Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Santa Claus Years

I was a fervent believer in Santa Claus. When I was seven or eight years old, growing up in Chatham, N.B., a kid at the White School in Chatham told me that there was no Santa, that the stories about him were all lies and the presents he supposedly left were all bought by my parents. I scoffed at her. Scoffed! She might as well have told me there were no stars in the sky.

I saw plenty of Santas when I was a little girl: we used to go to the old Opera House on Wellington St. in Chatham for a visit with Santa. We sat on his knee and told him what we wanted for Christmas. He said, "Ho ho ho," and gave us a small paper bag of hard candy. This happened again at the Sunday School Christmas concert in the United Church hall and at other public events around the town.

I was never fooled for one minute nor was I bothered by these little ceremonies. I was as polite as I could be, saying, "Hello, Santa," and listing off my heart's Christmas desires. I always thanked him and walked away.

Never once though did I believe that any of these fellows was really Santa. I didn't even believe that they were — as some people posited — some kind of official "helper." I knew they were just guys from around town, playing the part of Santa, and that was fine with me. I didn't give them a second thought. I only believed in the real Santa.

Many of my ideas and impressions of Christmas came from a book that came out every year at the same time as the decorations and the special candles. It may have looked like this:

although by the time I was able to remember it, the hard covers were gone and it was a little ragged around the edges. The book had poems, carols, drawings and stories at least two of which were almost unbearably sad: The Little Match Girl and The Happy Prince.

There were things in the book I didn't really understand but they created a Christmas image that stays with me to this day. Many years later, my husband found a similar book which now comes out every Christmas in our household. It has all the old favourites and reading The Happy Prince can still bring tears to my eyes.

In those days, little girls wore long brown ribbed stockings. They were held up by garters that were attached to an undergarment called a waist.

The stockings went all the way up and they had some "give" so they could easily accommodate lots of goodies and these were the stockings we hung on Christmas Eve. We hung them in the archway between the living room and the dining room and after the ritual of choosing a selection of cookies and fruitcake and making a cup of tea for Santa, off we went.

The magic of Christmas morning has never changed for me. When we crept down the stairs and peeked around the corner, the first thing we saw was fresh snow that had been tracked across the living room carpet. That was our first clue that he had been there. A few more steps and we could see the lovely array of presents and the fat bulging stockings. Our father would have stoked the furnace, our mother would have started the Christmas music — and those stockings beckoned.

The stockings always included small toys and books, maybe a hairbrush and comb and barrettes, maybe some perfumed bath powder. I mostly remember the wax paper packages of fruit and candy though. Of course, the legendary orange was always in the toe. But at regular intervals throughout the stocking, there would be bunches of grapes, a banana, an apple — always a Red Delicious called, in our house, a Christmas apple or more often, a Santa Claus apple.

There were also wrapped packages of hard candies and of peppermint-cream-filled chocolates. There were those once-a-year specialty sweets: barley toys and ribbon candy.

And — as sure as Christmas had arrived — there were Ganong's chicken bones. They were as much a part of Christmas as the turkey and the tree and they still are at our house.

I remember some of the big presents over a number of years — the toboggan, the sled, the skates, all the dolls. I have a special memory of the dollhouse. How I loved sitting at its back open wall, spending hours moving the family members and their furniture around from room to room, imagining interesting lives and activities for all of them. This was in the days before everything was made of plastic and my dollhouse was made of tin. It was simple but wonderful.

But as we're so fond of reminding one another — and especially reminding the children — it's not the gifts we remember, it's the magic. The magic for me was all about Santa Claus. I know there's some controversy these days about whether it's good to deceive your children by letting them believe in Santa. I don't think anyone could have stopped me from believing in Santa so it was never an issue for me.

I believe in him still. Nowadays, when I creep down the stairs on Christmas morning and see the fat, bulging stockings, the old magic returns and I feel the same way that I did all those years ago. It's even more interesting and magical when you consider that I filled those stockings myself, before I went to bed.

Have a happy and blessed Christmas and a wonderful 2014.

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