It was slushy when I stepped outside, and discovered the frost had settled early. Since it was Christmas Eve and I was going to work, you can imagine my mood as I slid around, trying to remove ice from my windshield with a scraper some congressional candidate gave me in 1996.
Then a noise came from behind the house and, assuming it was another stray cat coming to attack my trash bags, I stalked around the garage to shoo it away. Instead I came face to face with a huge deer, which regarded me with steady, almost intelligent eyes.
“Huh,” I said.
It’s not unheard of to see deer in Albion, and at least it wasn’t a skunk. But this deer was wearing a bridle and halter, and as I moved around the edge of the garage I saw another deer behind that, then another, and another. I moved along the line, counting, until I encountered a huge red sleigh.
Yep. Eight reindeer. Not tiny, though.
A man, also not tiny, was adjusting the leather straps on the animals, and after a moment he glanced up at me. He looked a lot like that bald guy from the TV show “Lost,” only fatter and with a beard. “Hello,” he said.
“You’re striking out on the stealth thing, Santa,” I told him, while wondering how soon my alarm clock would go off.
He laughed. A regular laugh, not a ho ho ho. “Sometimes I have to stop and adjust the gear. Wouldn’t want Dasher and Dancer going on without me.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be landing on my roof?”
“Have you seen your roof? You’re going to fall through yourself someday, let alone someone as weight challenged as me.”
By now I’d gotten over the surprise enough to take a closer look at the sleigh, and noticed it looked a bit worse for wear. “Say, Santa – are those bullet holes?”
“A couple of fellows in South Central L.A. took exception to a white man in their hood. As if skin color makes a whit of difference!”
“No, I” – My thoughts were derailed to the sight of scorch marks on the sleeve of Santa’s red suit. “Forget to check the fireplace?”
He followed my gaze, and smiled. “Firebomb in Baghdad.”
“I guess you’ve got a tough job, these days.”
“Oh, the old days weren’t much better. Besides, it’s good practice – you mentioned my lack of stealth earlier. Sneaking into a soldier’s barracks to leave a box of cookies and pictures from home isn’t easy.”
“I thought you only left gifts for kids.”
For the first time, his expression grew grim. “They are kids. Kids who spend all day helping to get a town’s sewer system running, only to have people sneak in at night and blow it up again – who deserves a reward more? You can guess who’s on my naughty list.”
“Hey – are those burn marks along the bottom of your sleigh?”
“Oh, yes – surface to air missile.”
“Those Iranians, they’ve developed a habit of putting military facilities right in the middle of residential neighborhoods. I’ve got to make my stops – what can you do?”
“But, Santa, aren’t those Muslim kids?”
Santa gave me a sharp look, and for a moment something flashed in his eyes. “You don’t know much, do you?”
Dancer snorted again. It sounded a lot like laughter.
“Well, it’s just that Christmas is kind of … Christian. You know, since they took over from the pagans.”
Santa laughed. “The early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. Besides, Jesus was born in the spring! I should know – I was there.”
“Who do you think brought the star? Yes, the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate a birthday, but – as many people will tell you – I’m not a symbol of Christianity.”
“Then what are you? Your job is dangerous, you’re disrespected, nobody believes in you, and you don’t even get credit for what you leave. A lot of people think you’re nothing more than the symbol of greed. Yet you go around leaving something for every child in the world, even those who don’t deserve it? What’s the point?”
Smiling, Santa reached into the huge red bag in the back of his sleigh. He brought out a nativity scene: intricately carved figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Wise Men and Shepherds, Animals. There was a manger, of course. “A little nine year old boy in Tanzania put only this on his Christmas list.”
“What? A little boy doesn’t ask for a nativity scene. He asks for toy soldiers, or Tonka trucks, or video games.”
“And yet, he did. His family recently converted to Christianity, and this is what Jesus means to him. Birth. A new beginning.”
I gave him a questioning look.
“You still don’t know what I am?”
“Um … a fat burglar?” I often make jokes when faced with uncomfortable questions.
Santa just grinned.
“Hope?” I said, not knowing where the word came from.
“You’re getting there.” He carefully laid the nativity set back in the bag. “Gifts are different things to different people. Some people have all they really need, and so gifts don’t mean all that much to them. Some are satisfied by little things that give them comfort: a plate of cookies, a picture from home. But for some people, people whose worlds have crumbled around them, there’s nowhere to go but up. Any gift – anything at all that makes it a little better – opens up a world of possibilities.”
“So you represent hope to a little boy?”
Santa shook his head. “Oh, no – I’m nothing more than the spirit of giving. He represents hope to me. It’s hope for the future that brings action. Action can make the world a little better, which makes more hope, and that’s where faith comes from.”
Climbing into his sleigh, Santa grabbed the reigns, then turned to me. “Rumor has it you hate winter.”
“Have faith – spring will come. Oh, and clean the mud off that inflatable Santa.”
Dancer turned to me and let out a strange noise, an electronic beeping that sounded just like my alarm clock. That’s when I woke up.
So, that’s my story. Nothing got left behind, except the hope that somewhere, some little boy has brought faith to his family, with the spirit of giving.
Oh, and there are those ruts in the back yard.