By Anthony De La Torre
Special to Copper Area News
Some of you can remember back to Dec. 18, 1966. You’ll recall a Christmas story was broadcast nationwide on CBS. In it a green menace descended on the town of Whoville, with a plan to steal Christmas.
This was cartoon “pretend” of course.
No pretend this Christmas of 2020. The Grinch, now with an alias of COVID-19, has descended with a mengence (menace + vengeance = mengence), to steal our jobs, maybe even grandma, grandpa, even junior. So many of us have lost someone, or know of someone who has.
We are in winter, soul-wise.
“Fa-la-la” would ring hollow this year.
We need a story of hope. The best, I think, was broadcast some 2000 years ago, and captured best by a Doctor named Luke. Start there.
I’ve never had much to give my kids, but they all have always enjoyed my stories. So each Christmas, I write them one from my heart. This one seemed appropriate for this moment. It is a story of death and loss, and yet hope. May it buoy you this Christmas. I entitled it The Reluctant Santa. “Santa,” derives from both Latin and Spanish words meaning SAINT. We are all invited to be that, though like Joe in my story, we come to it reluctantly. Here Joe, involuntarily volunteered by his wife Rosie to dress up as Santa and make a Christmas Eve house call to a critically ill little boy, realizes he is out of his element and comfort zone. Let us enter the tale…
What do I say to a kid who is dying? Joe pondered. With no clue, he did what all good Santas do. Dear God, this fat man in red feels very inept. Please help me with this one.
A good prayer. Honest. Direct. Short. Answered.
The help started with the phone call to Luke’s parents. Joe decided he wanted to really know this little boy before he met him. He gently asked the parents many questions.
“Does Luke have any brothers or sisters? Ah, a baby
sister Amy. And how about pets? Two puppies huh? One tan, one white. Got it. And their names? Like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? I love the kid already.”
What else? “Ah yes, does Luke have a favorite color? Red.
Huh. You know I am growing particularly fond of that color
myself. One last question, hard for me to ask, but it may help me when I visit. Does Luke, well, know about?… Ah. Yes, very hard to talk about isn’t it? Very hard…” They didn’t tell him. Does he know he is dying? What do I say if he asks Santa?
“Sorry, what was that again, Mrs. Morningstar?When can I
come? Well when would be best for you folks? About 7:00 tomorrow night? Yes, that would work. 7:00 then. Oh, you’re very welcomed.”
At seven sharp, next evening, Joe was at the door. Through the long side windows framing the big front entry, he could see a huge fir tree, a good two stories high. Dwarfed at its base was a sunken-chested, pale, hairless little boy of indeterminate age. He was clad in Superman pajamas. Joe rang the doorbell.
“Son, see who’s at the door for me please,” the boy’s
mother shouted from the kitchen. Joe pressed the button
“Son, the door…”
“OK Mom, I’m going.” Luke padded slowly toward the door. It seemed the weight of the world pressed down on his shoulders. As he got closer Joe started ‘chink-chink-chinking’ the four brass bells attached to the bottom corners of his gift bag. Disbelief, then awe, swept across Luke’s face. He ran to the window, “When what to his wandering eyes should appear,” but a big guy in red, robustly shouting “Ho-Ho-Ho!”
Luke’s jaw dropped open, and he froze where he stood.
“Who is it son?”
“You’re not going to believe it if I tell you, Mom!”
“Of course I will, now who is it?”
“It’s Santa Claus, Mom! Santa!” the little boy gasped.
His Mother came from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “Well let him in, hon. Let him in!”
Joe stepped in and shook the boy’s pale, limp hand.
“Are you the REAL Santa?” Whispered the wide-eyed little boy.
“Are you the REAL Luke?” Santa intoned, imitating Luke.
“Hey, how did you know my name?”
“I know a lot of things, Luke.”
“Oh, like you favorite color is red. Good choice. It’s the color of love, you know.”
Luke’s eyes register surprise. But he had to be sure. “What’s my little sister’s name? And my dog’s?”
“Your baby sister’s name is Amy.” Then Joe rubbed his chin, as if in deep concentration, and unnoticed by Luke, gave his mom a little thumbs up. Yesterday’s phone call was paying off. Then to Luke, Joe answered, “As for the dogs, the white one is Sleepy. Happy is tan.”
Luke gasped. “He knows! Mom, it is the REAL Santa! Santa, you have to see our tree, its hu-m-u-n-gous! Come look! I think Dad got us the biggest and best-est tree in the whole world!”
Luke’s Dad entered the room cradling baby Amy. He nodded at Joe, beaming. Joe nodded back.
“I helped decorate it. The bottom anyway,” Luke said
proudly, pointing at the tree. Santa gasped, clapped his white-gloved hands and shouted with glee. “Ho-Ho-Ho! Oh, it’s beautiful, Luke. You’re right, this IS the biggest, best-est Christmas tree ever.” Then he bellowed another joyous “Ho-Ho-Ho!”
Luke looked right at him, and asked bluntly, “Santa, why do You say ‘Ho-Ho-Ho’ so much?”
The sudden question caught Joe off guard. He wasn’t sure
how to answer. But then it came. He asked quietly, “Can you keep a secret?”
“It’s code Luke. Some folks take offense if I pray in
public. So I shorten and disguise the praise. To them I am just a jolly old coot who stutters. But the joke’s on them.”
“So ‘Ho-Ho-Ho’ is a prayer?”
“You got it. Short for Hosanna! A praise prayer.”
“Cool! But how come you say it three times?”
“I’d try for four, Luke. But I’m an old man. I run out of
Luke though about it for a moment, then nodded that he
understood. He then confided in a whisper to the big man, “I don’t have that much wind either, Santa. But don’t tell my mom or dad. They’d worry.”
“Try for three then.”
“You mean right here? Right now?”
Santa nodded again. “Ho-Ho-Ho” Luke intoned timidly.
“No, no, my boy, we’re praising God here. Let it build
from way down deep. Then just let ‘er RIP!”
Luke nodded he understood. He bowed his back, filled his
little lungs with all the air he could hold, then shook the
rafters. Joe patted him on the back proudly. “Now ‘that’s’ a proper Hosanna! How did it feel boy?”
“Great!” Then in a whisper, “Can I do that up there?”
The little guy knows his time is short though everyone is
trying hard to keep him from knowing. Joe realized. “Yeah Luke, in heaven you shout it out just like that! Oh,
it’s going to be a great shouting!” Joe’s throat pinched up
tight with emotion.
Joe noticed Luke’s flour-dusted Mom wipe a tear from her
eye with the edge of her apron. Dad gently rocked baby Amy in the crook of his arm. To Joe it seemed this little family, noble, loving, vulnerable, looked very much like another little family must have looked 2000 years ago on that first Christmas.
To both husband and wife it appeared their waxen, sunken-eyed, beaming little boy was locked in beautiful conversation with a very wise old man, a Magi, a King in scarlet robes and purest white gloves. The big man and boy seemed to glow. The parents stood transfixed.
Just then the 2 pups peeked into the room, saw Santa, and froze. Joe got down on one knee, and called cheerfully “Happy, Sleepy, come…” The two little dogs bounded to him, tails wagging. To their joy he tickled and rough-housed them a bit. Then, as he rose off his knees, the four bells his wife Rosie had sewed to the bottom of his big velvet gift bag, jingled and jangled merrily, each in its own voice.
“Santa, are those real reindeer bells?” Luke asked awed.
“Actually, they’re even more special than that Luke. How do you feel when you hear them?”
“Yes lad, that’s their special magic. They’re Gaudium’s, “Joy” bells.”
With deep longing, the frail little boy asked in a whisper, “Santa, do you think I could have one?”
The request caught Joe totally off guard. He didn’t
really want to give up any of the bells. To buy time to form a response he swung the big bag up over his shoulder. As he did so, the sack snagged on the edge of the stairwell bannister. The momentum popped one of the bells off. It tinkled loudly as it rolled across the carpet and settled right at Luke’s feet. Both Luke and Joe stared at it for a silent moment. Then Santa chuckled and said, “Well Luke, it seems this bell has answered for us. It wants to stay here! It WILL stay here.”
With that Joe bent over and picked up the bell. He gave it a little breather puff, and polished it on his love red sleeve. Then he motioned for Luke to put out his hand, and gently set it in his palm.
“I can keep it?” The little boy whispered, awe struck.
Santa nodded “Yes.” Dang, that lump in my throat again.
All that Santa could do at this point, was enfold the
little fellow in a huge hug. His voice had truly deserted. He was barely able to croak, “Well, time for me to go, Luke. Christmas Eve you know…Miles to go…”
“Love you Luke.” And then in a confidential whisper,
“And, oh, you will be so very much loved where you are headed.”
Luke whispered back, “Will I see you there someday, Santa?”
“I’m counting on it Luke.” Damn, it was happening again, that hitch in the throat thing. How can I love and miss a kid already from just one visit? A visit I really didn’t want to make.”
Joe suddenly removed his soft scarlet cap and slipped it over little Luke’s cancer-bald dome. “My gosh, a perfect fit… And I do believe red looks even better on you than on me Luke!”
“I get to keep it?” An awed Luke whispered.
“Yes Luke, as long as you need it.” Then before anyone could protest, he gave Luke a wink and a nod, then spun and was out the front door into the night, shouting a hearty, “Ho-Ho-Ho!” as he went. It was echoed back by a brittle little “ho-ho-ho” from the doorway.
Winter passed, and with it Luke.
Then spring burst forth with new life. One bright sunny
morning, what he would call “a blue bird day,” Joe and Rosie’s Pastor, an old German named Father Johannes, set out from the Rectory on one of his cherished neighborhood walk-a-bouts. He stopped by the home of two he loved.
Rosie had poured coffee, and was slicing them all a big
piece of lemon frosted pound cake, when the doorbell rang. She excused herself, and went to answer. In a few moments she returned with a neatly wrapped small package.
“Who was that love?” Joe asked.
“The UPS man. He delivered this, for you.”
“Ah,” Joe said smiling, “then open it for us.”
“You’re still holding the knife Rosie; I won’t argue.
Besides, it will help with the tape.”
Rosie blushed, but wasted no time tearing into the box.
She loved surprises, especially those addressed to Joe. Inside the box was neatly folded a red Santa’s hat. To it was pinned a fine velum envelope, carefully addressed to Joe in beautiful old script handwriting. Rosie handed the envelope to Joe. He opened it, read. His eyes misted. He tried to say something, but was suddenly too choked up to speak. He just handed the note to Rosie. She read,
To the Real Santa:
Our dear little Luke wore your cap to the end. We hope that you don’t mind that we kept the bell. It means so much to us. It sounds like a happy soul. Every time we ring it, we think of Luke… But we wanted to return your cap. It gets cold out there on a winter’s night. We know. And you still have miles to go before you sleep. God go with you.
With all our love, always.
Rosie wiped a tear from her eye with her napkin. She handed the note to the priest and blurted out something very unlike her, but then again, very much her brassy self. “Damn, if I’m not really married to Santa Claus!” She got up, gave her husband a tender kiss on his forehead, then ran out the room. The priest read the note, and sighed, and
nodded agreement. He neatly folded the note and gently handed it back to Joe. Then he stood up, gave Joe an affectionate pat on he shoulder, and with genuine emotion muttered,“Ja, this Kris Kringle here is the real thing… The real thing.” Then he turned and let himself out the door.
In this season of such need, may each of us prove to be “the real thing.” Merry Christmas.