“Kenny. Kenny, wake up.”
I slowly opened my eyes to find my parents standing beside my bed, smiling. It was the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, 1978. I was five. I blinked, trying to focus.
My mom put a finger over her mouth, signaling me to be quiet. “Come see.”
I got out of bed and tiptoed to the doorway, peeking down the hall. There in my living room stood the man himself; the man who made kids’ Christmas wishes come true the world over: Santa Claus.
He took the giant sack off his shoulder, pulling out presents and placing them around the tree. I stood amazed, my jaw hanging open. It was really him, in the flesh. Not one of Santa’s helpers—like who I got my picture taken with at the mall—this was the real dude. My mind was blown.
Santa put the last of the presents under the tree and walked into our little breakfast nook. I snuck along the short hall that led to the back door so I could spy on him through the kitchen. He sat at the table, one mittened hand picking up a sugar cookie I’d left for him while the other grabbed the glass of milk I’d put out for him to wash it down. He took a couple of bites of the cookie, a healthy swallow of milk, then stood.
As our house had no fireplace (and hence no chimney), Santa left the same way he’d come in—through the front door. He closed the door behind him and I heard a muffled “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Seconds later, there was the sound of bells jingling and clatter on the roof.
He was getting in his sleigh!
I burst out the back door, running out into the yard to try and catch a glimpse of the jolly fat man and his reindeer flying away. Alas, he was already gone.
I went back into the house and surveyed the presents under the tree. It was surreal. My young brain almost couldn’t comprehend what I had just seen. I walked to the breakfast nook and looked at the half-eaten cookie and mostly full glass of milk. The only physical evidence that he had been in my house.
Well, besides the presents.
With no chance on earth of going back to sleep, my parents mercifully let me open the presents Santa had left for me. My family’s tradition was to open our presents on Christmas Eve, so I had already opened presents that night, but these were special, bonus presents from Santa. I tore into them like some sort of pajama-wearing Tasmanian Devil, a whirlwind of wrapping paper, bows, and scotch tape.
This tradition of “catching Santa in the act” lasted two or three years. Looking back, I think my parents must’ve enlisted the help of my aunt and uncle to pull it off. It took two people—I think my aunt played Santa while my uncle made noise and jingled bells on the roof. I hadn’t yet begun to question Santa’s existence at that young age, and seeing him in my house with my very own eyes only cemented my belief for years to come.
One year I got into an argument with a boy at school. It was the first day back after Christmas vacation, and I was sharing which presents I’d gotten from my family and which ones were from Santa.
“Santa Claus isn’t real,” the boy said.
“He is so. I saw him.”
“That was your dad, stupid.”
“It was not. My dad was there with me and my mom.”
“It was your grandpa.”
“I don’t have a grandpa.” (Both my grandpas were already long deceased.)
The boy scowled. “My mom says Santa’s not real!”
“Probably because you’re not a good boy and he doesn’t come bring you presents.”
I wasn’t trying to be mean; I was just telling the truth as I saw it. Why else would someone tell their kid Santa wasn’t real when obviously he was?
By the time I was eleven, I had begun to see the cracks in the story of Santa Claus. I had overheard enough to start putting the pieces together. One day, I decided to say something to my mom to let her know I had everything all figured out. I was quite proud of myself for being so clever.
She wasn’t happy.
She told me that if I stopped believing in Santa, he would stop bringing me the awesome presents I had come to expect every Christmas morning (which, keep in mind, were in addition to my regular presents from the family, that I opened on Christmas Eve). The message was received loud and clear—saying there was no Santa meant there would be no more extra gifts from Santa. I never said another word about him not being real.
And every year, all the way until our last Christmas together when I was seventeen, I’d wake up on Christmas morning to find at least one present (usually a really good one) under the tree, with a tag clearly in my mom’s handwriting, made out to me from Santa.
The holidays were a little different after that, but one thing that never changed was my enthusiasm for the holidays. No matter what’s going on elsewhere in the world (or my personal life), I’ve always loved Christmas and I know it’s due in no small part to the great lengths my parents went to in those early years to make mine so memorable.
I’d send you all the presents your pretty little hearts desired this year if I could, but instead you’ll have to settle for this relaying of Christmas nostalgia. This is my last post before Christmas, so I send you all a hearty wish of good tidings this holiday season, and may all your Christmas wishes come true.
Merry Christmas, everybody.