My earliest images of Santa Claus came courtesy of a Big Golden Book. On the cover of the book, “The Night Before Christmas,” a cartoonish Santa waved from a rooftop. He held a large bag spilling over with toys. Two of his eight reindeer stood watching as he was about to step into a chimney wide enough for him to slide down with ease.
Another image came from the Coca-Cola ads of the time. These were more realistic, though Santa’s cheeks were bloody red with lips to match. Apparently, Santa Claus was fond of Coca-Cola, though my mother said he would settle for a glass of milk and a few cookies set out for him when he came to portion out gifts to my older sister and me.
On Christmas Eve, the year I started first grade, my mother set out Santa’s snack. By the next morning, it was gone. I wasn’t convinced those cookies lasted until Santa’s arrival. My Uncle Calder, asleep on the sofa beside the Christmas tree, or my father could just as easily have eaten them. I wasn’t worried about Santa starving. If he ate snacks at every house he visited, he would weigh about a million pounds, I figured.
I had concerns about his use of chimneys. Santa was overweight! So, how could he squeeze down any of the chimneys in our old house, none of which were big enough for me to stick my head through. My mother explained that he could change his shape to fit into any opening. I wonder these many decades later if Stephen King’s mother told him the same thing, and out of her explanation came the idea of shape-shifters.
“How can he get to all the houses in Jefferson?” I asked. “He travels very fast,” my mother said. “So fast you can hardly see him.”
“How fast are his reindeer?” I asked.
“Very fast,” she explained. “Fast enough for him to get to all the houses in the world – of the good children that is.”
Ah, my mother. She was a very smart woman. She could explain just about everything there was to know about Santa Claus.
I thought I might get my chance to see exactly how fast he could travel when I heard that he would be in Jefferson for the Christmas parade. Santa was to arrive on the town square just a few weeks before the trip that really mattered. He should be up at the North Pole making toys, I said to my mother. “He has elves making the toys while he’s down here,” my mother explained. Yes, my mother had an answer.
But now I was disturbed by elves. If they helped Santa load up all those toys on the sleigh, did they expect Santa to unload them by himself, and sort out the right presents at every house on this route? Or did Santa send them into our house through the chimney. Elves could fit, but who wanted a bunch of needle-nosed pixies roaming around your house like green-clad rats. And why did Santa leave gifts made by Hasbro or Mattel?
The night of the parade, it seemed like every kid I knew was there waiting for the arrival of Santa. It was really exciting. Seemed like forever before someone shouted, “There he is.”
I looked over the crowd, expecting reindeer. Would there be only eight of them, or was it foggy enough for the red-nosed Rudolf to be called upon to light and lead the way?
“Where? Where?” I shouted. “I don’t see him.”
“He’s on the fire truck.”
The fire truck! Where’s the lightning-fast sleigh?
And Santa, himself! He didn’t look anything like his pictures in the books and ads. But there was something vaguely familiar about him. His laugh, not a resounding, “ho, ho, ho,” but more of a “Huh, huh, huh!” and the way he said my name when he handed me some bubble gum, and something about his hands and his eyes, reminded me a lot of my uncle Albert.
Strangely enough, my Uncle Albert, Jefferson’s Chief of Police, who should have been present at such a big event, was nowhere in sight.
My mother later said she didn’t know where Albert was. She hadn’t seen him.
But my sister, a year older than I, said she had seen him. “You saw him, too,” she said.
“Yes,” my sister told me with a sneer. “He was on the fire truck. He gave you some bubble gum.”
“Then that wasn’t the real Santa Claus at all?”
I confronted my mother. “That was Albert,” I told her.
“Yes,” she said. “He was what you call one of Santa’s helpers. There’s the real Santa Claus, and then he has his helpers.”
My mother! She always had an answer for everything about Santa. I think she believed in him long after my older sister had taught me to abandon all hope.