Just as many of you, especially those who’ve been around for some time, Christmas and I have been through a lot together. And, while most of my childhood memories of the holiday deemed by many to be the kingpin of special days are Lima memories, where I’ve done most of my growing up (some would say a work ongoing), one Christmas memory, in particular, comes from my birth town of Chicago.
It’s a memory that passes through my gray matter every year as Christmas Eve approaches. Please allow me to share with you that memory, no doubt, if you’re of a certain age, one that comes gift-wrapped in nostalgia. It involves the night I saw Santa.
Of course, like most parents of the 1950s, mine were of the belief that Christmas Eve was a time to get the kiddos to bed earlier than usual to do that nocturnal sugar plum thing and free up the living room for Santa to do his magic, augmented, of course, by the efforts of Mom and Dad.
It was the longest night of the year when it came to sleeping for my sister Joan and me in the back of our small three-bedroom house in Oak Lawn, a suburb southwest of the heart of the city.
There were constant maternal admonishments that to try to get up and peer down the short hall before morning would jeopardize the whole operation. Certainly, Santa if sensed eyes were upon him as he arranged the presents around the only Christmas tree we knew, one we watered and one that filled the room with the scent of pine, he’d pack up and depart without leaving a single gift behind. While that was the parental version, I really never bought into that. I thought, well, Mom, while that may be YOUR image of Santa, mine would never take Christmas points off for curiosity.
So, as my sister, who embraced all motherly mandates, slept, I did indeed creep down the hall to look down into what people in the 1950s called the front room, one probably no more than 20 feet across from the outside wall to the inside wall that separated where I sat enraptured by my Mouseketeers, especially Annette, from the kitchen, and visually scanned the area- two wing chairs, a davenport (younger readers, that would be the couch), a small RCA black-and-white TV and the tree in front of a small picture window. While there were no lights on in the house, the room was still washed in the muted illumination from the streetlight shining through the window.
Then suddenly over by the tree I saw something that gave me my first recordable rollercoaster pit-of-the-stomach sensation. Those Christmas butterflies from more than a half century ago, were caused, scientists tell us, by the release of a certain type of adrenaline called epinephrine, which pulls blood away from the stomach area and sends it to the muscles (although I’m not sure where those muscles might have been on my 6-year-old frame). After a few seconds, they subsided enough for me to focus on the figure standing close to the tree.
I instantly knew I’d seen Santa. He was motionless and not much taller than I was, which amazed me. Fearing perhaps my parents were right and I may indeed compromise the operation, after staring at the motionless figure for a few seconds, I slipped back into my room and waited till morning. As the rest of the night passed, giddily, I kept repeating in a Christmas whisper, “I saw him! I saw him!”
A few hours later, hearing finally another human sound, I sprung from the bed and bolted down the hall. I burst into the front room, and the first thing I laid eyes on over by the tree was one of those red-nosed clown Bop Bags, a toy as nostalgic as Lincoln Logs, Mr. Potato Head and Pick-Up Sticks.
The bag was no more than three feet or so high and had a sand-filled base that allowed Mr. Clown to bounce back once a blow was delivered to what my dad always referred to as the kisser. As I stood before the unwrapped Bop Bag (surely in more frugal times, tall or oddly configured presents went unwrapped), I had my earliest epiphany. I recalled just a few hours earlier thinking that Santa did indeed seem a whole lot shorter than I imagined him to be. I also remembered how it seemed strange that he was so stationary. I think I may have, at the time, passed the later off as his perhaps being deep in thought as he counted the presents, ensuring nothing was still on the sled that was supposed to go to the Grindrods.
However, that mistaken-identity Christmas moment from so long ago really never has shaken my resolve in Santa. As “The Christmas Song” goes, “from 1 to 92,” I think we all still search during this season for Santa and the wonder of Christmas, and if tomorrow night we look closely enough down our short hallways and into our own dimly lit front rooms from so very long ago, perhaps this will be the year we’ll him and it.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.