Christmas stirs up memories in most people, and I am no different. I have memories of all kinds from attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve to crawling beneath the tree to unwrap my gifts early to traditions built around my children and grandchildren. This year I am thinking of Santa (which is only fair since he spends so much time thinking of us).
When I speak of Santa, I am not talking about my father dressing up in costume for so many Christmases. By the way, he wore the outfit even after we grew to adulthood, although by then he just wore the red pants and the cap. What I am talking of is falling into my memories of the jolly old elf himself.
I recall two very early memories of Santa Claus. The oldest of which took place when the family lived on St. Andrews Drive in Orangeburg. Our grandmother, Nanny (Dad’s mom), would come and join us from Connecticut most Christmases and in those days she would come by train which made her visits more magical. She would come to town and take us kids to the cafeteria at Eckard’s Drug at the Orangeburg Mall where I would always get a chili dog and the waitress would always remember our Nanny. Nanny would take us other places as well, and anywhere she drove was an adventure because she was not a good driver…she scared us. Anyway, this one Christmas, I remember charging out Christmas morning to take inventory of what Santa had brought. I don’t remember what it was that year, but what sticks with me the most was Nanny telling us, “I heard a noise in the middle of the night, and when I got out of bed to look I saw Santa and I rushed right back to bed!” The image that formed in my mind was of Nanny peering around a corner and spying Santa from behind as he bent over his pack. That goes down as the first and most substantial proof I needed that Santa truly existed.
Later after the family outgrew the St. Andrew’s house and had moved to Mason Drive, my older brother Chris and I shared a room with a nightstand and AM radio separating our beds. On Christmas Eve, we would go excitedly to bed and celebrate what became a ritual for us – the listening to the Santa radar tracking from the mysterious Cheyenne Mountain in some far off land called Colorado. We would track him most often across Canada and Yankee climes (he must have been saving his visit to the South for later – the best for last!) before falling asleep to muster ourselves for an early morning assault on our parents and presents. This memory is lasting not only because I live in Colorado Springs at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain now, but because if the United States Air Force said Santa existed, that was good enough for me.
Time passes so quickly (as only time can), and I grew up. I drew the mantle of Santa onto myself. Santa is a busy elf, and I think it is our jobs as adults and parents to help him out so that he can spend his efforts helping those around the world that cannot as easily help themselves. I married Jean-Marie, a beautiful woman with three incredible children, and we joined forces as Santa for them. We filled stockings, and placed gifts out with tags reading “from Santa” each Christmas. Doing our jobs as Santa helpers. Though a joy, it is not really the memory I wished to share here. The memory that is currently making me smile is after our oldest child at 21 years of age gave birth to our grandson Russell. To provide space and security for them, Jean-Marie and I turned the detached garage into a cottage that she moved into at Christmas time two months before Russell was born. It was in that cottage when Russell was almost three years old, that Haley asked me to do something special for her. So after dark on Christmas Eve after Russell had been put in his bed, she called over to the house and told me it was time. I grabbed a ladder, walked across the back yard, and set it up against her cottage. Quietly as I could, I climbed up on the roof, then stomped around for a bit so that Russell could have his magic moment with Santa.
The last memory I am thinking of happened seven years after that last memory on a December afternoon when I was driving around with Russell. We had the 850 KOA Sports Zoo on the radio and one of the hosts, Dave Logan, began some kind of rant. Suddenly he made an inadvertent slip and said something to the effect that to think such-n-such was like still believing in Santa Claus. There was a hasty commercial break and when they returned, the hosts Susie and Dave were trying to smooth it over any way they could. I was just sitting there, stunned and silent behind the steering wheel. At almost ten years of age, Russell was at the cusp where he might still believe and then again he might not. It is not a conversation you hold with a child, so I didn’t know what to say or do. So I did one of the things I do best - panicked. I sat there sweating, trying unsuccessfully to map out what to say when Russell turned to me, placed a hand on my arm and said, “It’s alright, Bumpa. I already know about Santa.” My heart melted, because Russell didn’t know it then, but he was starting his path to take up Santa’s mantle with that act of kindness toward his grandfather. And you know what? For the second Christmas Eve in a row, Russell (now 17) will be joining his step-dad Mike on the Santa Hotline - Santa continues to be payed forward.