Thursday, December 9, 2010

Twenty Questions: Secret Santa

Today's question comes from that ubiquitous gal, Ann Onymous. She asks: What is your favorite Christmas memory?

Oh, easy! This isn't just a favorite Christmas memory, but is at the very top of all my family memories. I guarantee that by the time I'm done writing it, I will have tears streaming down my face.

~~~ Christmas Eve, Circa 1970 ~~~

My Mother knew something very strange was going on. The first clue was that all five of her children were huddled together in the basement. The second clue was that they were all getting along. The third, and perhaps most telling, was that they were very quiet.

"What on earth are you kids doing down here?! Staring out the window like that... you know Santa won't come if you're watching! Go on, find something else to do. Put on your ice skates and go outside."

Reluctantly we obeyed. We were, in a sense, waiting for Santa. Santa that year was going to be showing up disguised as my brother Tom's boss, Carl. Carl was the owner of the bicycle shop where my brother worked. We had pooled all of our earthly wealth (I think at the ripe old age of 8, I was able to contribute a whopping $2.74), and with my brother's store discount, were able to buy my Mother a new bicycle. She hadn't been on a bike since her own childhood years. It's the first time I can remember being more excited to give than to wonder what would be waiting for me. Regardless, we gave up our post at the basement window and obliged Mom by going ice skating in our back yard.

An hour or two later we came back inside, all runny noses and rosy cheeks. We unlaced our skates and took off untold layers of winter gear. Mom stood at the entrance to the living room, appearing mysteriously winded.

"See? I told you kids that Santa would come if you weren't watching! Come look what he's brought!!!" We hustled into the living room, delighted by the vast array of ribbon festooned boxes under the brightly lit tree. It wasn't quite the Santa bounty we were waiting on, but we weren't about to quibble! We dove in with all the genteel reserve of beggars at a feast.

We barely noticed the moments of my parents catching each other's eyes and raising eyebrows in question and the slight raise of the shoulders in an "I don't know" gesture. We were busy. We were kids with Christmas presents.

Maybe my big brothers were more alert, but I was giddily lost in the present unwrapping melee. The delivery of Mom's new bike disappeared into the recesses of my eight year old mind.

As the sounds of paper being torn and crumpled wound to an end, my parents again exchanged the glance, the raised eyebrows, the shrug. What they didn't notice is that my older brothers were engaged in the exact same non-verbal communication.

It happened right about then. We were all playing Christmas basketball - you know, that yearly game of someone holding a big trash bag and everyone else taking shots at it (or the person holding the bag) from across the room with wadded up wrapping paper? The doorbell rang. Everyone jumped!

My Mother hurried down the steps to answer the door as all of us crowded at the top of the steps. There stood Carl, cheery grin on his face. In chorus we all hollered "Merry Christmas!" Not one of us seemed to think it the least bit odd that my brother's boss would be stopping by on Christmas Eve. Not one of us found the secretive smirk on his face the least bit strange.

Then my Mother remembered to act flustered. "Well! Why, Carl. Uh. Come on in!" "Oh, thanks, but I can't stay Mrs. Black. I just stopped by to uh... well... I'm not quite sure how to... I'll be right back."

In seconds, Carl was wheeling a fancy new 10-speed through the door, complete with the kind of hard skinny saddle that only a true masochistic cyclist could love. We kind of murmured and shuffled. This wasn't Mom's new bike. It was a boy's bike, and it was big, and it had 10 speeds! As Tom opened his mouth to question it, Dad turned to him and said, "Merry Christmas, son!" What?! The folks were in cahoots with Carl too?! Sneaky boogers.

Tom, enthused, thanked my parents, but it had to be obvious to them that his confusion wasn't just the usual "really? for me??" sort. Whereupon Carl, still with the mysterious bemusement on his face, said, "Oh! I forgot something... one second..." Again he disappeared outside only to return very quickly, wheeling in yet another bike. My Mom's - a shiny ladies 3-speed. Now it was my parents' turn to look utterly perplexed.

"Uh, Carl..." Mom hesitated. Dad said, "But...we didn't..."

Right then, the five of us said, "Merry Christmas, Mom!"

The look on both of my parents' faces was priceless. I remember Carl laughing. I remember all of us laughing. He left shortly after to get home to his own family, waving behind him and hollering one last "Merry Christmas!" like the very adept Santa that he was.

My brother Tom and my Mom looked at each other and simultaneously said, "But... how did you...?" And more laughter. More laughter still when Dad tried to sit on Tom's bike and said the seat made him feel like he had an antler up his ass.

I don't remember what presents I received that year, no idea what I unwrapped. I remember the bicycles.

But it's the gifts from that year that have stayed with me all these decades. The gift of excitement over a big beautiful secret, the camaraderie in keeping that secret, the laughter, the joy.

There were other years when Christmas wasn't such a joyful event, but that one was. We were all together. We were having fun. It was the best Christmas an eight year old girl could have had.

It made me believe in the magic.

It still does.

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