Our three young sons, who lived in the enchanted land of imagination, knew the real Santa was here, just as in previous years.
The real Santa was our rotund neighbour who lived behind us, a former professional football linebacker, easily weighing 280-300 lbs. No way did our boys equate this magnificent Santa with the nearby mortal who shoveled his driveway like the rest of us.
“Santa’s here!” they screamed when they heard the doorbell ring. Although they saw Santa in malls, parades, at school and Sunday School parties---Santa was everywhere it seemed---this Santa, the one coming to their home, was the real Santa. Each year he reminded them his reindeer were in the North Pole stables, resting and munching as they got ready for the long night flying across the world pulling his toy-packed sleigh.
The faces of our three sons, totally enraptured by this giant of a gentle man, are forever images. Tucked away in our messy memory albums are photos of each boy, sitting comfortably on the knee and in the arms of this marvelous man, chatting to him about their hopes and dreams while my husband and I frantically wrote down their wish lists. Many times we were about to purchase something we thought they wanted for Christmas only to discover they told Santa something else.
Over the years, as the boys grew, our neighbourhood changed and after the boys left home, we resettled elsewhere in Canada.
Although we occasionally returned to our hometown to visit old friends, we never found time to look up Santa. On one occasion, though, we made a point of calling him. We wanted to remind and thank him for the pleasure he brought our family when the boys were young. On the phone, he invited us over immediately. His voice sounded the same as 25 years ago: larger than life, warm and welcoming.
We did not expect what greeted our eyes. I only hope the shock on our faces did not register.
Our Santa was crippled.
Although always large, he was even more so now: an obese, old bald man spilling over the stuffed lazy boy chair in which he was parked. Anchored in a cluttered living room, he sat within reach of a telephone and TV remote control. A small table by his side held a pitcher of water, an empty glass, and a plate with some food scraps. He looked as if he had not moved for days.
“My knees,” he explained. “Ruined them playing football. Then came arthritis. Now I can’t move without leaning on a cane or a walker. Too heavy.” He laughed and we caught a glimpse of merriment from long ago. “When Bonnie died and Darryl moved away, life came to a standstill.” Bonnie was Mrs. Claus of course and Darryl their only son. “I have a housekeeper---comes each morning to make sure I’ve enough food for the day. Helps me dress then comes back in the evening and helps me undress. Hardly move from this spot.” He shared his tale matter-of-factly, no self-pity.
We found it difficult he was incapacitated....and forgotten. This unselfish man gave so much delight to his neighbourhood and community. As the real Santa he brought joy to numerous Christmas parties and our neighbourhood; excited children across the city watched the local cable station each December hoping he would read their letters of dreams. His annual TV appearance guaranteed the largest response of any community television program.
Yesterday’s Santa may no longer exist as he once was but to our family he will always remain real.