A Childhood Christmas Memory

A visit from Santa that impressed my inner child so deeply that I still keep a place for wonder and the possible alive in that secret inner space.

It’s hard to believe but here it is Christmas Eve again. NORAD is tracking Santa’s sleigh ride across the globe once again tonight, giving credence to the older kids that maybe the chubby guy in the red suit is real after all. You know, just in case there was any doubt. My parents were always noncommittal about Santa. If I believed in him, then they supported me completely. My mom even baked cookies and left hot cocoa by the Christmas tree on a special enameled mug and plate before we went to bed. Nothing was too good for Santa.

So I am reminded, as I am every Christmas Eve, about one cold, snowy Christmas night in rural Pennsylvania. My dad was in the Navy so we moved every couple of years to a new place. Just as I turned 9, we moved from Honolulu to a small town outside Philadelphia. It was a shock to go from flip flops and swim suits to boots and hooded coats. My mom wasn’t happy about this move at all but from my perspective it was a much cooler place to be for Christmas. Dad worked hard all the time and I know he pulled out all the stops for this Christmas.

As the youngest of four children, my oldest brother was already off to college but he still came home for Christmas We had barely moved into our house-on-a-hill but Dad got us a big Scottish Pine tree, which we all decorated together after supper a few nights earlier. The outside of the house (and it was pretty big) was strewn with colored lights. We were one of the best dressed homes in the neighborhood. Dad always took pride in houses we lived in but in this case he really went all out.

Each of us had our own private room (except Ted, so he bunked in Michael,’s room) the largest of the kids’ rooms. This was a significant upgrade from our officers’ quarters in Ewa Beach. Being the littlest, I got the smallest room across from the hall bathroom and stairs, which led down to a large eat-in kitchen, living and dining room. That meant I was nearest to the Christmas tree and fireplace. My bedroom closet also had access to the attic. This was a distinction I thought made my room even less grand than my siblings. All that was about to change.

On Christmas Eve day, a blizzard blew into the Northeastern seaboard. It was heavy, wet snow that melted some in the daylight and then froze over like a giant crust. Icicles hung over the windows and doors. We enjoyed a big fire in the fireplace before bed. I remember asking if anyone thought Santa would make it that night. I was aware that my older brothers and sister were amused by my question, even though they tried to go along with my parents’ unspoken edict that they were not to interfere. I received a disingenuous reply from my siblings.

This thinly veiled response only made me all the more determined to keep an open mind. I would stay up all night if need be and gather evidence of Santa’s visit, if he was as real as I knew him to be. Now I had the distinct advantage of being closest to the fireplace and Christmas tree, so if anyone could hear him it’d be me. Besides, I knew they’d already closed their minds to magic in favor of “the real world.”

Hours went by and I didn’t hear anything. The moon was bright over our house on the hill. I looked out my bedroom window and the night was nearly as bright as day with the moon reflecting off the icy snow. I watched and waited for so long. I must’ve fallen asleep because I Woke with a start. I heard the crunching of reindeer hooves on the roof, leaking through the opening cubby in my closet to the attic. I jumped up and ran to the window but Santa was already out of sight. But I knew he’d been there, if only in my dreams.

This incident has never left me. It’s one of my most treasured memories. Not because I believe the Santa of our childhoods lives at the North Pole and delivers us physical presents by a reindeer powered sleigh but because it’s one of those moments that anchors the inner child. This memory represents the part of me that’s open to the playful world of imagination and thank God for it.

Could it be that Christmas and Santa are a state of mind. There are those who believe Santa is a shaman – that He travels in another dimension. You can’t see him if you close your mind. That’s as good a concept for another Santa movie as any other I know.

When I worked in story development for Disney Animated Features, I think it was Jeffrey Katzenberg who suggested we all read The Uses of Enchantment: The meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. by Bruno Bettelheim. It’s a wonderful book written by a psychologist about the elements of fantasy that appeal to both children and adults. I think maybe my stubborn belief in the magic of the unseen, the openness to something my logical mind can’t access, is one of the reasons they hired me. I certainly wasn’t the most qualified candidate otherwise.

Merry Christmas to you all and to all a good night.

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