There's a great biography of Santa showing on A&E right now, and it brought to mind my own memories of Santa's visit to my house when I was 3.
That year was my first memory of having a Christmas tree. It was beautiful. We had driven to a tree lot, and as my brother and I sat in the car and waited, Dad and Mom picked out a tree and negotiated the purchase. Now, I do not recall that the tree was tied to the roof of the car -- Dad was always very particular about his vehicles and I don't think that would have been agreeable to him. But we did get the thing home.
The tree reached to the ceiling in the dining room and was draped with the large colored lights that were the style of the 1950s. I still favor those over tiny lights or strings of white bulbs. The colors were part of the magic for me.
Bob and I were allowed to help put on a few ornaments, but most of our effort was put into the tinsel that we draped on the tree. Bob was notorious for building bird's nests, as my parents put it. It was a hand-size clump of tinsel that was stuck in the branches in one motion. We had no idea the tinsel was supposed to be separated out and placed carefully.
Days before we got the tree, Mom, Bob and I had walked over to visit a neighborhood greenhouse. It was a place I loved to visit, owned by an old man who always took great joy in our visits. I can still smell the earth in which the plants grew, and I feel the humidity from the water they drank. Even now, visiting a greenhouse makes me feel more alive.
On this particular visit, I was running through the tables filled with plants, inhaling the intoxicating essence of life. At the end of one run, the gardener stopped me by kneeling down in front of me. In his hand was an angel, made of delicate yellow mesh stretched tight over her wire wings. A gold halo circled her head.
"Merry Christmas!" he said. "You can put this on your Christmas tree."
Of course, at that point I had no idea what a Christmas tree was, but the day the tree went up, I ran to my room to collect my little yellow angel.
She was a treasured perennial on our trees until the late 1980s, when my mom put her on the tree for the last time. Her golden retriever was as enthralled as I had been, and ate her. It broke my heart. I still get weepy about my angel meeting her demise because I've never seen another like her.
The crowning glory of my first Christmas tree was a tin star, which I had the honor of placing on the top. Dad lifted me up to the tip-top and let me put it on. As soon as I was finished, I ran down the block to get my best friend, Bubbie, and together we ran back to my house so he could see our beautiful tree! He was duly impressed and excited. The next day, he came to fetch me to see HIS tree!
Another part of the tradition in our house that year was the Christmas Cleaning. It's something I try to continue, but probably not quite as excitedly. It was my job to scrub the ribbed chrome trim on the dinette table. After all, I was the one who had filled those ridges with grape jelly and who-knows-what through the year. I was a diligent scrubber, certain as I was that Santa would not be happy to find a dirty table when he stopped by for cookies.
I'm sure the house cleaning was followed with supper and baths, during which time someone sneaked wrapped packages under the tree. And instead of getting into pajamas, I was wearing a pretty dress.
Photos were taken -- the kind of picture-taking that left us blinded by flash bulbs. We'd chase the dark spots around the room after these sessions as part of the fun. I know we were giggling and running around like loons when there was a commotion at the front door. I couldn't focus well enough for a minute to see what was happening, but my Dad was opening the door to a visitor -- a noisy visitor who was hollering "HO HO HO".
In walked SANTA CLAUS, complete with the red suit, white beard, black belt and boots and bells jingling! It was pure magic! I was dumbstruck. All I can remember of it is Santa standing there, talking to ME. Who knows if I peed or laughed or hugged him -- that part of the memory is just gone. It was the first time I was truly star-struck.
It wasn't until 5 years ago, just days before my Mom died, that I finally knew the truth. We were having our good-bye talk, remembering all the good things through the years. She asked me what my favorite Christmas was, and immediately my mind went back to 1958 and Santa's visit. She was so pleased.
Finally it dawned on me that I never really knew the back story of that visit, so I asked her, "Who was Santa?"
Well, Santa was my dear neighbor, Walter Ruby, who was built to play the part. Walter and his wife, Josephine, lived two doors down from us. Her parents, whom I called Grandpa and Grandma McDaniel, lived between us.
The McDaniels and Rubys were like family to me. During my early childhood, they took on the role of extended family, taking care of me while my brother was in the Cerebral Palsey Center in Norman. Often my parents would have to make the drive from Ponca City to Norman to take him to and from the center, and on some of those trips my presence would not have been appropriate because of the business that had to be discussed about his care.
So on those days, I would arrive at the door of one home or the other, carrying a half-gallon of milk and a white paper package of bologna cut at the butcher counter of the corner grocery. Both households opened their arms to me without hesitation, loving me as though I was one of their own. I never knew any differently.
And so Santa's visit, even those 40-some years later, meant the world to me. Even more than the jingle of the bells, that red suit filled my home with pure love. And that's what Christmas was made for in the first place, long before Santa came to help share it.