Well, tonight's the night. I'm sure the big, red elf himself has already left the North Pole, heading for New Zealand, and all those other island countries that are a day ahead of us. As you read this on Saturday morning, happy Tasmanians are awaiting goodies delivered from the big sleigh. I don't know how many fireplaces with chimneys grace the living rooms in Samoa, but that's never stopped him before. And it never kept him from coming to my house when I was small.
Mom and I lived in a second-floor apartment with a mock fireplace in the dining room. Actually, it was just a mantle, a place to hang stockings, but not a spot to set out cookies for Santa. It never occurred to me that he would pop through the wallpaper under the mantle, but I did worry that he'd be able to find us. Somehow, he always managed, but how he got the bike or the sled or the small desk off the roof and down in front of our tree was a complicated mystery to a nosy kid like me. I spent a lot of time worrying about the practical aspects of his arrival. The department store Santas didn't help my angst one bit.
Like most people back then (we're talking about the Truman administration) my mother took me to the big department stores at Christmas. And just like Ralphie in the movie "The Christmas Story," I got in the long line to see Santa at Jordan Marsh in Boston while she shopped. Leaving a six, seven or eight year-old in a line alone was not the high crime it is today. It was a more innocent time and safety was not a concern. Besides, I was never afraid; I was a biter.
I hated standing in line though, not because I didn't want to see Santa, but because it was always so hot. In the era before lightweight fleece, we kids were bundled into snow pants, rubber boots, heavy coats or jackets, a wool scarf, a knit hat and idiot mittens. . . you know, the kind that are attached to the string that goes up one sleeve and down the other side. Some kid's idiot mittens were simply pinned onto their cuffs.
The problem with all those outer clothes was I either stood and roasted in the toy department's sauna temperatures or wound up removing them, and then had to hold everything. Not losing idiot mittens wasn't always an option. By the time I got to Santa, the last thing I wanted to do was sit on the lap of an overheated, fat guy who smelled like stale cigarettes, and occasionally like some of those men that came out of Howie's Tavern at home. The Sterile Santa Society hadn't been created yet.
I do not remember one thing that I ever asked Santa for probably just the usual but the year I was eight I absolutely remember how Santa looked, up close and personal. He looked crusty. And that's when I figured out it was makeup . . . in sort of dry peeling layers. Looking real close I could see the orangey stains on the edge of his beard and mustache. And then I knew.
There had been a few clues along the way. Our neighbor, Mr. Bansemer, was a tall, thin Scandinavian who liked to play Santa for the neighborhood children. I can still see him walking along the snowy sidewalk with a big sack filled with Mrs. Bansemer's carmel popcorn balls slung over his shoulder. He wasn't the least bit roly-poly. When Mom invited him in, he was nice, but definitely no "hohoho." When I was younger, Mom tried to convince me that Mr. B was the real Santa, but I wanted Santa to be fat and after a couple of years I was looking for far more than some dried-up popcorn ball. Looking back, it was a lovely gesture from nice neighbors. But I was a cynical little detective, and Christmas was critical - not for pretenders.
The other big clue was the presents with the gift tags signed from Santa. His penmanship was exactly the same as Mom's! Sometimes his name was printed in block letters, but the package was wrapped in Mom's usual, white, butcher paper with the colorful stickers. Funny thing though, I received packages from Santa in her handwriting until I got married. Santa always managed to find me even after I went out in the world.
There weren't any gift tags on the overflowing stockings of my childhood, though. Santa really knew what kids want in their stocking. I always received a new toothbrush, a book box of Lifesavers (with a grown-up rum-flavored roll included), a pirate's sack of gold foil chocolate coins, and after I'd found all the other trinkets, the biggest prize was in the heel a box of 48 Crayola crayons. New crayons were an annual bonanza. When I eventually got the green and yellow flip-top box of 64 (could there really be that many colors?) the carton had a built-in crayon sharpener. Yup, my stocking was the reason I believed in Santa even after the evidence to the contrary became obvious. Think what we could have done with DNA testing.
The Princess of Boston and Mr. Smiles, now three, will be setting out cookies for the fat old elf tonight. After "The Night Before Christmas" is read, I imagine there'll be some astute listening for sleigh bells while trying to stay awake to actually see Santa. The old guy's going to be pretty whipped by the time he makes it to Boston. And I think the fatigue factor has affected his penmanship. For the last forty-plus years, his writing looks more and more like mine, nowhere as neat as it was when I was a child. Come to think of it, jolly St. Nick is a pretty old dude these days, but I'm sure my mother will be able to read his writing: "To a good girl, from Santa." She never stopped believing.
Merry Christmas, everyone.