Nowadays a person can see Santa Clauses almost everywhere - in the mall, at the stores, on a sailboat in Cuba, even in front of the wobbly-pop store tending a kettle. However when I was a child, Santa was hardly ever seen except at special concerts or Christmas pageants. There were pictures of the jolly old man, of course, but personal appearances were rare. (I was born just before the Second World War in 1938 and things were different then). As a pre-school lad I knew that Santa existed because he ate the cookies and drank the glass of milk that we left out on Christmas Eve. He also left a couple of small toys and maybe an orange in my stocking - hung by the coal stove with care.
Then we moved north to a rural home and a small two-room schoolhouse in Nipissing. We had a small Christmas concert that first year and Santa arrived just before the afternoon recess. The older Grade 8 boys snickered and whispered that it was just the caretaker, Barney Busch, in the old red suit but we checked at home with our parents and were assured that it was probably Santa on a pre-Christmas visit. The township constructed a Central School the next year and we had a big concert with singing and recitations - and sure enough, Santa appeared. This time the older boys said it was Art Williamson or maybe Al Bowman, both large men. The Grade 8 girls assured us younger ones that it was Santa - or maybe one of his helpers. The Grade 8 boys were not known for their tact.
That year, my cousin Wayne and I were of an age when we had Santa doubts, and not wanting to believe the schoolyard chatter, expressed them to our parents. Then on Christmas Eve my father, Uncle Gordon and our fifth grade teacher Mr Anderson were sharing some Christmas cheer when ten o’clock arrived and we children were hustled off to bed. It seemed a short time later that I whispered to my sister that I was certain that I heard sleigh bells. The next morning Wayne and I checked our rooftops and there in the snow were sleigh tracks. It would be years later when we heard the rest of the story about three wise men with sleigh bells, two by fours, and a ladder.
One of the most exciting events of the Yule season was writing a letter to Santa Claus. With the Sears catalogue as a reference book, we would list a couple of things that we really, really wanted, adding a postscript that we had been good that year and thanks for last year’s gifts. Mother mailed the letters to the North Pole but our Rural Route mailman Fran Young said he would drop them off at a depot in the CFCH radio station. Then at 5 p.m. each weekday, Santa would read several letters. Santa never made any commitments as to the requested gifts but by golly you just knew things were going to work out when He read Your letter on the radio.
Fast forward to the year when our son was six or seven and we spent the Christmas Holiday in the Bahamas. Christmas morning there was to be a special event for the children in the hotel’s foyer. There we found a jolly fellow in a red suit with a present for each child in the hotel. However, this Santa was a black man. That’s when we explained to our son, who may have already had doubts about a flying St Nick coming down chimneys, that people dressed up to represent the Christmas Spirit - often in the red suit, adding a white beard if they had one. If you happened to live in a country where the native people where mostly black or brown-skinned, then Santa should look like them so the small children would not be confused over a Santa with our white skin. This fellow even laughed with a Caribbean accent and shared a rum eggnog with the adult guests before departing.
As the years passed and our son moved on, I gave less thought to the myth or story of Santa Claus. I had a red Santa hat that I wore at the Walton Christmas parties and never thought of myself as being Santa - until my grand-nephew Charlie, who was about six at the time, said to me in a voice of confidentiality - You are not really Santa Claus, are you, Uncle Bill? Maybe my grey hair, a short white beard that year, and a somewhat rotund tummy gave the youngster a false impression of my play-acting character. No, Charlie, I said, I’m just a helper - but don’t tell the little kids, eh?
I was wondering what young children do now about contacting Santa Claus, and like any curious person, I Goggled my question. For a small fee, you can buy a letter service to and from Santa. The Post Office will still accept paper letters mailed to the North Pole, but I suspect that there are few radio stations that have Santa read letters on the air. So many kids have cells now that they probably text Santa - who likely has a Twitter account . . .
And I am also wondering what young parents are telling their children about Santa and whether he still exists. Because he does: just the other day a bearded fellow in a red suit greeted me by name as I dropped a few dollars into his pot. He asked if I had been naughty or nice and laughed. Then I recognized the laughter of one of my old Ill-Eagle hockey chums; we shook hands and wished each other a Merry Christmas. That beard fooled me for a second and I thought he was the real thing. However, he was just another helper.
I knew the real Santa was busy in his workshop . . . just saying.