(Reposted with slight revisions from last year, which in turn was a repost with slight revisions from a literary magazine, which in turn was a rewriting of a story my father wrote easily half my life ago.)
Many years ago, my father wrote a story about a walk to church he had taken with his parents and some of his siblings. I happened upon it as a child (not older than 10 nor younger than 5), and he later retold the story to my brother, who had not heard it before.
I tell it now to you as I remember it. Some of the details I probably will not get right, and some things I will say which have become part of the story in my mind, though they were not a part of the story in his. And some I have added to it, in the spirit of oral tradition; the story grows as time goes on. It is becoming one of our family stories, and I pass it on to you, as he passed it on to me.
For those who need to believe, and for those who know to.
My father grew up in the 1960s, not two miles from the plot of land that became his family's church -- a development with which his father had been heavily involved. It was sandwiched very loosely between two commercial areas that housed your average urban development -- gas stations, bookstores, restaurants. In one was the sort of thing you'd find on the main strip of a not-too-big but not-so-small town; in another were the markings of a slightly larger town; slightly fancier restaurants, more expensive housing behind those restaurants and ... well, higher prices. The differences were neither many nor important.
What is important is that his family was then living not more than a mile or two from this church. Some of his then-nine siblings were visiting for Christmas, and the family decided to walk that mile or two. Snow had fallen, and it was late, which might account for why they were walking there. Perhaps it was because it was not a long trip, and walking there afforded them more time to look at the Christmas lights put up by the elementary school on the way, and by the Episcopal Church that soon followed, and by the small cluster of houses nearby, whose residents, more than any other people, that church served.
As they made their way to church for Midnight Mass, they came upon a growing throng of people all staring at the sidewalk -- or, rather, what was on the sidewalk. Snow had been falling, but it had stopped falling. As they arrived at this throng gathered, not restless but intrigued, my father and his family started to hear talk. "A sled? That's impossible ... look at it. That couldn't be a sled." And "How in the world did this happen?" And "They must have hidden the footprints."
In the snow on the sidewalk were sled tracks. They started out, got deeper, then leveled out and disappeared after 15 or 20 feet. There was no mistaking them; no other vehicle could have made those tracks in the snow.
There also was no hill nearby -- nothing from which to launch a sled such that footprints would be unnecessary. There was no packing of snow to cover footprints; the snow not packed down by the sled tracks had not been touched. Nothing had walked on it; nothing had touched it but the wind and the voices of the people gathered there, some in awe, some in disbelief, some in bewilderment.
When my father saw these tracks, he understood the voices. There was no rational, logical explanation for this to adults, because -- to them -- Santa Claus was who they became to their children after little feet and hands had been tucked into bed, so giddy at the thought of Santa arriving that it was nearly impossible to do the unthinkable: sleep. To them, Santa was not someone you hoped in vain you'd hear as he came down your chimney (or, as the Santa Clause movies would have you believe, magically created one if none was there), bells jingling and reindeer hooves making loud noises on the roof.
Santa to children is, more than anything else, the hope and expectation of what is to come. To some of them he is that last bastion of magic; upon being told that he is not actually real (which is partly true and partly false), the floodgates open ... sometimes in tears, sometimes in questions, sometimes in cynicism, and sometimes in the pride of knowing something your younger siblings have yet to find out.
It was no small amount of pride I had one year in being Santa for my parents, who were both rather tired and more than slightly ill. I distributed the goodies, I wrote the letter ... and I got to peek at what everyone else had gotten for Christmas because my family doesn't use wrapping paper; each person has a pile covered by a blanket or towel or something -- the barrier is more psychological than visual. If you imagine a thin white sheet covering two thick boxes of something, you will understand why it doesn't matter if you have a thin white sheet or a terrycloth comforter or an inch of wrapping paper covering that pile.
I took as my Santa fee that year the knowledge of what my other family members were getting for Christmas -- and I took a brief peek at my own pile.
So I knew what I was getting.
When I woke up, later that morning, I noticed things in my pile that had not been there hours before.
My parents had been dead to the world when I told them I was done. They were only marginally more functional those hours later.
You want to tell me Santa doesn't exist? Be my guest. I know better.
To the children gathered -- more than a few, despite the cold and hour -- it was obvious, though few of them said anything. This was a sled, but it was by no means your run-of-the-mill sled.
Santa, perhaps an hour or two early (unless some children had gone to bed early), had been there. His reindeer had made no hoof prints, but they didn't have to. He had made no footprints, but why would he? Children expected him to land on the roofs of houses; he would have no need to use the sidewalk, and it would increase the odds of his being seen, something most children relished and relish. Adults expected him to be a kind old man at the mall who tried to explain to the particular child in his lap why even though little Emily had been a good girl this year, there were a lot of ponies who wanted loving children to pet them and ride them, but there were many more good little girls than ponies, and wouldn't she rather a Barbie or a nice new dress? Or little Thomas, who had been a very, very good boy (he insisted), wanted to be a fireman for Christmas but was still too young by at least 15 years, and wouldn't he rather a nice red fire truck or some cap guns -- but elves didn't make those, he quickly remembered (with the help of Thomas' father), though Thomas thought they could surely make an exception.
It was an improvement, in the 1970s, on the children who a generation before had asked only for their Daddy to be home for Christmas. Sometimes (usually) their Mommy didn't know when he was coming home, but it was nobody's fault. But they wanted their Daddy home, and he wanted nothing more than to play Santa for them again. The only trouble was that he was in another country in a trench or a makeshift mess hall or a M*A*S*H or a foxhole or a cramped, cold submarine or a plane ... dreaming of far more hospitable conditions than those war afforded. Bleak was the existence in many cases even for those who were not resigned to trench warfare (or, in the case of the Pacific theater, facing guerilla tactics and trudging through miles of jungle and swampland). Santa didn't know when their daddies were coming home. He had a tough job every time someone wanted their Daddy back, because no stable of ponies or parking lot full of shiny red fire trucks could take the place of Daddy's arms, however cold or tired they were.
But they asked ... they asked with reckless abandon and they asked with more hope in their eyes than perhaps anyone else could ever have, because the one thing you counted on, after everything else, over anything else, and in spite of anything else, was Santa was magical. He was just ... magical.
The children gathered at these tracks knew who it was. So did my father. No footprints were there because none had been made. None needed to be made. No child had run behind this sled, no grownup had pushed it, no wooden plank could have made it (though some supposed otherwise, having no other recourse but the magic they discounted while the children, and some others, held fast to it).
Santa Claus had been there. My father knew it (he was then not a child, but not an adult by any means), those children knew it, and some of the adults knew it. No amount of persuasion could have convinced them otherwise.
He has not seen tracks like those since. I have not seen tracks like those ever. Any sled (or sled tracks) has always been accompanied by a hill, a child and usually an adult. No sled has had reindeer, no sled Santa's sleigh bells, no sled a jolly man with a bag of presents.
But this one did.
Santa Claus (1898)