A reader shares her memory of when her daddy plays Santa for neighborhood children.
Daddy always reminded me of Santa Claus. He was friendly, kind and jolly to everyone all his life. To him, cheerful smiles and laughter truly were medicine for anyone’s soul. People in Independence, Mississippi, where he grew up, still laugh about the night Daddy and his teenage buddies put a hay wagon on the roof of the general store as a Halloween prank.
Although having fun with people was important to him, equally important was putting into practice his belief that all people have the same feelings and emotions, and that we’re all equal in the eyes of God. To nearly everyone he met, he showed he cared, especially for those in need.
I remember one bitter-cold Christmas Eve when I was 10. My four sisters, my parents and I piled into our 1957 Chevy station wagon and left our house in Memphis, heading to my grandmother’s farm in northwestern Mississippi where we always had our annual family Christmas gathering with our grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. The back of our station wagon lay flat, filled with gifts for our relatives and a large canvas bag my father tossed in at the last minute.
Four of us squeezed together in the back seat, bundled up in our winter coats, hats and gloves, while my youngest sister, only a baby, rode up front with my parents. As we pulled out of our driveway, we chattered excitedly about who was going to do what for the cousins’ Christmas talent show that evening — an event that usually turned out to be a comedy show.
Soon the warmth of the car’s heater and Christmas carols on the radio lulled my sisters to sleep. But Christmas Eve was so special to me that I didn’t want to miss a thing. As we drove away from the city lights and onto the back roads of Mississippi, I looked out at the midnight-blue sky sprinkled with stars and at the moon spreading its soft glow over the country fields. I was reminded of a scene from my View Master, in which the angel appeared to the shepherds while they were tending their flocks the night the Christ Child was born.
When we were a few miles from my grandmother’s house, Daddy pulled off the main road. He turned off the headlights and slowly drove halfway up a graveled hill, where he parked and got out of the car. I heard a dog bark, and then a light blinked on. There at the top of the hill stood a small, unpainted wooden house with a bare light bulb hanging from a wire over its weather-worn porch. A dog scrambled out from under the porch, barking ferociously, and ran down the hill toward Daddy. It stopped a few yards away, growling its warning and guarding its turf, but my father simply ignored it.
My sisters woke up and asked, "Where are we? What’s going on?"
"Daddy wanted to stop here," Mama said. "You’ll see why in a minute. It’s a surprise, so y’all be quiet." A person of few words, my mother didn’t feel the need for lengthy explanations. So we watched and waited patiently.
The tailgate of our station wagon opened, and we turned around and saw Daddy reach into the canvas bag. We covered our mouths and giggled when he donned a white beard and a red fur-trimmed jacket. He was plump enough that it fit. Then he put on a Santa hat and grabbed the bulging canvas bag, tossing it over his shoulder. He closed the tailgate and made his way toward the house, shaking away the barking dog nipping at his ankles. A man emerged from the house and called off the dog. It finally retreated and scooted back under the porch.
"Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!" Daddy chanted, as the man on the porch shook his head and laughed. Soon the windows of the house were filled with small children, pointing as our daddy plays Santa climbing the steps to their home.
Daddy disappeared into the house, chuckling all the way. He reappeared a while later, waving goodbye and calling over his shoulder, "Merry Christmas!" with the empty bag folded under his arm. Many children in various sizes ran barefooted and without jackets onto the porch, peering into the frosty darkness as their Santa disappeared down the hill.
After he took off his Santa suit, Daddy climbed back into our station wagon. Usually my sisters and I were full of questions, chattering constantly. But that night, "Silent Night" played softly on the radio, speaking for us:
All is calm; all is bright . . .
Without turning on the headlights, Daddy backed down the hill, leaving behind his special warmth on a cold winter night.