Our aunt was insistent that someone was on the roof and other adults in the room kept guessing that it must be Santa. True, there was some sort of a ruckus going on above our heads but the suspension of disbelief was too great to immediately go to “Santa.” Perhaps it was a burglar and the adults should be less excited and more wary, I thought. Although I was but the young age of seven, I was fairly certain that the fantasy of Santa Claus was just that. I mean, I had seen how mom behaved when someone was trying to break into the house and it didn’t look like this. The idea that she joyously welcomed someone sneaking into the house with the only evidence supporting the idea that it must be Santa, being that it was Christmas Eve, was too big of a jump. It also didn’t help that at an early age my dad had dressed up as Santa and gotten such a kick out of how it terrified me, made me shriek and try and crawl up Mom’s face. I had been guarded and suspicious of the fat man in a red suit ever since.
Through her widen eyes and animated motions our aunt encouraged us to, “Run upstairs and see for ourselves.” And so we did, six kids followed by our aunt, barreling up the stairs to try and gather some evidence that Santa might be on the roof. We ran to one bedroom, opened the window and stuck our heads out. A strong waft of burning wood stoves and the crispness of the cold Montana air hit us instantly. “Quiet, quiet,” someone insisted, “all our chattering might scare him away.” I held my breath and tried to silence my pounding heart. The immediate stillness, the blackness of the sky decorated with intense stars and the warmth of our six bodies huddled together at the biting open window provided a perfect backdrop for this deeply held memory. We stared into the night with baited anticipation that the desired fantasy might have legs. The overhang of the eaves above held a thick layer of uninterrupted snow that provided no evidence that anyone had been traipsing around this side of the house.
Then we heard it, bells, sleigh bells to be exact, coming from somewhere above and beyond. My aunt yelled, “It’s coming from the other side of the house, hurry!” Like six little mice we scurried from one room to the next overcome with laughter and excitement. Someone threw open the window and again, we all huddled close and leaned out to get a glimpse of this elusive Santa. Could it be? I was pretty sure this guy was all a hoax, but I had heard him, I actually heard the sleigh bells! My mind raced to make connections and try to incorporate a new understanding, a new belief, one that conflicted greatly with my prior knowledge. My schemata was searched.
It was in these brief moments standing at the window and staring into the skies that I understood that Santa was real. I understood that he was a real construct created by many peoples’ determined efforts to give us this moment, a moment of suspended belief and joy. Someone was on the side of the house ringing sleigh bells, someone was distracting the kids with an academy award performance in which we could completely believe, someone was downstairs surrounding the tree with presents for every kid, someone was taking a bite out of the cookies set out for Santa and drinking the milk that accompanied the sugary snack and somewhere along the line someone had decided that the effort was worth it, that we were worth it. What a blessing, I felt loved.
We heard the clatter and commotion of all of the adults yelling and our attention quickly turned toward downstairs. The house erupted like a scene from the Keystone Cops with six kids quickly descending a narrow flight of stairs screaming and laughing. In the living room at the bottom of the stairs the adults were frantic yelling things like, “You just missed him!” or, “He just left!” My immediate thought was, why the hell didn’t someone tackle him but I allowed the fantasy to unfold as there were younger kids to consider. Before us the brightly decorated tree towered over a large collection of toys. Without hesitation we bum rushed the goods as each kid found the gifts with his or her name attached.
The evening ended with the kids sprawling out on the living room floor with their new toys. The kitchen table was loaded with trays of the cookies and candies that Grandma loved to make and the sugar high kept the energy level at a heightened state for hours. At some point in the evening, Grandma’s and Grandpa’s next door neighbor and dear friend who closely resembled Ernest Borgnine with a lazy eye, stumbled over to the house in a full Santa outfit reeking of rum and merriment. I remember the adults scrambling to make his appearance fit their prior story but no one was buying it. Not wanting to dilute the beauty of the fantasy, they decided to support what we already knew, “It’s not Santa, it’s Tom. Don’t tell him you know.”