Going to take you back to the mid 1950s when I was six years old, to one out-of-the-ordinary Christmas that will always remain strong in my memory.
We—Momma, Daddy and I—were living in a spacious second-floor apartment in a yellow-brick six flat on South Ingleside Avenue, which ran for only one block, like a canyon in the city, between Forty-seventh and Forty-eighth Streets. Daddy was working nights at the post office and Momma was doing day work. So, I guess we were getting along alright.
That particular Christmas Eve turned out to be especially festive. Light snow was falling on Chicago and the temperature hadn’t dipped down too far. A fresh pine tree sat by our living room window; ornaments dangled, and multi-colored lights were strung through the branches. An aluminum star sat at the top. Friends and relatives dropped by to visit throughout the day and into the night. One of our downstairs neighbors, Mrs. Harris, a dumpy little woman who sold Avon Products, visited for a long time, sitting at the kitchen table sipping her gin and chatting with momma while she was cooking. Occasionally, Mrs. Harris would break out in song, interpreting the traditional yuletide carols, and sounding especially soulful on “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
One of Mom’s old friends, Sally Wilson, had stopped by and brought along her son, Trevor. He was my good friend, a roly-poly guy with a pumpkin head and a Mohawk haircut. He felt sure that Santa was bringing him an electric train set for Christmas. We played together in my room until his mother came in and announced in her squeaky voice, “Trevor, come on it’s time to head on home. I have to get things set up for tomorrow.”
My parents didn’t entertain very often, but when they did, they had a really good time of it. They were bourbon drinkers: Old Taylor and Old Grand-Dad, their favorites. They liked Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. And sometimes they smoked stuff, too. Jazz was the music they played on the phonograph: Charlie Parker with strings, Sarah Vaughn, Ray Charles. There was dancing and card games.
I was right there, eyes and ears tuned to the adult world, but not really interested in it because, of course, I lived in my own blissful child’s world where a warm glow seemed to emanate from everything. Santa Claus was of primary concern for me on that Christmas Eve because I’d read a couple of picture books earlier featuring Santa. I was trying to guess what kind of presents he was going to leave for me that night under the tree. I’d sent him a letter to his North Pole address, and I spoke to him in person, while sitting on his knee on Saturday morning of the previous week, in the Goldblatt’s department store’s Toyland, downtown on State Street. I told him I wanted a Lincoln Logs Set, and a big fire truck, and a western-style toy fort replica with the action figures. He looked at me with very sad gray eyes and asked me: “Have you been a good boy?”
I glanced nervously at my mother, standing nearby. She’d given me a good lick across my backside with the strap just a week ago because I wet up the living room rug, carelessly spilling orange juice.
“I been good,” I told Santa, sheepishly.
I knew that what kids asked Santa to bring them might not be what they got, but I had to ask anyway. I loved the suspense that surrounded the grand holiday game. I believed in what was make-believe. And I liked to give presents, too. I’d saved up some change and bought my dad a bag of his favorite candy bars and found a little bracelet with rhinestones on it for Mom. Got a chance to buy my parents’ gifts when I went shopping one day with my Aunt Rachel and Cousin Harold.
And there were other things about that particular Christmas, which also stick in my mind. Another one of my mother’s friends, her name was Pearl, a tall light-skinned woman who wore glasses and somehow reminded me of a giant goose, struck up a conversation with me in the kitchen. Asked me routine stuff, like about how I was getting along, and told me how I seemed like such a nice, polite boy. Gave me a five-dollar bill along with a loving hug and wished me “Merry Christmas.” I felt stunned. To me, at that time and at my age, five bucks was a whole lot of money.
One of Dad’s chums named Derrick, who worked with him at the post office, also took time to talk to me that evening. He was a wiry man with long arms and high-pitched shoulders. Sometimes he took acting parts in amateur stage productions. Always wore a bow tie. Spoke in a deep radio announcer’s tone of voice, and he knew about all the movie and TV cowboys, and declared that Lash Larue was his favorite, while I expressed a preference for Hopalong Cassidy.
Another one of Dad’s friends, a Mr. Tyler, who looked like a chipmunk in the face and walked with a dip in his step, reprised to me the story about the birth of Christ and how the bright star shining in the East had guided The Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus’ location. At the time, I thought of the tale as being something extraordinary, but I didn’t understand its true meaning. But as I grew older and became exposed to the heretical ideas and ways of the world, I appreciated the Christmas story more and believed, indeed, that Christ was someone special, or at least the idea of Christ was something special.
And so, as the evening moved along and the festivities carried on, my bedtime came. My mother received no resistance from me that night. I was more than ready to turn in so that Santa could come and leave my presents under the tree.
“Do you think Santa will find our house okay?” I asked my mother while she was tucking in the bed covers.
“Of course,” she replied, a twinkle in her eyes. “He’s been here before.”
“Does he really ride in a sled with reindeers pulling it?”
“Sure he does.”
Shaking my head, I told Mom, “I think he drives a car or maybe a truck because he’s got so many presents to deliver, all over the world.”
“Well, son. I figure he’ll probably be in the sled tonight. Those reindeer of his want to get out there and fly across the rooftops on Christmas.”
My eyes lit up when she said that. In my mind I could see those reindeers galloping across the sky, pulling Santa in his sled. My mom had a knack for saying the right thing at the right time; her attitude and disposition spread joy in her midst. She always made me feel good, and she knew how to please my childhood imagination. And right then, for some odd reason, I thought about the sad-eyed department store Santa, how forlorn he’d looked to me that day while I sat on his knee.
I asked my mother, “Do you think Santa Claus ever feels unhappy?”
She gave me a curious glance before she turned to leave my room. “Now what would Santa have to be unhappy about? But I know you better go on to sleep. Santa won’t come if he knows you’re awake. And he has ways how he can tell if you’re sleeping or not.”
I lay in bed with my eyes closed, but sleep wouldn’t come. I was too keyed up about Christmas. The grownups were still partying in the front room and the jazz was playing. I heard dad’s friend, Derrick, announce that he was going out to the store to get more drinks. The doorbell rang and more guests arrived. It was my Uncle Phil and Aunt Claire, my dad’s older brother and his wife. They both sounded tipsy.
So I continued to lie there, eyes closed while thinking all kinds of child’s thoughts, about my toys and books, the shows I would watch on the TV. And I did doze off for a time, how long I can’t be sure. I think I was awakened by the sound of knocking on the front door.
“Who is it?” my mother called out.
I couldn’t make out the reply over the background chatter and music. She opened the whining front door.
“Ho, ho. Merry Christmas!” boomed a deep voice.
“Well, hello, Mr. Santa Claus,” my mother replied.
And right then I tensed up, squeezed my little hands together and squelched a squeal of delight.
“Is that boy asleep?” Santa asked.
“Not quite yet,” momma told him.
“Okay. I’ll have to come back when he’s asleep.”
“Alright, Mr. Santa Claus,” momma said.
I lay there in a state of shock. That’s the best way I can describe how I felt. I’d actually heard Santa when he came to the door. I’d heard his voice. And that seemed like something more special than anything else I could think of as being special. A great thrill for a child like me.
Then I thought about how sad Santa’s eyes had looked that day when I sat on his knee. And I wondered if he was still sad. But he certainly hadn’t sounded that way at the door.
So, I pulled the cover up over my head and tried to clear my mind so that sleep could take me. I wanted Santa to come back and bring my presents.
Such a wonderful Christmas this one turned out to be. Momma’s friend had given me five dollars, and I got a chance to hear Santa Claus when he came to our door. Maybe I should’ve sneaked out of bed and taken a peek at him.
Sleep soon came for me.
I woke up that next morning, Christmas morning, and leaped out of bed and ran into the living room where my presents were lying under the tree. Such a grand time I had as I went on to enjoy playing with my new toys. And mom and dad loved the presents I’d given them. But perhaps most thrilling experience of all for me was that I’d heard Santa Claus when he came to our door. I’d actually heard the magic elf’s jolly, deep voice.
As time passed and I grew older, and I came to know the truth about Santa, I still remembered that special Christmas Eve when I was a little boy, and I figured that voice I’d heard had been Dad’s deep-toned actor friend, Derrick. Yes, I’m sure it was him. The grown folks were having some amusement with me that night. And I’m certainly glad they decided to have some fun with that little boy, who was I, because they gave me a most enchanted childhood memory and feeling to cherish for all my days.
Paris Smith is a South Side writer with three published collections of short stories, and a member of one of Chicago’s longest active writers groups, The Perspectivists. Give the gift of literature this season—Smith’s other works can be found at Penknife Press.