out of the seven my great-grandparents had. She had been burned to death in the Second World War after playing footsie on behalf of the FBI with Nazi agents trying to get a read on the Augusta arsenal, where her husband worked. His name, Sonntag, German for Sunday, had drawn them to her.
My grandmother sat with her in the isolated hospital ward — sealed off by the police — as Inez finished dying, screaming in pain. She never recovered from that loss; she mourned her older sister all her long life.
The ward had either been blocked off to spare other patients the horror — the official version — or in case Inez screamed secrets in her agony — my grandmother’s version.
The fire was caused either by smoking in bed — official version — or by a magnesium flare dropped on Inez while she slept — my grandmother’s version. My grandmother said the bedclothes never even caught fire, the attack was so targeted. When their mother awoke and tried to quench Inez’s flaming torso with water, it only made the fire burn hotter.
Bitter, horrible stuff to think about on Christmas Eve, or any other time. But she kept hoping Inez would come back to speak to her and tell her who had killed her.
“That was an evil spirit,” she said now of whatever had come down the hall. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. “Not Inez. It ran from the sign of the cross.”
Even I could feel the easing of tension in the room — but I still didn’t want her to open that door. My poor brother, fair skinned, was as white as a ghost himself. He was even more afraid of ghosts that me.
Of course she went right ahead and opened the door.
And of course nothing was there.
Cold air leaked into the warm kitchen from the porch, and she shut the door again and sat back down.
“It won’t come back now,” she said calmly.
“Are you sure?” my mother said, just as calmly.
She’d had more years of living with my grandmother than me, so maybe this was old hat to her. But that’s grownup thinking years later. Then, I was just reassured by their calmness.
We finished our snacks and went on with our preparations for Midnight Services. It was good to get baths out of the way before the night cold came down, making the day’s cold seem mild by comparison. We had to make that trek down the screen porch from the virtually outdoor bathroom with our heads wet — no fun.
Later, as dark settled in, the visitors started showing up and my grandfather came home from work to get dressed for church. Highballs and white lightning flowed, and grownup laughter. It was like the terrifying event of the afternoon hadn’t even happened. From my grandmother’s perspective it was so normal it didn’t warrant mention. I was glad: the less it was talked about, the less real it would be.
The coal fire was crackling, the bubbling lights were bubbling, the radio was playing Christmas carols softly in the background of the chatter. One of the late visitors came burdened with gifts and began to search for a place under the crowded tree. I don’t remember whether he was a fireman or a second cousin.
He finally got his packages arranged to his satisfaction and stood up laughing a hearty white-lightning laugh.
“Looks like Santa’s done been here,” he told the room.
“What are you talking about?” my mother said.
He pointed. “Those two big packages there say from Santa Claus.”
“Oh, hah-hah,” she said.
“They do! One each for the boys.” He nodded at my brother and me, on our best behavior in our church-going clothes.
Of course we had to look, fearing a prank.
But he was right — two packages from Santa Claus, one for each of us. We wanted to open them right then. No way. We had to wait until Christmas morning, after the “big Santa Claus” was in place. Didn’t make sense to my ten-year-old logic — Santa had already come and gone. But my grandmother’s word was law.
The packages were still there when we got back from church. I think I stayed awake longer that night that usual, trying to figure it all out. It had to have been Santa there in the hall that afternoon — using the front door instead of the chimney — but he had departed like a thief in the night, ignoring the Christian invocation.
Was Santa exempt from such flummery? I knew good and well Santa couldn’t be an evil spirit. Somewhere in those cogitations sleep overtook me and it was Christmas morning.
Spread out all over the floor in front of the fireplace was “big Santa Claus,” including matching black leather two-gun holster sets that I learned years later had been hand-tooled by a buddy of my grandfather’s. Each holster contained a brand new cap pistol. Santa was on his game, because they fitted us perfectly. My two six-guns had fake ivory grips with a longhorn steer carved into them, just like the single gun Gene Autry sometimes wore when he wasn’t wearing another of his fancy six-shooters.
I was troubled about the two-gun business — Gene didn’t need two guns, Roy Rogers did. We were no fans of the fake cowboy with the made-up name, who had starred in Westerns during the war while Gene flew supplies to the Chinese over the Himalayas. But the holsters snugged down on my hips so perfectly I got over it, remembering that The Rio Kid, Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield and other heroes of pulp Westerns that I read all the time wore two guns.
There were other marvels around the tree too, but I don’t remember them. Wearing our guns, we confronted the mysterious wrapped gifts that had appeared under the tree yesterday.
You guessed it: roller skates.
My grandmother’s lips set in a tight line. She demanded to see the card and studied it with the care that later, as a grown-up, I saw forensic examiners use. She was trying to identify the hand-writing of the miscreant who had invaded our house to ignore her stern decree.
She didn’t recognize the writing. She was quietly furious. But I guess she didn’t want to ruin Christmas Day, so she held her peace.
Of course she had the last word. We never did get to use those roller skates on Merry Street. She permitted us to try them on the cement walk in front of the house, and when of course we were awkward and fell, she ordered them boxed and put away as too dangerous.
But that was later. All I knew then — and know now — is that the door slammed open, then slammed closed, and roller skates appeared beneath our Christmas tree. I wasn’t so young that I didn’t understand her trying to figure out the handwriting — she didn’t believe for a minute in real Santa Claus. I’d had my own beginning doubts.
But not anymore. I was a believer.
*From The Pea-Green Boat and other unsettling stories