Me and Santa go way back.
I’ve met him many times. Not just the mall Santa, but the big guy himself. I know most of you won’t believe me, but a few of you do and that’s enough for me. Many of my most indelible memories surround the holidays, both good and bad. The holidays were a big deal in my house starting with Halloween, straight into Thanksgiving and Christmas and on into New Year’s. That’s a full fiscal quarter of festivities.
I was born and raised in western Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh, and growing up, we had an 18-foot Christmas tree. That’s not exaggeration or hyperbole; we had a cathedral ceiling living room in our old stone house, right out of a movie. We’d take the station wagon out to the tree farm and spend what seemed like hours wandering to find the perfect tree to cut down and take home.
Our plastic-bag wrapped feet long past frostbite, we’d lash the tree to the top of the wagon and try to avoid disaster heading back into town. More Grinch and less Griswold, we had more tree than car by tenfold. Getting the tree into the house was another ordeal. We’d try to round up a college kid or two to help drag the base in through the double French doors and then force the top skyward toward the rafters. I was usually the unlucky soul under the tree to set the huge metal base and screw in the supports.
This was all phase one. There was no way the base would support tree, lights, and decorations. An extension ladder was jammed into the rafters. My father was a large man and my brother was not a climber, so for as long as I can remember I was the designated ascender. My first task was to somehow reach around the tree and wrap bailing wire around the trunk and then attach it to the back wall out of sight for extra support. Lights start at the top, so back up and down I went with string after string of the old-fashioned multicolored large bulb lights strung nose to tail.
Mom would handpick each ornament and direct its exact placement with one hand while holding an Old Fashioned and a cigarette in the other. We had great antique ornaments handed down through the family that held great sentimental value. We would ohhh and ahhh as they were unwrapped one by one and the memories of yesteryear came flooding back. Of course, the only climber was rewarded with placing the star as the finale.
I am surprised I never came crashing down on top of the piano, although I had many close calls. Tinsel was added for even more twinkle. If you could colorize the tree in It’s a Wonderful Life, you might get close; it was a magnificent sight to behold indeed. I would lie on the floor for hours listening to a mix of Christmas classics and rock ‘n’ roll while staring up at the tree in all its glory. Perry Como, Andy Williams, Snoopy, and Bob Seger may seem like odd bedfellows, but somehow it worked, at least for me.
A full oval Lionel O-Gauge train was assembled at the base of the tree. That was mostly my brother’s job, and he even collected trains for a while. In later years, Mom and Dad would host tree trimming parties, and I would take coats and bartend. Once in high school, we hosted our own tree parties, and they were epic. It should come as no surprise that someone as festive as I would maximize the holiday experience. In high school and into college, the brothers would go on “shopping trips,” which would involve buying presents and perhaps enjoying a holiday beverage or three to keep spirits high. We made the Naughty List those years.
You need that backdrop to understand I was all in with Christmas. Although we had our own rooms, my brother and I would bunk together Christmas Eve like siblings do. We would have to wait until we heard “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by Jim Nabors — he has a great Christmas album, you have to trust me — and then we could dash downstairs for the big reveal.
It was on one of those sleepless Christmas Eves that we saw Santa flying overhead and off to the next town. Yes, it looked very similar to many of the animated holiday specials. We compared notes and 50 years later, we know what we saw and stand by our story. Like I said, me and Santa go way back.
As adults we always were home for the holidays, and after Dad passed away unexpectedly, it became more important than ever to be with Mom. Both being out of town, we only got to see her a couple of times a year, but Christmas was always one of them. As Mom got older, she had to go on oxygen and then was not able to walk very far. Mom was fiercely independent. Being cooped up much of the year meant she was adamant about going out to eat and going on excursions, which created the opportunity for new traditions.
For many years, Mom loved to drive around town and see the sights and relive old memories. As her eyesight began to wane, even that became a losing proposition. Then we discovered the holiday display at Phipps Conservatory. They transformed the historic Phipps into a veritable winter wonderland. Every room was more audacious than the last. Huge trees, thousands of bright lights and bows, and a working miniature model railroad of town complete with steam whistles and chattering rails was magical, and it became our go-to destination for holiday magic.
One year they added a kids’ area that featured stations for small art projects and, of course, a sit on Santa’s lap. Much to the consternation of the helper elves, we were not to be denied our opportunity to say hello to Santa and recreate a classic moment.
It bears repeating that I know the difference between the real thing and an imposter; and this was indeed Santa. He remembered us with glee. It appears I may have set some sort of unofficial record on the aforementioned Naughty List. But on this particular visit something even more magical happened. Santa and Mom bonded to the point that I was wondering about the song about Santa and trees and kissing. She lit up and the joy of Christmas returned to her soul. They chatted and held up the line for quite some time. What a gift!
So, imagine our surprise when the following year the Real Santa was again at Phipps on the day of our particular visit. Straightaway Santa recognized Mom and the connection resumed, but this time Santa became bolder. He could tell Mom was growing faint and this might be one of her last Christmases. He shared candidly how lucky she was to have two sons who, even if not often enough, made a point of being home for Christmas and spending quality time with her.
Many back at the nursing home were not so lucky. Santa went on to share how even he had to remember the “reason for the season” — the birth of Christ. He spoke of Christmas cheer, joy, and peace on Earth. He pointed out that the star on top of the tree and most of our holiday symbols pointed to something much bigger than even Santa himself.
We lost Mom a couple of years ago, one less reason to travel to see family. Holiday memories become more and more bittersweet with the passing years. We are making new memories with children and grandchildren, but a large and growing hole has developed of longing for the ghosts of Christmas past. Artificial trees and decorations in July are really starting to grate on my nerves. I really miss Mom, especially around Christmas.
We’ve moved yet again, and I feel more disconnected than ever. There can’t be a Home for the Holidays when there isn’t home anymore, just a house. I’ve got to pull myself together and get my head right, especially for the grandkids. I think I am going to head down to the mall and take a look around for my old friend. I could use some cheering up. You see, me and Santa go way back.