I was eight when I found myself at the crossroads of Christmas belief. The perilous intersection where believing in Santa meets the acceptance of reality. I hung on with child-like confidence that my schoolyard friends were mistaken, my older siblings were wrong, that there truly was a Santa and reindeer and the North Pole. I didn’t like being laughed at for ‘still’ believing. Santa had to be real. I desperately wanted him to be real, but I definitely didn’t want to the last one to learn the truth.
My parents promoted the loud charade of Santa, giving credence to my conviction in Mr. Claus. Candy filled stockings, milk and cookies for Santa, even hay for the reindeer were utter proof to my young years that Santa Claus was real. Whispered, “better be good for Santa” rang in my ears, while Holiday carols spewed from the car radio. Everywhere I turned was evidence that Santa existed. How dare my classmates tease me that there wasn’t a Santa Claus!
Every member of our family had a red felt stocking, handmade by our mother, with our names sewn on the top. They hung on the wooden mantle above the fireplace just waiting to be filled by the jolly ol’ man. Even our dogs had specially stitched stockings that were bursting with rawhide treats by Christmas morn. I certainly didn’t want Santa to go away, leaving me an empty stocking. If I didn’t believe, would Santa skip our house? Would our stockings be packed away, never again to be filled chockfull of candy and toys?
On the eve of Christmas, my mother would assist my sisters and I in placing a tall glass of milk and a plate of homemade cookies on the hearth, our carefully handwritten wish lists arranged by its side. Snicker doodles, Russian wedding cakes, candy cane cookies piled high on a large red platter, tasty treats for St. Nick. For weeks, Mother could be found in the kitchen, baking the most wonderful holiday confections; letting each of us kids select our favorite cookie to make. If I didn’t believe in Santa, would mother quit baking sweets, my eight-year old brain frantically wondered? Would the warm cinnamon scent waffling through the house fade away? Would there be no special dessert served after our Christmas Day dinner? Would we still celebrate Christmas?
A few days before Christmas, Father would bring home a huge bale of hay. “Fodder for the reindeer”, he’d grunt, as he was hefting the heavy bale from the back of the pickup truck. Under the bright outdoor Christmas lights, he’d scatter the flakes of hay about the front yard. Eight large hay mounds tagged for the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh and a special one for Rudolf. Once he directed us to place apples on top of the alfalfa claiming they needed extra energy for their long night delivering presents around the world. If I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, who would feed the reindeer? Would Christmas go away? Would anyone care?
For forty some-odd years, I’ve sat at the junction of believing and not-quite believing. Do I continue on the magical journey, keeping my faith in the magic of Santa? Do I take a sharp right turn, jostling the memories of filled stockings, homemade cookies and hay for the reindeer before packing them tightly away in the trunk? Last year the decision was taken out of my hands.
My husband and I were asked to play Mr. and Mrs. Claus for a large family Christmas gathering. We were given a beautiful Santa suit, specially selected presents for the children, and directions on where and when to show up. My husband practiced his “Ho Ho Ho’s” while I made a list of all the “good” children’s names that would be attending.
The bright red Santa suit was fur trimmed and embellished with tall black boots, a wide thick belt, and a red velvet hat. White woolen gloves, a snow-white beard and hairpiece, old-fashioned wire-rimmed glasses along with a padded under belly pillow completed the costume. As my husband was dressing for the part, our two Bernese Mountain Dogs came in to investigate, sniffing at the strange red velvet material and pristine fur adorning the edges. I grabbed the camera, begging my husband to sit with the dogs for a brief photo op and quickly snapped some pictures before we needed to be on our way.
It was weeks later that I remembered to upload the pictures to the computer. January was getting ready to turn into February before I had the time to flip through the shots I had taken. Christmas had long passed, the tree taken down, the holiday decorations put away. The spirit of Christmas had disappeared into worrying about paying the bills. I sat at the computer and pulled up the pictures from Christmas.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson once said, “Questers of the truth, that’s who dogs are; seekers after the invisible scent of another being’s authentic core.” I looked at the first photo on the screen, seeing our two Berners with Santa.
The opening photo revealed our dogs, Dolce and Amore, nestled beside Santa, glazing up at him with wonder. They were enchanted with Father Christmas, enthralled with his inner spirit, his big heart, his jolly laugh. The adoration in their eyes shone with true belief. Santa’s authentic core was laid bare by the truest of seekers. And, there was Santa, eyes closed, basking in the joy of unselfish affection, unconditional love.
I knew without a doubt, weeks into the new year when Christmas was a long past remembrance, it didn’t matter whether you are a just turned eight year old or way past the half-century mark, Santa was real and would be forever.