The first encounter that I can remember happened when I must have been four or five years old, when my family still lived in Illinois. Christmas Eve began with our usual tradition as my sister and I carefully arranged a plate of cookies and carrots and left them on the table where Santa Claus could find them. Then our parents ushered us away to bed where we waited for what seemed like an eternity before sneaking to the door to listen for his arrival.
We knew what was happening outside when we heard the first thumps and the clanging of bells. By the time we heard a loud, jolly voice announcing Santa’s presence with a booming “Ho Ho Ho!” my sister and I could hardly contain our excitement. Santa was in our house eating our cookies! Rudolph was eating our carrots! We were about to get a ton of presents!
Santa continued to make noise, reading our Christmas letter and banging around in the dining and living rooms as he delivered and arranged our gifts. We heard him talking to Rudolph–Santa could only fit his lead reindeer inside our dining room while the others had to wait on the roof–who would respond with a jingle of the bells on his neck harness and crunch noisily on a carrot. I tried to catch a glimpse of Santa through the slightly open bedroom door, but all I could see of the living room was a sliver of our Christmas tree with its lights twinkling. I recall telling my sister later—since I was the oldest, I was clearly the authority—that I could tell from the supernatural twinkle of the Christmas lights and the special shimmer in the air that magic had been present in our house, and even though we couldn’t see Santa there had been visible proof of his existence.
Fast forward a few years, and the entire family–including great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, and an uncle–joined us in our small family home in Texas. We’d spent the early evening gathered around in the living room, eating Christmas goodies and watching Santa’s progress on the news channel’s Santa Tracker while we waited to “have a tree” (borrowing my great-grandmother’s terminology for the gift opening ceremony). By this time my sister and I had our suspicions that Santa Claus wasn’t real and that it had something to do with my father’s disappearance at the same time each Christmas Eve, but we’d decided not to share this with our parents for fear that it would mean we wouldn’t get as many presents that year. Santa must have figured out that we had our doubts because this year he decided to up the ante a bit even though he risked blowing his cover.
After nightfall there we all were again, the entire extended family—minus my father, who had once again disappeared to be ill–huddled in the dark on the two twin beds in the room my sister and I shared. After a long silence punctuated by whispering and shushed giggles from the adults we heard the first telltale sounds.
After the usual clanging noises from somewhere outside the house, the first clear indication of Santa’s arrival was the red light from Rudolph’s nose. Another round of excited giggles erupted from the adults as soon as we spotted it, a 3-inch red point of light bobbing back and forth across the window. Then we heard the bells, and pretty soon from the noises in the kitchen we could tell Santa was in the building. We all squeezed in close to the door to listen when we heard Santa announce his presence with a loud, southern sounding, “Woah, Rudolph!” before launching into a dictation of our Christmas letter.
This particular year, as soon as silence settled in the house and we could tell Santa was finished with his stop at our house, someone suggested we all pile out on the lawn to try to catch a glimpse of Santa as he flew away. So there we all went, spilling out onto the lawn. My dad met us there, excitedly exclaiming that there were sleigh marks in the grass from where Santa had landed. And there they were, two lines burned across the front lawn. Never mind the small bits of burned paper towel that still clung to the grass or the slight scent of gunpowder in the air; I’m sure those were coincidental.
A sense of excitement spread among all of us, adults and kids alike, when we discovered the sleigh tracks. After spending a considerable amount of time inspecting them and searching for other clues (“That’s too big to be a dog pile; it must be reindeer poop!”), we returned to the house to cram into the living room and unwrap gifts.
I don’t remember when my sister and I finally confessed to my parents that we knew Santa Claus was just my father with a low-quality tape recorder, some bells, and his US Army issue flashlight with a red light filter, but the tradition of gathering in my family’s house to “have a tree” continued and so did the laughter as we retold the stories of Santa Claus’s previous visits. This evening after I mentioned I was writing a blog post to immortalize the tradition, my dad located his old tape recorder so we could replay one of Santa’s last visits and laugh at his southern drawl, the loud train-like background noises that were supposed to be reindeer bells, and a barely noticeable mistake.
As it turns out, Santa does nip the bottle a bit while he’s flying around delivering gifts on Christmas Eve. Either that or we’ve been issuing the reindeer call wrong all these years, because I distinctly heard him call one of them Nixon.