I first saw him at our friends' wedding rehearsal. The resemblance was uncanny. There was no red suit with white fur trim, no fat belly, and no sleigh and reindeer. But the beard was the purest white I had ever seen. It was the most authentic Santa beard anyone could conceive. My adult mind kept playing a childish refrain. "It's Santa! It's really Santa!"
How appropriate that the wedding would be on December 23. Santa was to provide the music. He was rather solemn as the others celebrated in a festive mood. The minister showed him where to stand during the ceremony. I assumed he would sing. But the thin, bearded Santa in blue jeans reached down, opened a violin case, and lovingly took out his instrument.
Santa was not just a man playing a violin. It was obvious even to the untrained ear that the strings were in the hands of a master. People who had been chatting in various parts of the church slipped into the pews one by one, moved by the talent of this quiet gentleman.
He sat across the table from me at the rehearsal dinner. He did look like Santa, but carrying on a conversation with him was quite difficult. I learned that he was a plumber, not a professional musician, and that there was no "Mrs. Claus." He would be spending Christmas alone.
The idea preyed on my mind all night. Santa spending Christmas alone? The next day I asked the bride-to-be, "What's with Santa? No twinkle in his eye, no family, and no one to spend Christmas with?" She looked at me. "You don't know, do you?"
I instantly knew that I was not prepared for her answer. She said that Santa had loved his wife and son very much -- he was a devoted husband and father. Several years ago, he came home from work in early December to find them both gone -- their lives snuffed out by an intruder. He hasn't been the same since. There is no twinkle in his eyes. And he can't bear to hold little children and listen to their precious requests as he had done for so many years. No more Santa in the red suit -- just the plumber in blue jeans.
At the reception, he stood all alone. I did manage to engage him in some small talk. "Yes, it was a beautiful wedding." I looked him in the eye. "Will you come to our house for Christmas dinner?" His face flushed. I could see his hands shaking. "We have five sons. May I tell them Santa is coming for Christmas dinner?" I slipped him a note with our address. He stared into space. I turned away unacknowledged.
* * *
As I tucked the younger boys in bed on Christmas Eve, I spoke softly. "Maybe we will have a special guest for dinner tomorrow. Who knows? Maybe Santa himself will be here!" I prayed as I laid my head on the pillow. "Please don't let Santa be alone on Christmas."
* * *
The turkey was browned perfectly. The desserts were arranged on a special table, and everyone was starving. One o'clock and time for dinner. That morning, each of the boys, one by one, had come to ask me. "Mom, did you really invite him?" "Do you think he's going to come?"
My answer: "I hope so, Son."
We couldn't wait any longer. "Time for Christmas dinner!" Everyone gathered around the table. I saw the disappointment in the boys' faces. But just as the "amen" at the end of the blessing was pronounced, we all heard a car door slam. The boys raced to the back door. I could tell by the amazement on their faces who was coming up the back steps. "Mom, it's him! It's him! It's really Santa Claus -- in his everyday clothes, the ones he must wear all year in his workshop!"
The boys never saw the tears I brushed away as they rushed to welcome Santa into our home. After we opened our presents (there were even two for Santa), Santa spoke. "May I give your family a gift now?" He went outside and came back with his old black violin case. As he played, I was sure I could hear angels joining in as we sang "Silent Night."
After he put the instrument away, our two-year-old toddled over to Santa and gently stroked his beard. "Santa, tan I sits on ur lap?" I saw all the color drain from Santa's cheeks. For a moment, he was as white as his beard. Then slowly, slowly, Santa eased back into his big chair, and finally he stretched out his arms. -- By Elaine Slater Reese
Reindeer are a key part of the Santa Claus mystique. For a charming story on reindeer -- "Reindeer Hooves" -- see the next page.