There comes that time in every child’s life that they begin to really wonder if Santa Claus is real or not. For me, it was the Christmas of 1976. I remember it well and it has always stuck with me.
In the previous year, my parents had divorced. That can be hard for any child, but through many prayers, my parents got back together and remarried in the fall. At the time I had no real concept of money, economy, jobs and such. My dad had taken a job working at a gas station at night while looking for a better job during the day. Before the divorce, I remember living in a big house with three floors, a huge stairs case, fireplace and a big porch. We would decorate the house each year with big Christmas lights, a 4 four-foot plastic Santa and candles on the porch. We would sit our Christmas tree in the front windows, always on a spare tire, making it appear larger and giving room for all the gifts. Garland and tinsel ran down the banister of the stairs and stockings were hung on the fireplace mantle. Christmas cards that we received were hung around the double doorway leading from the living room to the dining room.
The tree was always a fake one, but once it was set up and decorated, everyone would ask if it was real, which I enjoyed. My mom always had to shape the tree before us kids could hang decorations. The thrill and excitement of going through the boxes of our wide range of ornaments, picking out our favorite, was always fun. The Snowman that we had to blow up, the little red and green elves, red, green, and gold glass bulbs that I would always admire my reflection in. We all had our favorites from old ones to the ones we had made at school.
The house was always filled with the music of Christmas. My dad was a true fan of music and it seemed Christmas just brought out the best stuff. From the Beach Boys to Elvis, Barking Dogs, Ray Stevens and Alabama, Jim Neighbors, and many others were always playing. Reminding us that Christmas was near.
Letters were written and mailed to Santa, telling him of how hard we have tried to be good that year. Asking him to bring us special gifts, promising to leave cookies and milk. Each night we would gather around the radio waiting for Santa to read our letters. I still remember how I felt when I heard Santa call my name as he read my letter. I would scream with excitement, “Mom, its Ho Ho”, my name for Santa since I began talking. “He said my name, and he’s reading my letter”. And seeing him in person at the local department store, actually seeing him and telling him what I wanted, it was all so magical to me.
We were born and raised in the church, so we knew the real reason for Christmas. Getting to celebrate our Savior’s birth at this wonderful time of the year was always a must. From our Church Christmas program, manger scenes and Sunday School lessons that reminded us of baby Jesus being born. It all came together to make such wonderful time.
But now, following the divorce, loss of a good job and trying to make things better, there was no big house with the stairs and porch. We lived in a small first-floor apartment. Us kids, four at the time, now shared a bedroom. It was small, things were tight but it was Christmas. I still remember dragging the Christmas decorations out of the small basement, hanging the lights, placing the Santa and candles in just the right spot. Setting up, shaping and decorating our tree, hanging the stocking and Christmas cards and of course, the Christmas music. Letters had been written and visits to Santa had been made. Church programs and Sunday School lessons had been performed and taught. It was Christmas and it was magical.
The school was now out for Christmas break; it was just a few days before Christmas. This year I really wanted a Stretch Armstrong. I had told Ho Ho and heard him read my letter on the radio. But I was beginning to have a little doubt. The magic and excitement were there, but I did really wonder if Santa was real. Some kids at school and church were saying that he was not real and even fake. Normally presents would start to mount under our tree weeks before, but this year there seemed to be a little less and there was defiantly not one that looked like a Stretch Armstrong. However, there was still some hope in this little boys heart that Santa would come.
I would normally end each evening at my mom’s feet, rubbing them for her, then doing our prayers together. I would secretly pray for my family, Santa and my Stretch Armstrong.
This night was no different. As we wrapped up watching some TV Christmas special, sitting at my mother’s feet rubbing them, getting ready for our prayers, something caught my eye outside.
At first, I thought it was a reflection of the Christmas lights on the windows or possibly the plastic Santa moving on the porch. But it was not any of those. It was Santa! I jumped to my feet in disbelief, pressing my face to the window to get a better view. It was he, the dark red suit, black boots, white beard and a sack on his back. Santa was walking down my street.
“Mom, it’s Ho Ho! It’s Ho Ho!”
We fought for a better view of the window as Santa walked down our sidewalk. When he made the turn up our walkway towards our apartment, I am sure you could hear the screams all the way to the North Pole. There was what seems like the longest sound of silence as we waited to see which apartment door he knocked on. Then we heard “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas Cline kids!” as Santa knocked on our door.
I could hardly believe it, Santa was right there in my house. We led him into the living room where he could sit. I was in awe as he began to call out my sister and brothers names. Each time pulling a present from is bag asking if they had been good this year. I watched in amazement, he was real. It didn’t matter what others had said, Santa was here. Excitement built as each child opened a gift from him. Then I heard him say “Jeffy, have you been a good boy this year?” I was speechless and could only nod my head yes. Looking into his eyes, seeing his white glove covered hands reach into his big red sack of presents, seemed to go in slow motion. He removed a present wrapped in beautiful red and green paper with a big red bow. As he read my name off and handed it to me, I couldn’t help to thank how real he was.
Ripping into the paper I began to see the box for a Stretch Armstrong. Wow! It was just what I wanted. We all had received something we had asked for. Santa has even had food for a Christmas meal and other sweets and goodies. He was real. There he was, in my house, in front of my tree and stockings, jolly and giving.
My parents chatted with him as we kids began to play with our toys and eat the goodies. I believe I saw tears in moms eye. We all seemed overwhelmed by it all. Santa was here.
My belief or disbelief of Santa started to rise just a little. I wanted to see the sleigh and reindeer. While everyone played and talked, I snuck outside on the side of the porch, waiting for Santa to leave. When he finally came out, waving goodbye with a loud Merry Christmas and walked away from our apartment, I followed him. I wanted to see his sleigh and reindeer. Even though there was snow on the ground, Santa didn’t get in his sleigh, instead it a big nice car that looked very familiar. When he got in, I stood behind a tree watching. As he began to remove his hat and beard I almost cried. But as I focused a little harder to see his real face, it began to look very familiar also. I couldn’t place it at first, but then when he smiled and I got a better look, I knew who it was. It was our Pastor and family friend from a little church we had attended. At that moment something clicked, I realized the real magic of Christmas. It was the best Christmas ever.
You might say Santa is not real, or that he is not the reason for the season, which he is not. But over two thousand years ago Christ was born in a lonely manger, a gift for us all. It was magical, glorious and real. Wise men sought Him, gifts were given and received. It was the first Christmas. We celebrate His birth this time each year, each with our own family traditions, ways, and beliefs.
As for me, I know Jesus somehow intervened that Christmas in 1976. Prayers were heard and answered. Christmas cheer was shared. I am thankful for what He did for me and my family that year.
And thanks to a Pastor in a Santa suit.
I will never forget.