FATHER CHRISTMAS

FATHER CHRISTMAS

From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Father Christmas

Presents which our love for the donor has rendered precious are ever the most acceptable.

Ovid

I didn’t realize how much Carissa resented me until I became united with her mother. The sweet eleven-year-old did everything she could to sabotage my loving relationship with Paula. No matter what I tried, there were no signs of progress. Carissa would leave her bed at night, claiming bad dreams, and crawl in next to her mom. Each time, I was slowly pushed out, destined to sleep on the cold couch. It was the perfect metaphor for our struggling relationship.

I hung in there, though, doing all I could to stay nice and teach well. With Christmas quickly approaching, I knew I had the perfect opportunity to show Carissa an example of selfless love. I played Santa each year, the location depending on where I was needed most. On the eve of Christmas, without fail, I tore the red suit free from the dry cleaner’s plastic wrap and fluffed up the white beard.

Through the years, I faced great criticism for interrupting my own holiday by doing volunteer work. “It’s a night only to spend with family and close friends,” some said. I chuckled silently. They didn’t understand. Though I spent every spare moment I could with those I loved, Christmas Eve could not be any more magical when spent with children who believed in me, Santa. I was hardly being selfless. In fact, it was the opposite. It was a most selfish act. Yet, year after year, I allowed those who sighed heavily to believe I was giving something up. I never let them in on my secret. I never wanted it to end.

As fate would have it, I had two stops planned for this year and wanted to spend both with Carissa. Paula was more than accommodating and insisted on going along.

On our way, I told them about my secret love of playing the jolly fat man.

Our first stop was at a Grange Hall in the country. With a wolves’ bite in the air, we hurried for the door. Before Carissa took the first step inside, Gene Autry’s version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” poured out. Paula turned to the fat man in the red suit and smiled. The entire night was going to be filled with magic. We could both feel it.

On the giant square-dance floor, a tight community of people celebrated the holiday the old-fashioned way. They strung popcorn and dried cranberries on a giant Christmas tree. Before anyone could spot me, I bellowed, “HO! HO! HO!” The children came running.

Paula and Carissa stood off to the side to watch. The excitement of the children was contagious and overwhelming. Carissa beamed with the joy, and Paula fought back the tears.

A kind-looking, heavyset woman approached and took my hand, leading me to a chair that had been decorated for Santa. Though the kids hadn’t seen it, there was a bag of gifts already waiting to be handed out. I waved Carissa over, and with Paula’s gentle prodding, she came. “Pretty girl, can you help Santa hand out the gifts?” I asked in my deep Santa voice.

With dozens of tiny eyes upon her, Carissa nodded and went to work. She handed me a present from the bag. I read out the name and then personally handed it over to the excited child it belonged to. Together, we handed out a bag full of wrapped presents. Toward the end, I caught Carissa staring at me. Seated by the frozen window, her heart was beginning to thaw. She actually smiled, and it made my eyes fill.

Santa and his helpers were invited to share dinner with the townsfolk, and they weren’t about to take “no” for an answer. Even through the matted beard, I enjoyed the feast.

Just before I was about to pass out from the heat exhaustion I suffered in the thick suit, we bid our farewell. Walking out of the Grange Hall, the starry night ushered us back into the present. I hurried for the van and, under the cover of darkness, tore off my wig and beard. While Paula and Carissa giggled, I took in the fresh air.

Forty miles later, I donned my wig and beard again. We were in the city, at Santa’s last stop of the night.

The snow-swept streets were alive with holiday magic as the three of us stepped out of the van. With the tall buildings blocking the wind, the night felt twenty degrees warmer. With Carissa by my side, we stepped into the Boys Club to meet another pack of underprivileged children. I laughed from my belly, listened to wishes and handed out presents. I looked up again to catch Carissa staring. I smiled, and to my surprise, she returned it. I’d finally made progress and gotten through to her. I wondered then if I’d ever make a real difference in her life.

Upon returning home from the incredible experience, I collapsed in the living room. While I wrestled the sweat-drenched outfit free, Carissa proceeded to the tree. Escorted by her mother’s gentle eyes, she reached under the soft pine, grabbed a neatly wrapped present and handed it to me. “I wanted to give this to you tonight,” she whispered before quickly leaving the room.

I pulled off the black boots, wiped my hands on my pants and tore through the wrapping to find a framed essay. Through shocked and misty eyes, I read:

The Person I Admire Most by Carissa Kennedy

The person I admire most is Steven Manchester . . . he is very funny and most of all he teaches me a lot about life . . . he is a United States veteran . . . he stood tall and fought with honor . . . honor is one of the things he teaches me . . . he also teaches me about respect at home and I think that is pure love . . . Steve teaches me friendship . . . not just with me but with everyone around him . . .

I wiped my eyes. I had already made a difference in Carissa’s life. I just needed to remember that such truths are usually left unsaid and are normally invisible to the eye.

Steven H. Manchester

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