Editor's Note: This piece is part of "12 Days of Classics," a holiday series drawn from the magazine's archives and published at magazine.nd.edu from Saturday, December 22, 2018, to Wednesday, January 2, 2019. Merry Christmas!
Thanksgiving was past, long past in my and my buddies 9-year-old time sense, and our thoughts had already turned to the coming Christmas holiday. But on a raw December Saturday, the question every child eventually asks was posed in our group:
“Do you STILL think there’s a Santa Claus?”
“Nah, I heard from Stevie that it’s just your Mom and Dad.”
“Yeah, I think it’s for little kids…”
Of course I agreed. But I knew my friends were wrong. Santa was real. However, I wasn’t as sure of things as I had been in Christmases past, and there did seem to be some inconsistencies in the Christmas legend. Our chimney led right to the furnace. Did Santa come through the oil burner then upstairs to deposit presents under the tree? And the roof of our Cape Cod looked awful small for a sled and eight reindeer. But these were minor problems.
With the initial seeds of doubt in place, I became more observant of Christmas rituals. When our Christmas tree was placed in the living room, I sensed I was helping more with decorating. In past years, Santa did everything.
Then, a month before Christmas, came our weekly Saturday trip to my father’s bar, Zoli’s. Dad, John and I had chores to do. Inside, the bar’s only light came from two plate glass windows on the side and front of the bar room. I would always walk through the darkened room to the light switches next to the front door, where I fished for the key to flip on the overhead and back bar lights. This was the first of my jobs which preceded my greater tasks of cleaning the bar and back rooms. John would wash dishes and bar hardware in the big kitchen sink. Dad would head for the office and stockrooms in the basement.
One by one, the lights came up — three overheads, back bar, back room overheads, and the stage at the far end of the back room. But the normal routine was broken today. With each flip of a switch, we saw the bar transformed. Bulbs in the overhead lights in the bar room had been changed to red and green. The lights themselves had been trimmed in riotously colored garland. When the back bar lights went on, small Christmas lights that had been intertwined with the garland lit up. A small, white Christmas tree on which stood a white paper angel with bright yellow hair, a golden glittery halo, and enormous closed eyes with outrageously sized eyelashes lit up with colored lights. Styrofoam candy canes, red bows, white branches … the place glowed.
Swooping garlands festooned the back room, and another small tree, a spiky, embarrassingly artificial green one, flashed away in the corner of the stage. Taking in the winking, glittering, haphazard holiday blaze, I complained, “Hey, how come we didn’t get to help decorate?” John repeated my complaint. “Yeah, we love to decorate. Why didn’t you let us help?”
“I have a Christmas party every year for my bartenders,” Dad told us. “Part of our Christmas tradition is that we decorate the place during the party. It wouldn’t be right to ruin their party, now would it?”
We both shook our heads and the matter was settled, even if we were still a bit disappointed. Most of the college-age bartenders were like young uncles or crazy big brothers to both of us, playing tag around the rooms of the bar or lifting us nimbly to impossible heights on their shoulders until we could reach the swaying overhead lamps. If someone besides us had to decorate, these guys were the next in line.
But my growing doubt surfaced while the new decorations twinkled in front of my eyes. The legion of bartenders decorated Zoli’s with my Dad. Santa helped decorate at our house. Why didn’t he come here? I was getting the feeling more and more that my friends might be right. Yet I still wanted to trust without question by the sheer power of faith, as my younger brother still seemed able to do. It was still magic at the Santa did visit; he just choose not to visit the bar as frequently, maybe because Dad and his loyal workers had such fun decorating. Maybe that’s how it worked. Santa does everything until you discover the joy of sharing holiday preparations with your family and friends. I mulled this over and thought it might help explain things.
The next week, my family’s shopping trip included a visit to Santa. I was prepared with my all-important list and amazed by the Santa enthroned in Macy’s. My confidence was somewhat restored.
A week before Christmas, John and I were called to assist in unloading groceries from the cavernous rear deck of the Chrysler wagon. Because of the cold, Mom didn’t want us outside, so she and Dad unloaded the car while John and I grabbed bags as they came up the small brick stoop at the side door.
I was standing in the cold on the top landing of the stoop awaiting my next bag as Dad made his way up the driveway with a bag in one arm and a large glass bottle of blue fabric softener in the other. He hit an icy patch and crashed hard into the driveway. As the fabric softener began its journey in a blue ribbon to the street down the slope of our driveway, Dad slowly rose, holding his right hand with his left, trying to stop the blood from a bad gash across his right index finger.
Mom hustled Dad inside and immediately cleaned and bandaged his hand, but it was clear they would be visiting the emergency room for stitches. John and I watched as Mom and Dad casually discussed the matter. Mom was a nurse, Dad was backed by World War II Army training, and both had seen to our cuts and scrapes over the years so this episode seemed another standard injury to be dealt with. John and I were hustled off to the playroom and left in our sister Teena’s care while Mom and Dad made the trek to the hospital.
The incident receded quickly for us. The basement playroom held toys of Christmases past and the room itself had been trimmed with garlands. A small decorated Christmas tree cheered a corner of the room. A Lionel train circled the tree and drew us over as we came down the basement stairs. We flipped on the tree lights and fired up the steam engine to take turns racing it around the back of the tree, filling the hopper cars with little army men and Hot Wheels cars. Mom and Dad returned just as we were beginning to develop some serious setups of green army troops with Hot Wheels support vehicles. Dad had a bandage on his hand but said he was just fine.
Soon recovered, my Dad took us sledding to burn off some stored holiday energy. On Christmas Eve,. I joined happily in a candle-lit dinner and sleepily attended midnight Mass. As I dropped off to sleep, I firmly concluded that Santa was indeed only a fable.
A bluish light crept into our room as I heard my sister rustle awake across the hall. The glorious day had arrived! I sprang out of bed and nudged John awake. Teena had beaten us to the stairs, but not by much, and the three of us fairly tumbled down the steps and into the living room.
The living room was almost too wonderful to bear. The tree aglow with lights and ornaments. Piles of wrapped packages were strewn underneath, and the stockings bulged to overflowing with unseen surprises. Just under the tree, in our little manger scene, a golden light glowed brightly, and the little baby Jesus smiled up with waving arms from his cradle.
But as I stood, nearly blinded by the magnificence of it all, a small creeping doubt entered my mind and, just a bit, began to dim the Christmas magic. But I pushed the doubt aside as I joined the rush for the stockings. Tradition dictated that we open these first. Mom and Dad, looking a bit dazed, joined us and gave Christmas kisses all around. My stocking was topped with a Snoopy doll wearing World War I flying ace goggles. Excavating further, I turned up a small slider puzzle, a gyroscope, a baseball, a transistor radio, a pack of PEZ with Santa’s head on the dispenser, socks, and underwear. Interspersed among the stocking contents were foil-wrapped chocolate Santas and nuts. And in the toe, a titanic orange rested, along with some small bits of coal, as a reminder.
Then it was on to the presents. All my boxes were marked simply, “To: Pep, From: Santa.” John had opened a rectangular box that held a battery-powered locomotive, the kind with mystery action that would turn when it bumped into a wall. He had it on and was trying it on the smooth floor of the dining room. I unwrapped a large flat box that held a skittle bowl game, something I had on my list. It looked wonderful, with a big plastic tray and polished hardwood pins and ball.
Although we passed them presents, Mom and Dad seemed to hang back from opening them. (I could not understand that. Didn’t they want to see what was inside?) Every few minutes, one of us would urge them to open something. They would oblige us and open one package to the combined cheers of our small gathering and the corresponding grin of satisfaction from the child that had acquired this priceless treasure for Mom or Dad. Little by little, the packages were opened, and we set about the long work of playing with first all our own toys, then with each others. As the festivities quieted, I became aware of the smell of bacon and coffee mixing with the sharp spruce smell in the living room.
As I wandered into the dining room, headed towards the kitchen, something jolted my young senses, the shock of which I can still feel these long decades later. There are times in your life when your logical world is upended, when your carefully constructed opinions of the way things work are toppled in an instant. When this happens, you remember the feeling with clarity, I suspect, for your entire life.
There, in the kitchen, lay the proof beyond doubt that Santa had indeed visited during the night. On the washed and waxed kitchen floor, cleaned to perfection by my mother the day before, were foot prints. Large soled, muddy, boot tracks. These tracks led from the kitchen door through the dining room and petered out heading into the living room, pointing right at the tree and the recently unwrapped Christmas plunder. The boot prints overlapped and merged, forming a curving, muddy path that clearly connected the tree with someone moving through the door. There was no way that these tracks, if made by my parents, would have survived a final Christmas Eve inspection tour by Mom. Besides, the boots belonged to someone who wore much larger shoes than my dad. And to add to the evidence was Mom’s reaction — she didn’t seem to notice the tracks at all! It was as if this were something to expect on Christmas morning.
I stood, head humming with thought, as the magic slowly seeped back in. Santa had indeed come, even when I had started to convince myself that it couldn’t be so.
This shattering of all these long weeks of thought happened in about a second as I stood on the cold ceramic tile of the dining room floor staring down at the boot prints. Christmas washed back over me and flooded all my senses. It seemed as if, simultaneously, someone turned up a dimmer on all the lights in the house, turned up the volume of the radio playing its Christmas carols, made the cold of the tile floor more intense underneath my socked feet, and doubled the amount of bacon frying in the pan and coffee bubbling in the percolator. I heard the intensified rustle of John and Teena sitting in the living room examining Christmas treasures. I heard Dad humming away at Silent Night. Mom glanced over from her spot in front of the stove and smiled down at me. At that moment, I wanted to gather all of them and share my discovery, but the moment of blinding insight had passed. No one had seen me riveted on the threshold of the dining room, and I was finally able to move again.
The remainder of the day, we played with our toys. Mom and Dad even joined in some of the Christmas play, rolling dice, marbles, or balls and laughing right along with we children. As we sat down to dinner in the dining room,I saw that the footprints had been mopped from the floors. No matter, I saw them still as I do today, years later, brightly locked in my memory.
A small miracle
One by one, it became an accepted fact with my friends that Santa was a myth. For me, my one special Christmas season was packed with the range of certainty, probability, possibility, doubt and, finally, ringing, unquestionable certainty again that Santa Claus was a reality. I had my own small miracle to support my new-found faith.
I never mentioned the footprints to anyone. But those footprints were an affirmation. As the Christmases rolled by, I always looked, not for evidence against Santa, but for the magical events of each Christmas season, his indicators to careful observers that he was here.
I didn’t find out until nearly 20 years later from a casual comment by my mother that my parents had help that Christmas. My father’s tumble with the glass bottle had left him with a snipped tendon in his right hand. He was injured more seriously than we knew and found it almost impossible to complete even simple Christmas tasks. When Dad went to work in the days after his visit to the hospital, his right hand heavily bandaged, one member of his young complement of bartenders offered to help with Christmas preparations. On Christmas Eve, after we children had gone to bed, he helped unload, assemble and get things ready for Christmas morning. After, I suppose, a few cups of coffee and a sandwich, he said his good-byes and Merry Christmases and was off to celebrate with his own family. I don’t think I ever met him
I did see his picture on my Dad’s desk, however, during 15 years of Saturday work, exploring the relics in the basement office. The small, dark room smelling of damp and carbon paper was part storeroom, part office. At the far end, a steam boiler hissed and clanked during the winter. Across from the boiler was a desk in a bright pool of desk-light yellow, a tall filing cabinet, a squeaky, high backed desk chair. The picture, taped along with others to the side of the filing cabinet, originally had rich colors bordered by a crisp, scalloped white. Over the years, the colors gradually faded, and the white boarder yellowed along with the tape that held it in place. In all the long years, although surrounding pictures were rearranged or changed, this one never left its spot.
The picture was of a smiling soldier on a hard-pack airfield with aviator sunglasses, a gray jumpsuit and worn combat boots. A deep green jungle stretched out in the foothills and mountains behind him. This was the last Christmas he would see. A part of what he left behind is his name etched into a black, shining, granite wall in a long list among many others. A much greater part was his unintentional gift to me through a simple kind act offered selflessly on a long ago child’s Christmas Eve. He has gained immortality as his gift still lives every time I but think of Christmas.
And every year it happens. During the rush of the holiday season, some Christmas magic sent straight from Santa’s workshop will bring back his memory. It’s usually a small thing, like finding that one special toy that has been sold out for weeks on the back of a department store shelf, or a card with a long letter from a friend that you were just thinking about, or a silent nighttime snowfall that wraps all the lighted decorations in a wintry haze, or, especially, a Christmas memory expressed by a tiny child of a holiday past when they could barely stand or talk. Little things, really, no bigger than muddy boot prints on a kitchen floor. I am certain that these things come directly from Santa’s jolly imagination. It’s his way of letting us know he’s there, always, if we just pay attention and have a bit of faith.