On the first full day of winter, December 22, in 2000, it was very cold in Omaha. The high temperature only reached fifteen degrees under clear skies, but it clouded over a bit as the sun set. It usually snows on my birthday, but this, my 50th, only provided me with a tease with just a few snowflakes in the air. I was born in a snowstorm, and Christmas is my favorite season. I love it when Christmas is heralded by a blanket of white. I’d have to wait a few days this time, however.
It was still a celebration. Several friends had come to help me reach half a century, and my sons were both here. My wife had baked up a storm, so there were several pies to share, as well as the usual libations. By midnight, after all the fun was had and folk had departed, the house was still and dark “as we settled our heads for a long winter’s nap.” It didn’t take me long to drift off to sleep even if I didn’t have visions of sugar plums.
Something disturbed my slumber a few hours later, however. I may have heard a noise or simply turned over and woke myself in the process, but for some reason I felt the need to check on the house. I got out of bed, put on my robe, and crept downstairs.
I don’t know why, exactly, but I wasn’t at all surprised to see someone sitting in my recliner in the living room. It was almost as if I expected a visitor, and there was Santa Claus himself, smiling through his beard and sipping a cup of hot chocolate!
“Hello, Dan!” he greeted me. “I helped myself and made some cocoa. Pour yourself a cup and join me. I’d like to talk to you.” It must have been his rummaging around in the kitchen that had disturbed my sleep.
“Uh, hello!” I said, after shaking my head and making sure I wasn’t still asleep. “Welcome! Nice to see you. Just a minute.” I went to the kitchen and found a pot of cocoa on the stove over a low burner. I poured myself a cup and joined the jolly old elf.
“This is a pleasant surprise. I have always known you were in and out on other days but Christmas Eve. You’re always welcome here. What’s up?”
Setting his cup on the table by my chair, St. Nick sighed and smiled at me and explained his late night visit.
“First of all, Happy Birthday! Congratulations on making this milestone.”
“Thank you! It feels good, and a bit unnerving to be this old.”
“You have no idea about old,” he chuckled, “but it gets even better. Every Christmas, like every birthday, is special. It’s been nice that you and your family have kept me in your celebrations all these years. It seems that fewer and fewer do so every year. That’s the reason I wanted to see you.”
“We’ve always enjoyed Christmas,” I agreed. “I think I have more than my brothers, at least since we’ve grown up. It’s just too much fun, especially with little ones. My boys are grown now themselves, but we like the magic that is Christmas and Santa.”
“I know, and I thank you. I’d like your help, though, if you’re willing. You see, as long as just one adult keeps believing, the magic continues, so I want to recruit you to be a helper. Every now and then I find someone like you who keeps the spirit alive, and then I like to have a chat with him or her and try to enlist some help.”
“I’d be more than happy to do what I can.”
“Good. I knew I could count on you! Now, I don’t need you to take my place or even pretend that you’re really Santa in disguise. What I’d like for you to do is just step up your game, if you know what I mean. Keep doing what you’re doing—continue to exclaim that you know Santa is real, encourage others to feel the spirit of the season, keep the magic alive in the little ones as long as you can.”
“As you get older, it will be easier for you and harder for them. When the time comes, I’ll give you whatever help I can. I can get you a suit like mine, if you’d like. You can even put on whiskers and long hair and do the whole bit if you want, but it isn’t necessary. Just tell people that you’re one of my helpers; and not an elf, either. That’s a bit much. Do whatever you’re comfortable with doing. Talk it up. Enjoy yourself. Be a mall Santa if you want, but you’re liable to burn out doing that. It’s usually better for my helpers to concentrate on their own children and grandchildren and others they know or meet. Get to know your neighbors!”
“Well, it sounds like fun, and something I can do. I think I’d like to start sort of small, if you don’t mind. Maybe, if or when I have grandkids, it will be easier. We don’t really know too many people here so far, and there aren’t many little ones in the neighborhood right now.”
“That’s alright. Like I said, do what you can and what you’re comfortable doing. One of these days I think you’ll hit your stride. I’ll be in touch and give you some ideas as you decide to get more involved. I have mailboxes that are fun. Sort of magic post offices for kids. Do you want a suit now?”
“I don’t think I’m ready for the suit yet. How about if I just think about it and see what happens as my life changes?”
There was a definite twinkle in his eye as he smiled and nodded and exclaimed, “Oh, things will change, my friend. Things will change. I look forward to some good years with you. I think you’ll know when to go all out. One of these days you’ll be needed even more than you are now, and you will take the reindeer by the reins.”
He picked up his cocoa mug and drained it, looked longingly into the bottom of the cup, and sighed. “With that, I’ll take my leave. It was very nice to finally talk to you. I knew you were ready. I’ve had my eye on you. Let me know when you need to have another visit.”
I looked puzzled, I’m sure. “OK. How do I do that?”
“That’s easy. Write me a letter. You don’t even have to mail it. I’ll know.”
“Do you want me to open the fireplace? How did you get in here, anyway?”
He laughed. You know: “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
“That’s a good explanation for my easy entrances and exits, but it’s actually much easier than that. Just watch. Good night, Dan. See you again soon.”
With that he set his cocoa mug back on the table and smiled. In the same instance he seemed to sparkle like snow falling on a very cold night. Then there was nothing to him except those magic sparkles that swirled around a couple of times and disappeared completely.
Just before he was entirely gone, I heard him exclaim, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
I sat there staring for a few seconds. Then I pinched myself. Yep. I’m awake. It wasn’t a dream. Now what?
That was twenty years ago. Since then things have definitely changed. I have four wonderful grandchildren. The neighborhood has become a place full of friends and terrific children. And I have grown into the idea of being Santa’s helper.
This year in particular I have felt the need to step up my game, as he said. So I asked him for a suit, and one of his magic mailboxes, and put out the word.
As I turn seventy this year, I officially become Santa’s helper. Ho, Ho, Ho.