On the 26th of December I took off my pajamas and climbed into the shower, noticing as I did a large, festively-colored bruise spreading across my left hip just above the knee. Tender as all hell, too. I couldn’t help but smile as I stood there, hot water running down my body, remembering what had taken place thirty-odd hours before.
It had been Christmas Eve night, and Ryan and I were making ourselves comfortable on an air mattress in the spare bedroom at my parents’ house after a long day of visiting, eating, and church-going. We both knew that the following day would start early – not early like it once had, when there were under-twelves in the house, but still earlier than good sense warranted – and would go long, and we were both pretty worn out. Not so our six-month-old puppy, Paisley, who had discovered her calling as a home security alarm. Every time anyone in the house moved, she’d take off in a flying leap across the mattress and stand sentinel at the end of the hallway, barking into the darkness in the general direction of stocking assembly.
We finally got our dog in a headlock, stopped laughing, and, eventually, fell asleep.
I’m not sure what it was that woke me up some hours later, nor am I sure exactly what time it was. It was dark, and the house was utterly quiet – even Paisley was softly snoring next to Ryan. But something was off – something was wrong. I crawled off of the air mattress as gracefully as I could, put on my glasses, and walked quietly across the hall into a room whose windows overlooked the front yard. The windows were foggy, so I wiped away a porthole and peeked out onto the lawn.
There was something out there. Something… familiar. Something that made me wonder if I’d really gotten out of bed at all or if I was in the middle of a particularly vivid dream.
Now, I’ve had deer outside my window before. We lived for five or so years in a Colorado forest, and we’ve been camping in enough wild places that I’m fairly unalarmed by random encounters with wildlife. There are, from time to time, deer out in southwest Boise. That being said, this was just weird. And so I did what any redblooded American would do under these circumstances: put on my houseshoes and went outside.
It probably wouldn’t be much of a story if all I encountered out there in the cold night was a deer, and I wouldn’t be going to the trouble to write a non-story, so you can pretty much connect the dots and come up with the fact that my deer was hardly alone. There was an entire smallish herd of the little guys – and they were little – all standing around, nuzzling yellowed grass through the old crispy snow, casting occasional expectant glances at an old man in one of those Land’s End squall parkas (red). Definitely grandfather-aged, with a bit of white scruff around his chin, and a nice knit cap like you’d wear if you were going skiing, also red.
“Wondered if you’d come out,” he said, and took a pull on a pipe that I hadn’t seen or smelled until that moment. I smelled it then, that unmistakeable, exotic tang of pipe smoke.
It was pretty clear to me at that point – and maybe it’s clear to you, too, by now – who, exactly, was standing in my parents’ front lawn. Now, I’m an adult. An eccentric adult, to put it mildly, but in all fairness I have a pretty good head on my shoulders. And even though I’ve maintained my faith in the inexplicable and fantastical as best as any adult can be expected to do, even I couldn’t really deny that a red-suited stranger did not slip down my chimney on Christmas Eve. And yet here I was, in my pajamas and slippers on my parents’ front lawn, talking to a man who simply could be no other than Santa Claus.
There were many things I could have said at that moment. “What are you doing here?” was what came out of my mouth.
He laughed, and it was such a nice laugh, not at all like some of those scary shopping mall Santas you run into these days. “I was in the neighborhood. Thought I’d stop by and say hello.”
“Hello,” I replied in what can only be described as a flash of pure wit.
He took another draw on his pipe and exhaled a smoke ring. The deer – there might have been a dozen of them – shifted positions. “I wanted to thank you, as a matter of fact, Katherine Elizabeth.”
“Thank you. Do you know how many people around here still believe in me, Katydid? How many people worldwide? Why, the first graders are making fun of the kindergartners if they mention my name. They don’t even try on the television anymore. People right there on the TV – newscasters, actors, you name it – they’ll just go out there on prime time and talk about how Mama and Daddy are staying up late to play Santa, talk about how old they were when they found out I was a fraud. And the children are watching this, you know. They all watch television anymore, and they’re hearing these adults say I don’t exist, and they believe it. They believe it.”
“It’s kind of awful,” I agreed.
“And yet you’ve never stopped believing, have you, Katydid.”
“N-no,” I said, wincing just a little bit because I was sure he knew that I’d been wrestling with it, wrestling with the sure onset of adulthood against my desperate hold on childlike wonder.
“It’s okay, you know,” he said. “It has to be hard, to be a grown-up who still believes.”
“Well,” I said, because he seemed such a reasonable guy, “can you tell me – the reason why I have trouble, sometimes, in believing, is because I don’t see you in action. You know? I mean, I know that moms and dads are staying up late to put out the Santa gifts. I know that poor children don’t always get visited from Santa. If you exist – which it’s clear you do, given present circumstances – then why aren’t you doing, you know, what you do?”
He laughed again, but this time it was kind of a sad laugh, I think, or maybe just thoughtful. “You know, Kate, that’s an excellent question, and just a wonderful example of how people have the wrong idea sometimes. Not you – not just you. Everyone. Look at my sleigh.” He gestured behind me and to my left, and I turned, smacking my leg pretty hard into a curled wooden runner. I don’t know how I’d missed it before, but there it was – a beautiful sleigh, big enough for a man and a passenger, plus maybe a small pickup’s load of cargo. “Does that look large enough to fill with toys for every Christmas-honoring child on the planet? Of course not, and there’s not that much magic in the world, I don’t think. Not enough magic to fill that sleigh that full. How fast do you think these little deer can pull that sleigh, anyway? Not faster than the speed of sound, Katydid. They’re mighty fast, but they’re not that fast.”
“No, Kate, that’s not ‘what I do.’ I don’t deliver all of those gifts.”
“What do you do, then?”
“Santa Claus is a symbol,” he said, lying a gloved hand on a deer’s back. “I’m a symbol of giving, a symbol of hope. All of those parents out there buying gifts for their children ‘from Santa’ – they’re doing it in the name of giving, of love. What they can give, they give. People across this country put out barrels and collect toys and dolls and coats and blankets for children whose parents have nothing more to give, or don’t want to give, and why do they do it? They’re inspired by the idea of giving hope. They’re inspired by me, by this symbol. I remind people to give – to give material objects, if they wish, or to give joy whenever and wherever they can. To give love.”
I started to say something (I forget, now, what exactly) but Santa Claus kept talking.
“And just as importantly, Kate, Santa Claus is a symbol of faith, of believing in magic. There are so many things out there that we can’t see, that we can’t understand, Katydid. We believe in God even though sometimes it makes no sense, even though other people who believe clearly don’t believe the same as we do. We believe in other people, in their inh
erent goodness, even though the contrary is proven to us constantly. We believe in love even after our hearts are broken. We believe that there may be other life out beyond the stars, that there may be cures to diseases, that there were once dinosaurs on the earth, that there are more capabilities in the human mind than we can currently guess. And as children we believe in even more. We believe in the fairies that add mystery and glimmer to our world. We believe that our teeth are spirited away in exchange for coins – dollars, anymore, I guess – and that rabbits hide gifts around the house and yard at Eastertime. We believe in unicorns, dragons. And we believe that, if we are good and kind and give joy, that Santa Claus will come in the wintertime and give back to us what we have given to others.”
“Until someone tells us it isn’t the case,” I said, quietly.
“That’s right. Until we stop believing. And once you stop believing in one thing… how can you believe in anything else? Everything else becomes shaky, everything else falls.”
“It’s like Jenga.”
“It is.” He patted the deer on the rump and dumped something – ash, I guess – out of his pipe. “So thank you.”
“You’re… you’re welcome.”
“Thank you for refusing to stop believing, even when it is ridiculous. Because what you’re believing in isn’t really me. It’s the idea that things will be okay, that people can make a difference. It’s faith in the more. You’re believing in that, Katydid, and you know what else?”
“What?” I asked, realizing that it was starting to rain.
“You’re not alone.”
And frankly, I couldn’t exactly tell you what happened next, except that the deer moved and the man in red moved and then they were all gone, leaving a scattering of hoofprints and runnermarks on the snow, and I was standing there in the cold drizzle looking up into the sky realizing that I really wasn’t sure at all that they’d gone skyward. And then I got cold, so I went inside and sat next to the tree until my mind stopped racing, and then I went to bed.
The next morning, Paisley woke me up with a big puppy kiss at 8:10, and I went immediately to that front window and looked outside. The rain had melted away the last of the snow, and there wasn’t a trace of any interference the night before.
“What a weird dream,” I said to myself, and went into the living room where Christmas morning was getting underway.