Santa is our friend.
A friend on Facebook rekindled a fond memory yesterday, posting about a Santa sleigh she saw driving through town. I'm pretty sure I know the sleigh; in fact, I've been in it and participated in its mission on several Christmas Holidays.
In the early 90s, when my oldest son was just a little guy and our second son was still in the womb, my wife invited my boss and friend, Dick Jobe, to see Santa with her and our little guys. So when Christina asked him to go see Santa at the local mall, he said, "I'll call you right back." Less than three weeks later, just before Christmas day, our kids and a group of other kids and their parents waited at our house on Karnes Boulevard in KCMO for Santa to show up. We were blown away that night and for several Christmas seasons following.
These evenings went something like this. At about 5 pm, Christina and I started getting the house ready. We set out Holiday snacks, lots of wine and arranged the chairs in the living room, with a big nice wingback chair for Santa. I'd grab a glass of wine and head out to the sidewalk along the street where everyone would be parking. Santa was waiting on the curb a few blocks away, where I'd run up and get "Santa's helper" bag. We'd high five and share a hug, knowing we were about to have the time of our lives together. I'd hang out on the curb back at the house, meeting arriving parents and their kids. We'd expressly tell everyone to bring a SMALL wrapped present for Santa's bag in advance. I collected all the gifts on the down-low while the parents got their kids into the house for snacks. As Santa's arrival approached, everyone moved onto the front porch and yard, eagerly awaiting Santa's arrival. These kids had all been to see a Santa before. They sat on his lap at the mall, pulled his fake beard, smiled (or cried) for the camera. Everyone knew Santa was just a guy in a costume. That was until our Santa glided up the street and onto the sidewalk in front of the house, in an open sleigh, with concert-level Christmas music, airplane landing lights, and a hardy "HO, HO, HO."
To say eyes were wide open and mouths fell agape is an understatement. People cried. Kids walked straight to the sleigh in wonder and complete faith that Santa had come to see them. Santa laughed and said, "HELLO!" Stepping from the sleigh, Santa shook hands with kids, hugged parents, and carefully climbed the steps into our home. Neighbors were taking photos, and cars were parked on the curb, checking things out by this time. Santa moved into the house, greeting guests parked at the dining room table, thinking they came for just another costumed guy from the mall. They stood. Unable to believe their eyes, they dropped their pumpkin bars and fell into that deep place where love for legend takes over. Santa was in the house. Everyone followed into the house, packing the home, as Santa eased into his chair near the Christmas tree. Kids filled the floor in front of Santa as he greeted everyone in the room. Rooms actually. The living room, dining room, entryway, and kitchen were packed, standing room only. Santa answered all the questions. How old are you? Why are you here before Christmas Eve? How does your sleigh fly without reindeer?
It took a while for the place to settle down enough to get down to a quiet room. Then Santa pulled out his favorite book, the Polar Express. He read it to the room, carefully turning the pages so that every kid could see—even the grown ones. You have never seen a room full of kids so thoroughly engaged. That place where beauty and magic outweigh reality. In the realm of a Saint, a legend, and an ageless man who loved the world. Santa's presence was undeniable and full of warmth and promise.
After the book reading, Santa would call for his helper to bring in his bag of toys. That was my queue. I'd carry in the bag filled with wrapped gifts the parents had slipped to me on the curb. And as if the magic of the evening wasn't honest enough, Santa would pull out a gift, read the name and wait patiently for every kid in the room to come up, sit on his lap, share a few words and get their picture taken. Not one of those kids looked at their parents calling their name for their photos; they were in the arms of love, held closely by Saint Nicholas. Miracles happen in these moments—hope, joy, and awe-filled the hearts of the young and the young at heart. Every kid got a gift, and of course, it was usually something they had asked for, thanks to parents who also loved Santa and the message he brought.
After the kids had opened all their presents, Santa pulled out a bag of reindeer bells, one for everyone in the house. Beautiful, chrome bells with leather laces. Then he headed for the door and back down toward the place where his sleigh waited. Climbing onto the dark open sleigh, Santa turned to the crowd. Not one single person was left in the house by this point. Everyone believed. Santa called on the crowd to ring their bells, to awaken the sleeping sleigh. Everyone rang their bells—kids and adults alike. Santa called for the bells to ring louder, and louder they rang. Ringing, ringing into the cold evening, right there in the middle of the city. The neighbors and visitors on the curb took pictures, and the bells rang out. Bells rang, and voices cheered until Santa's sleigh leapt to life! The flashing airplane lights came on, ground lights came on, giving the sleigh the illusion of levitation, and a giant gift bag, arose from the back of the sleigh while Christmas music played loud from everywhere.
Then as the whole world watched, Santa slid behind the wheel, waving and smiling. He and his sleigh eased into the street, heading back from where he came. Suddenly, the sound of jet engines roared, and smoke blasted out of the three "engines" in the back. Santa's sleigh bolted into the night, disappearing in the fog of smoke and sounds. Gone. As suddenly as he had arrived, off to fill another house with love and joy.
We had these parties for years as our kids grew up. It was always a blast. Parents would show up with wrapped gifts too big for the bag. One family brought a bike. A couple of times, kids would show up that hadn't gotten the message, and no gift was in the bag. Christina was on it and would pull out a wrapped gift that "fell out" in the snow. We counted over fifty-five or sixty people in the house every year. The house was so packed I'd walk around it outside to get from the kitchen to the front door. When everyone left, the first floor looked like a mosh pit had broken out. All the furniture was pushed against the walls, and the floor was littered with wrapping paper, candy, and plastic forks. It wasn't unusual to find furniture on the front porch guests had carried out to make room.
Those evenings were magic. No debates, no argument about real or not. Just love, enchantment, and joy. I stood with adults on the curb, holding glasses of wine, watching Santa fly away, only to turn and find tears in each other's eyes. Tears of years gone past, childhoods outgrown and dreams left behind, only to be rekindled. Years later, when our sons were in high school and hadn't seen Santa for a while, they asked. Christina took them to Santa's shop in Roeland Park, Kansas, to reunite. His earthly name was Dick Conklin, not to be confused with his friend Dick Jobe who introduced us. And I can assure you, Santa was happy to see those kids who were taller than him by that time. He showed them around the shop, shared a couple of stories about their old man, and, looking past his cigar into their eyes, told them he loved them. As if we ever wondered.
Happy Holiday Season, Friends.