A Christmas Story
A True Story
There's nothing so beautiful as a child's dream of Santa Claus. I know, I often had that dream. But I was Jewish and we didn't celebrate Christmas. It was everyone else's holiday and I felt left out, like a big party I wasn't invited to. It wasn't the toys I missed, it was Santa Claus and a Christmas tree.
So when I got married and had kids I decided to make up for it. I started with a seven-foot tree, all decked out with lights and tinsel, and a Star of David on top to soothe those whose Jewish feelings were frayed by the display and, for them, it was a Hanukah bush. And it warmed my heart to see the glitter, because now the party was at my house and everyone was invited.
But something was missing, something big and round and jolly, with jingle bells and a ho! ho! ho! So I bought a bolt of bright red cloth and strips of white fur and my wife made me a costume. Inflatable pillows rounded out my skinny frame, but no amount of makeup could turn my face into merry old Santa. I went around looking at department store impersonations sitting on their thrones with children on their laps and flash-bulbs going off, and I wasn't satisfied with the way they looked either. After much effort I located a mask maker and he had just the thing for me, a rubberized Santa mask, complete with whiskers and flowing white hair. It was not the real thing but it looked genuine enough to live up to a child's dream of St. Nick.
When I tried it on something happened. I looked in the mirror and there he was, big as life, the Santa of my childhood. There he was . . . and it was me. I felt like Santa, like I became Santa. My posture changed. I leaned back and pushed out my false stomach. My head tilted to the side and my voice got deeper and richer and a "MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE."
For two years I played Santa for my children to their mixed feelings of fright and delight and to my total enjoyment. And when the third year rolled around, the Santa in me had grown into a personality of his own and he needed more room than I had given him. So I sought to accommodate him by letting him do his thing for other children. I called up orphanages and children's hospitals and offered his services free. But, "We don't need Santa, we have all sorts of donations from foundations and . . . thank you for calling." And the Santa in me felt lonely and useless.
Then, one late November afternoon, I went to the mailbox on the corner of the street to mail a letter and saw this pretty little girl trying to reach for the slot. She was maybe six years old. "Mommy, are you sure Santa will get my letter?" she asked. "Well, you addressed it to Santa Claus, North Pole, so he should get it," the mother said and lifted her little girl so she could stuff the letter into the box. My mind began to whirl. All those thousands of children who wrote to Santa Claus at Christmas time, whatever became of their letters? One phone call to the main post office answered my question. They told me that, as of the last week of November, an entire floor of the post office was needed to store those letters in huge sacks that came from different sections of the city.
The Santa in me went ho! ho! ho! and we headed down to the post office. And there they were, thousands upon thousands of letters, with or without stamps, addressed to Santi Claus, or St. Nick, or Kris Kringle, scribbled on wrapping paper or neatly written on pretty stationary. And I rummaged through them and laughed. Most of them were gimme, gimme, gimme letters, like "I want a pair of roller skates, and a Nintendo, and a GI Joe, and a personal computer, and a small portable TV, and whatever else you can think of." Many of them had the price alongside each item . . . with or without sales tax.
Then there were the funny ones like: "Dear Santa, I've been a good boy all of last year, but if I don't get what I want, I'll be a bad boy all of next." And I became a little flustered at the demands and the greed of so many spoiled children. But the Santa in me heard a voice from inside the mail sack and I continued going through the letters, one after the other, until I came upon one which jarred and unsettled me.
It was neatly written on plain white paper and it said: "Dear Santa, I hope you get my letter. I am eleven years old and I have two little brothers and a baby sister. My father died last year and my mother is sick. I know there are many who are poorer than we are and I want nothing for myself, but could you send us a blanket, cause mommy's cold at night." It was signed Suzy.
And a chill went up my spine and the Santa in me cried, "I hear you Suzy, I hear you." And I dug deeper into those sacks and came up with another eight such letters, all of them calling out from the depth of poverty. I took them with me and went straight to the nearest Western Union office and sent each child a telegram: "GOT YOUR LETTER. WILL BE AT YOUR HOUSE ON CHRISTMAS DAY. WAIT FOR ME. SANTA."
I knew I could not possibly fill the need of all those children and it wasn't my purpose to do so. But if I could bring them hope. If I could make them feel that their cries did not go unheard and that someone out there was listening . . . So I budgeted a sum of money and went out and bought toys. I wasn't content with the five-and-ten cent variety. I wanted something substantial, something these children could only dream of, like an electric train, or a microscope, or a huge doll of the kind they saw advertised on TV.
And on Christmas Day I took out my sleigh and let Santa do his thing. Well, it wasn't exactly a sleigh, it was a car and my wife drove me around because with all those pillows and toys I barely managed to get in the back seat. It had graciously snowed the night before and the streets were thick with fresh powder.
My first call took me to the outskirts of the city. The letter had been from a Peter Barsky and all it said was: "Dear Santa, I am ten years old and I am an only child. We've just moved to this house a few months ago and I have no friends yet. I'm not sad because I'm poor but because I'm lonely. I know you have many things to do and people to see and you probably have no time for me. So I don't ask you to come to my house or bring anything. But could you send me a letter so I know you exist." My telegram read: "DEAR PETER, NOT ONLY DO I EXIST BUT I'LL BE THERE ON CHRISTMAS DAY. WAIT FOR ME. SANTA."
We spotted the house and drove past it and parked around the corner. Then Santa got out with his big bag of toys slung over his shoulder and tramped through the snow. The house was wedged in between two tall buildings. The roof was of corrugated metal and it was more of a shack than a house. I walked through the gate, up the front steps and rang the bell. A man opened the door. He was in his undershirt and his stomach bulged out of his pants. "Boje moy " he exclaimed in astonishment. That's Polish, by the way, and his hand went to his face. "P-p-please . . ." he stuttered, "p-please . . .de boy . . . de boy . . . at mass . . . church. I go get him. Please, please wait." And he threw a coat over his bare shoulders and, assured that I would wait, he ran down the street in the snow.
So I stood in front of the house feeling good, and on the opposite side of the street was this other shack, and through the window I could see these shiny little black faces peering at me and waving. Then the door opened shyly and some voices called out to me "Hya Santa" . . . "Hya Santa".
And I ho! ho! hoed my way over there and this woman asked if I would come in and I did. And there were these five young kids from one to seven years old. And I sat and spoke to them of Santa and the spirit of love which is the spirit of Christmas. Then, since they were not on my list, but assuming from the torn Christmas wrappings that they had gotten their presents, I asked if they liked what Santa had brought them during the night. And each in turn thanked me for . . . the woolen socks, and the sweater, and the warm new underwear.
And I looked at them and asked: "Didn't I bring you kids any toys?" And they shook their heads sadly. "Ho! ho! ho! I slipped up," I said "We'll have to fix that." I told them to wait, I'd be back in a few minutes, then trudged heavily through the snow to the corner. And when I was out of their sight, I ran as fast as I could to the car. We had extra toys in the trunk and my wife quickly filled up the bag, and I trotted back to the house and gave each child a brand new toy. There was joy and laughter and the woman asked if she could take a picture of Santa with the kids and I said, sure, why not?
And when Santa got ready to leave, I noticed that this five-year-old little girl was crying. She was as cute as a button. I bent down and asked her "What's the matter, child?" And she sobbed, "Oh! Santa, I'm so happy." And the tears rolled from my eyes under the rubber mask.
As I stepped out on the street, "Pan, pan, proche . . .please come . . . come," I heard this man Barsky across the way. And Santa crossed and walked into the house. The boy Peter just stood there and looked at me. "You came," he said. "I wrote and . . . you came". He turned to his parents. "I wrote . . . and he came." And he repeated it over and over again. "I wrote . . . and he came." And when he recovered, I spoke with him about loneliness and friendship, and gave him a chemistry set, which seemed to be what he would go for, and a basketball. And he thanked me profusely. And his mother, a heavy-set Slavic-looking woman, asked something of her husband in Polish. My parents were Polish so I speak a little and understand a lot. "From the North Pole," I said in Polish. She looked at me in astonishment. "You speak Polish?" she asked. "Of course," I said. "Santa speaks all languages." And I left them in joy and wonder.
And I did this for twelve years, going through the letters to Santa at the post office, listening for the cries of children muffled in unopened envelopes. In time I learned all that Santa has to know to handle any situation. Like the big kid who would stop Santa on the street and ask: "Hey, Santa, where's your sleigh?" And I'd say, "How old are you son?" And he'd say, "Thirteen." And I'd say, "Well, you're a big fellow and you ought to know better. Santa used to come in a sleigh many years ago, but these are modern times. I come in a car now." And I'd hop in the back seat and my wife would drive off.
Or the kid who would look at me closely and come out with, "That's a mask," pointing a finger. And you never lie to children so I'd say, "Sure, son, of course. If everybody knew what Santa really looks like they'd bother me all year long and I couldn't get my things ready for Christmas." Or the mother who would whisper so her young son couldn't hear, "Where do you come from?" I'd turn to the child and say, "Your mom wants to know where I come from Willy." And he'd say, "From the North Pole, Mommy," with absolute certainty. And she'd nudge me and whisper, "You don't understand. Who sent you? I mean, how do you come to this house?" I'd turn to the boy and say, "Hey, Willy, your mom wants to know why I came to see you." And he'd say, "Cause I wrote him a letter, Mommy." And I'd pull out the letter and she knows she mailed it, and she's confused and bewildered and I'd leave her like that.
As time went on, the word got out about Santa Claus and me, and I insisted on anonymity, but toy manufacturers would send me huge cartons of toys as a contribution to the Christmas spirit. So I started with 18 or 20 children and wound up with 120, door to door, from one end of the city to the other, from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.
And on my last call, a number of years ago, I knew there were four children in the family and I came prepared. The house was small and sparsely furnished. The kids had been waiting all day, staring at the telegram and repeating to their skeptical mother, "He'll come, Mommy, he'll come." And as I rang the door bell the house lit up with joy and laughter and "He's here . . . he's here!" And the door swings open and they all reach for my hands and hold on. "Hya, Santa . . . Hya, Santa. We just knew you'd come." And these poor kids are all beaming with happiness. And I take each one of them on my lap and speak to them of rainbows and snowflakes, and tell them stories of hope and waiting, and give them each a toy.
And all the while there's this fifth child standing in the corner, a cute little girl with blond hair and blue eyes. And when I'm through with the others, I turn to her and say: "You're not part of this family, are you?"
And she shakes her head sadly and whispers, "No."
"Come closer, child," I say, and she comes a little closer.
"What's your name?" I ask. "Lisa."
"How old are you?" "Seven."
"Come, sit on my lap," and she hesitates but she comes over and I lift her up and sit her on my lap. "Did you get any toys for Christmas?" I ask..
"No," she says with puckered lips.
So I take out this big beautiful doll and, "Here, do you want this doll?"
"No," she says. And she leans over to me and whispers in my ear, "I'm Jewish."
And I nudge her and whisper in her ear, "I'm Jewish too. Do you want this doll?" And she's grinning from ear to ear and nods with wanting and desire, and takes the doll and hugs it and runs out.
It's been a long time since I last put on my Santa suit. But I feel that Santa has lived with me and given me a great deal of happiness all those years. And now, when Christmas rolls around, he comes out of hiding long enough to say, "Ho! ho! ho! A Merry Christmas to you, my friend."
And I say to you now, MERRY CHRISTMAS MY FRIENDS."
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