I was born at the end of the baby bust, so when I was little, for a time, before the Dad’s coming home from the war boom began, it was special. Kids were admired, and my cousin and I were no exceptions. We lived in a pleasant Ohio town which boasted a liberal arts college, and had been home to our families since before the Depression. Michael’s parents had a nice cape cod house just 4 blocks from where Mom and Dad and I lived, which was down by the creek, on Cemetery Street. His parents had a Cadillac. They had the wherewithal and liked to “do things up right.” At Christmas, this meant engaging a Santa Claus who would visit their son and me.
I actually suspected this Santa might possibly be the real deal. For one thing, I was quite small the first time I saw him, not quite five.
The night before Christmas I was getting the whole “you better watch out, you better not cry,” treatment from my parents. There were canned peas for dinner, and I remember forcing those rubbery pills down, studying the Christmas cards hung up on butcher’s twine beneath the cabinets in order to keep from gagging.
In those days, children went to bed before their parents—long before. Right after dinner, there was a story, a wash-up and then straight to bed. Tonight, however, right in the middle of the story, I heard sleigh bells outside. My parents pointedly wondered aloud who it could be. I wanted to go see, but was told to sit still. Daddy was already on his way to open the door.
When he did, in came the most perfect Miracle on 34th Street kind of Santa. He was chubby and had a long white beard, a round rosy face, and a natty red suit and black patent leather belt and boots. He was even carrying a sack. My father was grinning in a way I had learned meant I was being snookered, so after I croaked out a hello, I asked about his reindeer.
“Oh, he said, “they’re up on the roof. You don’t have a chimney, so I knocked on the door.”
Well, that added up. From outside, I could still hear sleigh bells, just every once in a while, as if the deer were tossing their heads.
Suspicion allayed, I watched him take the seat my mother offered. Daddy picked me up and put me down on Santa’s knee. Santa was authentically cold all over, his clothes, his face, his beard. He had a good vibe, smelling strongly, as men often did in those days, of whiskey. He was a polite, low-key Santa. His “ho-ho-ho” seemed exactly right. (The man must have actually liked kids.)
He asked me what I wanted most for Christmas, so I told him about the “drink-wet” baby doll and the teddy bear I coveted. Outside the door, sleigh bells continued, occasionally and softly. It was quite amazing, there in the light of our Christmas tree, with bright packages piled beneath.
“Merry Christmas, Judy Lee,” Santa said and added he’d be back later. As he went out the door, there was a blast of cold and then the sound of departing bells. Again I wanted to look out the window, but my Dad intercepted me to ask, “What did you think of that?”
“Was it really Santa?”
He and my mother looked at each other and tried not to smile.
I still wondered, even though “Seeing is believing.” My Santa had been nice, jolly and bearded–convincing in many ways–but on the other hand, I hadn’t seen him fly. Being the kind of person I am, I wanted to see his reindeer very much, and it was pretty clear that I wasn’t to witness his departure. My cousin was even younger than I, so about all I learned from him was that he too had had a visit from “Santa.” I decided this man in the red suit might or might not be Santa, but it wouldn’t hurt to act as if he was.