These early mornings are beginning to take their toll. I wake up. I stumble to the kitchen. I turn on the water for coffee. I look at the clock. It reads 4:30. Even Robin stayed abed this morning. I'm up now. I'll stay up.
I've been thinking about my cousin. His birthday was in October. He was born with a congenital defect. He was never able to walk and spent most of his time in a wheel chair. It never held him back from joining in the fun we had as kids. He was always included in our games. He was always happy. It was contagious.
His hopes for Christmas were just like ours. He had that one big wish for a present. The Spirit of Christmas had a hold on us very year.
One of the many ways we celebrated was through the Christmas Tree at church. It was a gathering of the church members in the meeting hall which was decorated with a large tree. Beneath that tree was a host of presents of all sizes. There was a table against the wall covered with a white table cloth lined with covered dishes each family brought from home. Folding chairs were laid out in rows. As families came into the hall they would place their covered dish on the table. Then the parents would remove their gloves and coats while helping their children with theirs. Once everyone was free of outdoor clothing the parents would shoo the children to a seat. As more and more folks entered the excitement in the children's eyes would increase rapidly. That excitement soon turned to energy which had us up and running around the tree checking packages for names.
When the hall was full the elders would call for quiet and we kids were asked to return to our seats. We listened and sat down with our parents. After the minister blessed the meeting and had welcomed us to this annual celebration he would be interrupted by a loud series of HO HO HO's. From one of the side doors would enter a man dressed in a red suit sporting a white flowing beard down to his belt buckle. All of us kids would shout SANTA! at the top of our lungs as he set his sack down beside the preacher.
"Well hello Santa," the minister would say. "What brings you here?"
"Why the children. I have gifts for them here in my bag. I know you have some under the tree as well. I thought you might like some help handing them out."
"You came all the way from the South Pole to help us?" asked the preacher.
"The North Pole, sonny," said Santa. "I come from the North Pole," he said to gales of laughter. Every kid knew that. Grownups. Whatcha gonna do with 'em?
"Well, wherever you are from, I'd like to welcome you here. How about you kids out there? Can you thank Santa for coming all that way?"
It was pandemonium on a small scale as we all jumped up to yell yay in welcome.
Someone would bring Santa a chair at which time he would begin to call each child by name to come up and recive a gift. Most of us got a box in the form of a book which when opened had rolls of Lifesaver candies. Some received real books or toys. Each one of us received something. It was like Santa knew every kid in the hall. He was the man of the hour for us. It never occurred to us to ask why Santa? He was as much a part of our Christmas as the baby Jesus and the three wise men.
When the gifts were given and Santa begged to depart, we all hooped a holler of thank you. He would exit through the same door through which he arrived. At this point the minister would ask everyone to rise. He would say the blessing. When everyone said Amen the adults lead all of us children to the table. Everyone would fill plates with home cooked offerings and find a place at the table in the back of the room.
The next year I asked my mother if we could take my cousin. She agreed so I ran to tell him about the festivities we were going to. He became as enthused as I was. When I came home I asked my mother, "Do you think Santa will have a toy for my cousin since he doesn't go to our church?"
"I'm sure he will. No need to worry about that. Santa knows."
I didn't have as much faith and began to stew over it. On the day of the Christmas Tree I came up with an idea.
"Mom, why don't I wrap up something for him in case Santa doesn't have anything in his bag. That way he won't be disappointed."
"If you feel so strongly I don't see why not. Do you have something in mind?" asked my mother.
"I do!" I said in triumph. "This derringer of mine. He has always wanted one and it would be something he'd like." It was a cap gun in the shape of a derringer. I'd always let him shoot me with that one while I shot him with my six shooter when we played cowboys and indians. Unbeknownst to me, however, he had folded a piece of paper and wedged it in the barrel. I had never noticed it. Nor did I notice it as I found a box and paper to wrap it for the event in the evening.
We arrived early so we'd have time to get him settled in his chair and find seats before Santa arrived.
I ran up to the tree and placed the package underneath. When I came back the excitement was apparent in his eyes. It was building in the entire room. Before it exploded the minister walked in front of the group.
"Welcome to this year's Christmas Tree everyone, especially all you little girls and boys. If you can control your enthusiasm I think I hear someone..."
"HO HO HO! Where are all those boys and girls!" It was him. He was coming through the side door. Over his shoulder was a large red sack.
"I told you," I said to my cousin. "I told you he'd be coming. And he knows every one of us. He's got something for all of us. He's Santa Claus."
"I don't think he'll have anything for me. I don't go to church here. How would he have something for me?"
"You just wait," I said. "He knows and I'm positive he will have something for you."
The minister opened a folding chair beside the tall tree. Santa sat in the chair which creaked under his weight. He began to lift packages from beneath the tree. He would call the name on the package and pull a "book" of Lifesavers from his sack. When the child went forward to receive his gift Santa would give both items to him or her.
Toward the end when my cousin was turning to me to tell me he was right that Santa wouldn't have anything for him his name was called. The look of surprise on his face was exchanged for a huge smile.
"Want me to go get it for you?" I asked excitedly.
I ran to the front to collect his presents. Santa said, "Merry Christmas, son," as he handed me the gifts.
"Thanks," I said as I grabbed the offerings and ran back to my seat.
"Here it is!" I said in triumph. "Open it! Open it!"
He took it and ripped off the paper and popped off the lid. His eyes got big as he lifted the derringer from its box.
"Look! It's a gun just like the one you always give me when we play cowboys and indians. My very own derringer. How could he know?"
"He's Santa. He knows." I repeated what my folks always said.
"It's amazing how much it's like the one you own. Every detail."
"Yeah, it's a nice one alright."
"I can't get over how much it's like yours.'
He kept inspecting it holding it this way and that with a perplexed look on his face. Then astonishment, "It's exactly like yours."
"Huh?" I asked. "What do you mean?"
"Inside. There's a piece of paper folded up just like the paper I shoved into yours."
"Where? Lemme see."
"Right there. You 're right. He's amazing. I wished for a derringer just like yours and he gave me one exactly like it."
"Yeah, he's amazing," I said.
We smiled at each other and said Merry Christmas. It was a good year.