Growing up in the 50’s, I loved everything about Christmas: the chilly Cincinnati weather; the fragrant freshly-cut tree in our living room decorated with soft glowing multi-colored lights, glass ornaments, tinsel and icicles; the possibility of snow on Christmas Eve; the anticipation of school vacation; Christmas carols on the kitchen radio; sugar cookies shaped like snowmen; the Andy Williams Christmas Show and Santa. Especially Santa.
Such a wonderful, magical man who could fly through the sky with his reindeer, sneak into our homes when we weren’t looking and bring beautifully wrapped presents to us because we had been good — dolls and toys and bicycles and jewelry boxes and musical instruments and more. It was so exciting!
As the 50’s were coming to an end and my 10th birthday was getting closer, I began to hear rumors that Santa wasn’t real. Some of my grade school friends bragged about knowing for sure that the North Pole, the elves, the sleigh, the reindeer and Santa himself were made-up stories. I didn’t say anything. My 11 year old sister believed. My 6 year old brother believed. I believed, too. Mostly.
But I started paying closer attention.
Christmas Eve, as long as I could remember, started with three hyper-excited kids getting dressed in our Christmas outfits, coats, gloves and boots to walk next door to the neighbor’s house. Hazel, Lillian and Florence lived there – two sisters and a friend. People called them “old maids” at the time… and they were definitely old. At least 45! Hazel was the cook and back-scratcher, Lillian was the drill sergeant with the hearty laugh and Florence was the quiet knitter who made us pink, blue and yellow “booties” each year for Christmas. Because they were alone with no kids and few relatives, Mom and Dad always accepted their invitation to Christmas Eve dinner.
Although we kids were much too excited to eat, we were keen to get to their house because that was when Santa would know that he could sneak into the house and leave our presents. Every year, after dinner, carols and the exchange of presents with the ladies, we would throw on our coats, jump into our boots and run back over to our house. Every single time, Santa had snuck in during that couple of hours and eaten our cookies, finished his milk and left lots and lots of shiny packages under the tree.
That year, 1959, I was watching closely. Just as we were about to leave to go to Lillian’s house, Dad said he’d forgotten to check the furnace and that he would be there soon. It occurred to me that dad was always the last to leave the house. Every year there seemed to be something he had forgotten to do or a call he had to make. Before, it hadn’t been a big deal. This year, I was very, very suspicious. Checking the furnace on Christmas Eve?
I spent a lot of time with Hazel as she cooked dinner that year so that I could keep a lookout through their kitchen window. It was directly across from my living room window and I knew that Santa would have to walk by to place the presents under our tree.
Dad finally arrived and it was time to take the turkey out of the oven and sit down to eat. I decided to sneak one more peek and… there he was! A big man dressed in red in my house, bending over to place our presents under the tree. I shrieked! It’s him! There’s Santa!
My brother and sister and mom and dad came running to the window. Brother Tom saw him. Sister Chris wasn’t sure. Mom said she couldn’t see anything. But, my dad saw Santa. Yep, that’s him, he said.
I was delirious with joy. Santa was real. He was in my house. I ran outside to see if I could spot the sleigh and reindeer …I must have missed them, but it didn’t matter. I had seen Santa!
When we finally opened the door to our house that night, the presents were piled everywhere. The cookies were gone. The milk glass was empty. It was an evening full of smiles, exciting new toys and presents for everyone!
By the following Christmas, mom and dad had told me that Santa wasn’t real. They said that I should keep the secret so that baby brother Tom could still believe.
But I saw him! And so did Tom. And so did you, Dad! I protested.
Dad explained that he and mom had figured it out later that night. Apparently, Hazel – a heavyset woman who wore a bright red dress that year – had been bending over the oven to remove the turkey just as I looked out the window. The right timing, the right lighting and my 10 year-old desire to believe produced the reflection that became my miracle.
Now, so many Christmases later, I remember how clearly I saw Santa that night and how magical it was. Who knows, maybe dad and mom were wrong. Santa still seems to know where I live because gifts keep showing up under my tree every year!