“You know Santa Claus isn’t real, don’t you?” my older brother asked me, somewhat exasperated at my naiveté.
“Yes,” I replied matter-of-factly, with my eyes rolling slightly.
In actuality, it was the first time I’d even considered the possibility. Now, I just felt stupid. Like I was the oldest kid in the world who still believed in Santa.
I asked my mama.
“Tommy said Santa Claus isn’t real. Is that true?”
“He’s real if you want him to be, son,” Mama said.
Maybe deep down I’d known for some time, but I wasn’t ready to let it go. Maybe I knew that, if I did, Christmas would never feel the same again and in the deep recesses of my mind I wanted to hold on to this little piece of childhood just a little while longer.
But things started to make better sense. Like when Mama told me not to expect too much for Christmas this year, times were tough. I knew times were tough but that didn’t really seem to matter when it came to being naughty or nice. Now I get it.
To say times were tough is an understatement.
The coal mine closed down and Daddy hadn’t worked in almost a year. We had food on the table but not much else. Daddy was gone a lot, I remember. It wasn’t until many years later that I came to learn that he spent most nights coon hunting and most days drinking moonshine from a still he had hidden in the woods behind the house. It’s hard on a man when he loses the only work he's ever known. I remember my mama crying a lot and being awakened in the middle of the night to the sounds of the two of them fighting.
Besides, it didn’t much feel like Christmas anyway. Most winters are mild in the deep south, but this year was even warmer than usual. All the trees were still covered with leaves until a vicious thunderstorm roared through and blew them all to the ground, just a couple days before Christmas. It hadn’t snowed in three or four years. I'd never experienced a white Christmas before and wanted one more than just about anything. Every night I prayed for snow.
I fell asleep early on Christmas Eve, but was jolted awake just after midnight when I heard loud clanking and banging coming from somewhere. I was thinking that maybe another storm had come through and blown tree limbs onto the tin roof. I got up to investigate and that’s when I saw him, standing in front of the Christmas tree beside the fireplace: a man with a flowing white beard and red coat and black boots. It was Santa Claus.
Santa glanced at me and smiled a smile that danced across his entire face and called me over to him to give me a big hug.
“You are real, Santa,” I said.
“Of course I am,” he said. “Now where are my cookies, boy? Every year you leave me oatmeal cookies and a tall glass of milk.”
I ran as fast as I could to the kitchen and came back with cookies and milk for Santa and some for me too. His crystal blue eyes lit up when he saw them.
“I’m sorry for all the commotion. The reindeer got a little reckless landing on your roof tonight.” We both laughed.
Santa asked me if I could hold the bag open for him while he got out the presents, which were many more than I could have ever dreamed of – a bicycle for me, a basketball for my brother, a radio for my sister, a coat for Daddy and gloves for Mama... and so much more. The presents just kept coming until they were spilling out from under the tree and into the dining room.
Finally, after all the presents were put out and all the cookies eaten, Santa told me it was time for me to go back to bed and time for him to head to the next house, as he caressed my face with his gloved hand.
“But I have one more present for you,” he said. “Go look out the window.”
From the window, I watched Santa and his sleigh disappear into the black winter sky then noticed the first flakes of snow begin to fall. It snowed the rest of the night and all of Christmas Day and most of the days leading up to New Years Eve. There’s no telling how many snowmen my brothers and sisters and I built or how many snowball fights we had in our back yard. We’d never laughed so hard in our entire lives.
The next spring my daddy got a job in another town and we moved away. Mama and Daddy quit fighting and life got back to being normal. Many Christmas’s have come and gone since then, but that's the one I remember the most. I guess you can say it’s the best Christmas I ever had. It’s the one and only time I ever saw Santa Claus, but I’ve never since questioned his existence.
Now, when my children ask me if Santa Claus is really real, I always say “Yes, he is.”
He’s real if you want him to be.