When I was a little girl I was as certain of the existence of Santa Claus as I was that my dad was bigger than everyone else’s. It was a given. I grew up in Europe where Santa came and presents were exchanged on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. In the dark of night with only the Christmas star to shed its light on any mysteries, the ruse that was Santa could have been low maintenance but my parents went all out. After a typically overindulgent family dinner at which every known relative was present, my parents would give each other a wink. “Isn’t it about time for the girls to go upstairs?” my father would hint - the cue for my sister and I to retire to our room to sit and wait for the impending arrival of Saint Nick.
Sitting in our bedroom waiting for Santa was like waiting to be paroled from prison; it always took a long time and sometime within the interminable pregnancy of anticipation my father would appear to regale us with the Story of Christmas - the real story – with the birth of Jesus and the star and the wise men. “You know that Christmas isn’t just about presents?” he would ask.
“We know!” my sister, Grace and I would reply in unison, wondering, almost visibly ‘Where is Santa Claus? ’ Eventually my father would leave us alone again, temporarily humbled. But it wouldn’t be long before the sound of sleigh bells would draw us from our pious reverie. We could hear them clearly approaching from far up the road – actual sleigh bells – jingle-jangling their way to the house next door and then, as we held our breath, stopping somewhere out on our front lawn. We could never see anything; we lived in the country and it was too dark but one time there was a blinking red light that was a ringer for Rudolph’s red nose. When the sleigh bells stopped there would be a bang, bang, bang on the front door. “Ho, Ho, Ho!” we would hear outside and then the door would open and my mother’s voice, so welcoming and friendly would chime, “Santa, come in; have some cookies with us!”
Grace and I would sit quietly wide-eyed on our beds, shaking with excitement, listening to my parents, my aunts and uncle and grandparents all carrying on with Santa like old friends. We would never meet Santa ourselves; we could not go down until he left and my father turned off all the lights except for the lantern at the bottom of the stairs and the sparkling garland of blinking bulbs that wound around the fat, green tree. Then he would put on a recorded version of ‘The Church Bells of Europe” and it would be, to the chiming of those bells, that Grace and I would descend the long flight of stairs, entering into the living room to view the tree sparkling in a nest of presents. It was magic.
Grace and I believed in Santa Claus long after our school friends had undergone the metamorphosis into non-believers. We knew that Santa Claus was real. He was at our house every year – in person. There was no doubt.
Until the year that Santa was welcomed into our home twice within ten minutes. Someone just got sloppy. Santa had supposedly come and gone; Grace and I were waiting for the bells. And then there was another knock on the door “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
“What the..?” we heard my mom exclaim as she pulled back the dead bolt.
“Ho, Ho, Ho-o-o!” Santa retorted, a little too happily. Everyone sounded confused.
“Santa,” my mom remarked pointedly, “you already came!” Grace and I looked at each other. Something was definitely not right.
Many years later I had become a mother myself and was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The first year that my son, Chance was really capable of fully experiencing Christmas, my husband and I chose to enlist the help of my father , hoping to recreate the wonderful Christmas experience that I had enjoyed for the large part of my childhood. That year on Christmas Eve, I sat in the guest room of my parent’s home holding my three year old boy in my arms; while my husband remained out in the living room with the other adults I felt again the same excitement that I had when waiting in my own room with my sister some thirty years prior.
“Do you know what Christmas is really about?” I asked my cherubic child, as he stared wide-eyed through the window that revealed nothing but darkness.
“Santa Claus?” he questioned, innocently.
“No.” I corrected, unfolding the story of the baby Jesus as one would an ancient scroll.
I caught my breath somewhere between ‘wise men’ and ‘frankincense and myrrh’. Outside sleigh bells rang in the distance. As the jingling came closer my husband sneaked into the room with us, pulling the door closed quickly behind him.
“Do you hear that, son?” he urged. “It sounds like Santa Claus.”
The sleigh bells were upon us then, circumambulating the house. And there was another sound… the sound of laughter. Maniacal laughter. Out of the clear blue, right outside the window, a voice somewhere between a growl, a cackle, and near hysteria, exclaimed “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
We all jumped a foot into the air. My husband and I pressed our faces to the window just in time to catch my father shuffling around the corner of the house, his silver hair blowing wild in the windy night, shaking the bells like a madman.
“Is that what he did when you and Grace were kids? “ my husband exclaimed. “I’m surprised you weren’t scarred for life!” My son burst into tears and wet himself for the first time in four months. That was the last time my father was asked to play Santa Claus.
It was shortly before Christmas the following year that the real Santa showed up at our farm – oddly enough to erect our tipi. A beautiful, elfin woman had accompanied him as his assistant- not that he seemed to need one… the tipi went up almost magically. As I watched him chortling his way through what seemed like a daunting task - his belly shaking, his blue eyes twinkling - I exclaimed to her “Doesn’t he look just like Santa Claus?”
“But … don’t you know…?” she inquired incredulously, as if there could even be a question, “he IS Santa Claus!”
I watched as he tugged at his white beard, admiring his handiwork. From far away I could hear his satisfied laughter, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Santa has become our friend, visiting us at our home every Christmas Eve since for ten years. We even get to see him in the off season during which he lives quietly in Ojo Caliente where his kind countenance brings people to tipi living. It turns out Santa’s a big fan of the Green Life.
So we know Santa’s real. When their friends say ‘there is no Santa’ our kids just nod and laugh. They know the truth. Santa lives here, in New Mexico.