I am guest blogging over at Andrew Q. Gordon’s website today for his Holiday Blog Event. Each day a different writer talks about their memories of the holidays, no matter which ones they celebrate. It has been a joyous group of offerings, from Shira Anthony to Wade Kelly. You can find the schedule here. Today I have singled out one (among many) of my father and the meaning of Santa.
Footsteps of Ash and the Meaning of Santa Clause
Christmas holds so many wonderful memories of family and Christmas past that when Andrew asked me to share something about Christmas especially in regard to families and children, I found myself reliving so many joyous Christmas memories, both from my childhood and my daughter’s, recent and decades ago. It was a tough choice but in the end I chose to go way back to my own childhood and an overworked Dad and Mom who never failed to bring the magic and joy of the holiday season alive each and every year.
Although my Mom was always an important “behind the scenes” partner in our family’s Christmas, it was left to Dad to put together the bicycles or anything that required tools and mechanical skill. And it was Dad who supplied the special touches that I remember with a sparkling clarity today. We always lived in small houses that had fireplaces both by choice and necessity. With parents born and raised in the South, fireplaces were a rarity and not often needed. So Mom and Dad found them not only charming and unusual but needed in the colder climates of New York and New Jersey where our family ended up as Dad took one education job after another. Dad loved building fires in the fireplaces and took great pride in building them “just a certain way”. But at Christmas time, those fireplaces took on a special meaning as that is where Santa would appear to bring our gifts on Christmas morning. And it all started the night before Christmas.
Our stockings were hung by the chimney with care, just as in the poem. They were made by my grandmother, a seamstress of note, and I still have mine, ragged and threadbare, all these decades later, our names carefully stitched along the white fake fur at the top. Everyone in the family had a homemade stocking and each was hung over the fireplace, from Dad’s to Alison, the youngest child.
Christmas Eve was full of preparations and anticipation. My grandparents would arrive from Florida to help out and keep us kids occupied. Mamaw was in charge of the baking. A small batch of sugar cookies were made that day before Christmas with green and red sprinkles flying everywhere . Pepaw made sure a special glass that we used every year just for Santa was washed and ready. And if he filled another with something fragrant and “medicinal”, well it was the holidays. As the cookies baked in the small kitchen, Alison and I would scramble over to the tree decorated in the corner, shining with tinsel, bubble ornaments, and those large bulbs that used to overheat the longer they stayed on. We would carefully peak under the tree to see what boxes lay there and whose name was on the labels. This is where Pepaw really came in, he policed that tree as though it was a castle rampart and we were the enemy. Oh the squeals as he “captured us” and held us above his head, yelling “gotcha, you rascals”. He had to keep it mild, otherwise there would be a “Oh, John, ….”, coming from Mamaw and the kitchen. We may not have know what those other words meant but we knew he shouldn’t have said them and we giggled.
There weren’t many presents as my parents couldn’t afford it on Dad’s first job’s salary and with Mom not working but it seemed like a mountain to us kids. Plus with Pepaw and Mawaw, the boxes multiplied after the suitcases were emptied upon my grandparents arrival. After dinner on Christmas Eve and everyone made sure we were tucked away in our rooms, then the magic really started. All the gifts would be hauled out of the hiding places and the assembly would start. Mom and Mamaw brought out the milk and cookies, Pepaw supervised and Dad? Well, Dad became Santa. Dad would bring out his old black galoshes and remove the fire grate from the fireplace. The ashes from the fires recently lit remained and Dad used them to tell us a story. With great care, he made footprints with those boots, coming from directly under the chimney and with ashy bootprints, “Santa” marched across the living room (carpet and all), drank Santa’s milk, ate some of his cookies (always making sure to leave one partially bitten), then over to the tree. There the footprints went this way and that, as toys from stuffed cats to sleds were carefully placed, along with mysterious packages that had huge bows and labels that read “from Santa”. Finally, the footprints made an ashy path back to the fireplace, where Santa “flew up the chimney with great care” off to deliver more presents to children elsewhere.
Christmas morning and oh the joy of finding that Santa had been there. We ran, tracing his path from fireplace to our tray of treats and finally to the tree. The adults watched and took pictures as bows and paper flew through the air. As things calmed down, Dad would point out that Santa had left, via the chimney and we would run and look, marveling that he could fit up anything so small. Then Dad would hand out the rest of the presents, one to each person to open before going around again. And finally, the proceedings would end with everyone at the table having a huge Christmas and very southern breakfast, with Dad at the head looking very satisfied and happy.
The years passed, the footsteps continued until one year they didn’t make an appearance, we young adults deemed to old for Santa (and we probably had something to do with that).
But if someone would ask me today if there was a Santa, I would have to say yes, there is a Santa. Mine has gotten older, hair as white as, well, snow. His steps are not as sure and his back a little bent. My mother, his own “Mrs Claus”. is still at his side while he still builds his fires “just a certain way” as the Christmas tree with all our old ornaments still shines as brightly next to the fireplace as I remember it all those years ago. Those ashy boots made a reappearance with his grandchildren who now have the same memories I have of the magic of Christmas morning and the certainty that Santa was real and had been there to deliver, not just packages, but the miracle and magic of a jolly old elf and eight tiny reindeer.
Through all these years we never asked and Dad never told the story of the bootprints made of ash. We never will. And isn’t that what Christmas is really about? Love and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make others happy, to bring magic and joy to those we love and hold dear?
Merry Christmas, Santa! Merry Christmas to one and all!