On one occasion, at the ripe old age of five, the trip was bittersweet. My mother, a woman who was never sick, had recently returned home from the only time I remember her being hospitalized, and Dad took a day off to take me, the youngest, to Richmond. Of course, my dad, a man who was raised by a very frugal immigrant mother, never experienced a real festive Christmas and he was determined that would be different for his own children. And no one loved Christmas better than he did, living what he missed in his own childhood by living it with me and my siblings. He was as excited about this trip as I was. My older brother and sister were in school, they were likely more aware of the reality of Christmas than I was, so this trip with Dad all to myself was so, so special.
We got up early and were in Richmond with plenty of time to spare, so Dad picked up a line placement ticket, and we looked around in the store. He watched me closely to determine my reaction to the things I looked at closely and even asked me questions about what I thought my older sister and brother might like. In my excitement, I never realized he was putting my answers and reactions into his storehouse of memory to bring back home for Santa shopping purposes. We returned to the Santa display still early, but Dad was glad he got an early ticket since there were already about fifty families milling about. Holding ticket number eleven we would see Santa early and I couldn’t wait. My mind was about to explode from my eager anticipation by the time Santa came in from the simulated chimney, brushed himself off and took his seat at the top of the stairway. The fairy princess brought him a comb and mirror and he checked himself out, making sure he appeared perfect in his red velvet suit with beautiful white trimming like fine combed cotton. He was, indeed, immaculate. The moment was at hand; it was my turn as the princess smiled and told me to climb the steps to sit on Santa’s lap and I did so eagerly. As I was placed on his lap by the attending elf, Santa smiled as he put his beautiful as white as snow gloved hand on my shoulder to hold me in place as I was seated sideways while he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. As I pondered for a moment, having trouble remembering in my excitement, he stroked his beard with the other hand. Unable to remember the special item I wanted, I gave the next best answer, telling him I wanted my mom to get well. He looked serious for a moment, then laughed from deep down inside and began to speak.
He said, "Don't worry, that will be taken care of, " as he winked at Dad. "And don’t worry about forgetting the special gift you want. Old Santa knows and you will get it.”
Then he patted my back as I was taken off his lap with his final words telling me to thank my dad for bringing me to see him. He said he’d see me for lunch later. As I almost tripped walking away, trying to look one more time at Santa, I wondered what Santa meant by that last remark. So, I asked Dad who was chuckling at the scene.
"Well, Son," he replied, "We've got a little shopping to do for Mom and then it will be time for Santa to take a lunch break and we'll be joining him."
But how did Santa know that? And how could he know what I wanted if I had trouble even remembering it? I would only find that out years later.
Just before noon, Dad finished the shopping for Mom and we headed for the Tea Room, a large dining area which was decked out for Christmas. Each table had festive decorations and the walls were covered with Christmas pictures, ornaments and large snowflakes and draped in greenery and red ribbon. We were ushered quickly to a table near the spot where the guest of honor, Santa, was to be seated.
Now I can't tell you what we had for lunch, but I can say that after Santa's grand entrance, he started making the rounds of the tables and when he arrived at our table, he sat down with us for a moment. He reminded me that my mother would be fine, gave me a hug and shook hands with Dad with a wink. I was truly amazed at his memory.
By the time lunch was over, I was exhausted since we had been up since five in the morning. So, we started our two- hour drive home during which I fell asleep. When I awoke, we were pulling in the driveway and Mom was watching out the window. When I went up to her room to tell her about the day, Mom asked before I could say a word, "Was it a long day, Son? And what did you think of your visit?"
I just grinned, gave her a big hug and then did the same with Dad as I told him thank you for a wonderful day. I truly think he had as much fun as I did.
Years later I found out that when Dad made advance reservations, questions were asked for Santa and a number was assigned to each reservation. When we signed in, the match was made by an elf and it provided a "cheat sheet" for Santa to use as he worked the crowd of excited children. But to us it was magic, and I've never seen a Santa so authentic and real in every way since. In fact, years later with little children of my own and living in Maryland, we always brought them to Richmond for Santa. From my adult perspective, it wasn't quite the same as back in 1952, but it was still a wonderful experience.
And that's the important thing about giving our children the opportunity to experience such events. The memories they will retain will last for a lifetime. I know they have for me. And while the real importance of Christmas is the birth of Christ, the fun and joy of Santa in the eyes of the little ones makes for a great addition to the festive occasion. It provides great memories for the latter years when make believe becomes a thing of the past and I truly think it also helps develop a creative mind as well. Children need to be children when they are young and Santa was a great one to provide some of that joy to fill their young hearts without care or worry. Merry Christmas.
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