73. The Year We Got to Know Santa

73. The Year We Got to Know Santa

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

The Year We Got to Know Santa

You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.

~John Wooden

It was 1982 and we had two children, ages two and eight. We were both in graduate school and money was tight. I took a part-time job with House of Lloyd as a manager.

To know me is to wonder, “What the heck was she doing selling toys and other merchandise at home parties?” I hated it. I felt like I was taking people’s hard earned cash. As a manager I only had to do three parties, but I had to find employees who were willing to earn cash, free gifts, plus their $300 kits, for selling people everything they thought they needed for Christmas. Fortunately, I had some great people. All but three earned their kits by selling more than $1,000 in merchandise. I was left with three kits to return, as well as the contents of my own sales kit.

Enter my social work brain. I called Congressman Kostmayer’s office and asked if they could find a use for $1,200 worth of toys and gifts. They found a homeless shelter that had just opened. It was ten days before Christmas. I contacted House of Lloyd and they generously donated the three kits I had on hand. I then spoke with the caseworker at the shelter. I was in shock at how little they had on hand. Having just completed my social work internship, I knew she was in over her head. I asked for the ages and sizes of everyone in the shelter. Then the fun began.

I called a local children’s clothing outlet, where I bought my kids’ clothes, and the owner donated new coats for all the children. Boscov’s department store donated items for men and women, and a local sock outlet donated new socks. Manufacturers donated baby food, diapers and formula. Food donations came from supermarkets. More new toys from friends and co-workers arrived. Every one of my friends knew they’d better donate items or cash to the cause — I can be very persuasive — and everyone came through.

The owner of the children’s outlet was so moved that he added outfits for all the kids. When I was done arm-twisting, we had $10,000 in merchandise and cash for the residents of the shelter. Missing were Christmas stockings, a tree and Santa himself.

During the toy party season, my Great Aunt Jingo passed away and left us a little inheritance for a down payment on our first house. We moved into our new home on December first. At the time I was also busy finishing my practicum, so I couldn’t have been busier. I paid for the stockings and enlisted my friend Joyce in the Christmas stocking project. We bought glitter and sat in my new living room, on the ugliest carpet ever, with no furniture, and wrote each child’s name on the stockings with glitter. There were more than twenty-five, enough to wreck the ugly carpet and “force” us to replace it ASAP. We filled the stockings with candy and, courtesy of my dentist, toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss.

As for Santa, there was one problem. At this late date no one wanted to sub for the real Santa on Christmas Eve. Considering we were Jewish and had nothing else to do that night I decided my skinny, six-foot-two husband would be perfect as Santa’s stand-in. We managed to scrounge up a Santa suit, stuffed a few pillows inside and, lo and behold, I was married to the jolly old elf! Even my daughter fell for it. My husband’s personality was transformed in that magical suit. His usually laidback demeanor became animated. His eyes twinkled. He had quite the “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

Not only was this the first Christmas season in our first house, it was also our first Hanukkah there. We always made a big fuss for Hanukkah so our children understood that this was our holiday. We never had a “Hanukkah bush,” but we had blue-and-white lights and decorations all over our new split-level. Anyone walking in and seeing all of this Hanukkah and Christmas chaos would think it was a holiday-themed asylum.

We loaded our station wagon and Joyce’s minivan, strapped the huge tree — a last minute donation — to the roof, and were off for our ride across the county. Santa was yelling Merry Christmas out the window at every red light. When we reached the shelter, the kids all ran to meet us. My husband, transformed, scooped up kids in his arms and carried them into the shelter’s living room. The plan was not for him to have each child on his lap, but rather to help unload the gifts and food. Fortunately, all the caseworkers were available, as well as some of the dads. We were unloaded, stockings hidden, new coats tried on and the tree set up. Santa was still talking to the children, handing out candy canes and having more fun than anyone.

After passing around some Christmas cookies baked by the parents in the shelter, we hung all of the homemade tree decorations and placed wrapped gifts (Joyce had wrapped adults’ gifts, too) under the tree. At the end of the day, we left the shelter full of holiday spirit. Our kids were with us, but I chose not to tell them this was a homeless shelter. As far as they were concerned, we were celebrating Christmas with new friends. I never wanted my kids to think of others as charity cases. Some people need a little help, that’s all.

Santa remained jovial the entire ride home. Our kids went to bed right after hanging their own stockings, full of excitement to see what goodies Santa brought to good Jewish children. We left a snack for Santa and carrots for his reindeer. My husband took off his costume and changed back into himself. He was quite pleased that he had helped Santa by standing in for him on Christmas Eve. By the time we were able to sleep, the kids woke up, raced down to the family room and were thrilled Santa had their new address. The stockings were emptied. They played with their new toys, ate candy, watched TV, and then we did what Jewish families in America do for Christmas: We went out for Chinese food.

In my sixty-two years there have been many great Hanukkahs, but this was a Christmas like no other. At the mall the following year my daughter told Santa that she was Jewish, so she wouldn’t be sitting in his lap again. I still have that last Santa picture. My son wanted to kill his sister for ending the Christmas stockings, but Hanukkah was our holiday. From then on, Santa visited our friends and sometimes left a gift for my kids.

To this day we help those in need at the holidays, but Christmas 1982 is still most special. It was a year of transformation for our family and the beginning of new traditions. It was the year of the new house, the year I completed my degrees, and the last year Santa visited our home. It was also the year that Santa touched our hearts and souls. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” He even lives in the hearts of this old, observant Jewish couple.

~Judy Davidson

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