Secrets I Must Tell
It was the night before the night before Christmas, the last day of a long Santa season that had begun in October. The clock on the wall showed just a few minutes before 9:00 P.M., and I was struggling to be the Jolly Old Saint Nick every child deserves to meet.
I had something heavy on my heart that night. Mrs. Claus, my beloved wife, Annie, had been in the hospital for three days, and I hadn’t been there to sit near her bedside or sleep nights in the cot next to her bed so she wouldn’t be alone. I was anxious for this shift to end so I could dash home, change clothes, and head for the hospital. There was a chance Annie would be discharged the next morning, Christmas Eve, and I wanted to be there to take her home. We both could’ve used a long winter’s rest.
The patter around Santa’s throne had been routine. Kids were lined up, waiting to tell me their wishes, and adults were impatient to have me help make their little ones’ dreams come true—at least for the moment. Jolly or not, I was required to be there, so I was working hard not to let the Santa experience seem my obligation or someone else’s bore. I even had an “elf” sitting on a stool beside me for good cheer. Trent was a little person, three feet, nine inches tall, seventeen years old, and delightful company. So Trent and I chatted between the interviews with the children, and our exchanges energized me and kept me going, one child after the next.
Then came this one little boy.
He couldn’t have been more than five, and he had been watching me intently, hands folded across his chest, for about ten minutes as he moved along with the flow, Mom at his side. Finally it was his turn for the Santa interview. He ambled up the steps and climbed onto my lap, seating himself on my left knee. He stared expectantly into my eyes. This was serious business.
“Well, hello,” I said, chuckling. The interview had begun.
“Hello,” the little guy responded.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Well,”—and here came the inevitable question— “have you been a good boy?”
“Umm . . .” The boy paused and looked up at the ceiling. He tapped his chin with his forefinger. “Umm . . .” he repeated, scouring the ceiling.
“What’s he doing?” Trent whispered in my right ear.
We followed the boy’s eyes to the ceiling to see what was so interesting up there. Nothing. Yet still the little guy was tapping his chin and searching for . . .
Ah, I thought, he’s looking for an answer. Here’s a little man giving great thought to a most important question.
“He’s thinking,” I whispered to Trent.
“About what?” Trent was incredulous.
“I don’t know,” I chuckled, “but this ought to be good!”
Suddenly the boy stopped tapping his chin. “Well,” he said as his eyes looked intently into mine. “Well,”
he started over in an effort to get his answer just right, “I had a pretty good August . . .”
Trent fell off his stool, and I burst into laughter as the kid, clearly puzzled, wondered what was so hilarious. Well, it was probably the first honest answer this Santa had ever heard!
Mustering control, I asked, “So what do you want for Christmas?”
The boy grinned big as Christmas and started his list, but I don’t remember his reply. My ability to concentrate had left in the face of his startling honesty. He took such an important question seriously and wanted Santa, in whom he had great trust, to get only the truth. Such faith in me! Such hope, despite his eleven bad months!
Regaining composure, I listened intently and admonished, “Well, remember to always be a good boy—and not just in August.” Then I sent the little guy on his way back to Dad.
Mom was waiting nearby and couldn’t stand it. She just had to find out what her boy had said to cause so much levity. I recounted the exchange in a whisper in her ear.
“He really said that?” she mused, awed by her baby’s candor. She laughed, and Trent and I joined her, the two of us erupting again as Mom bade us farewell.
Just then I realized I had witnessed a miracle of Christmas that my job gives me the privilege to see—an expression of childlike faith and hope, all tied up with a bow, offered in a single whisper or a letter from the heart to a place way up north.
Suddenly gone were my feelings of anxiety and my desire to finish this last night of Santa duties. With heightened expectation I looked to the next child, and the next, for that one magical moment of sheer joy, hope, and belief in all that’s good—in promises too good to be true.
These are the moments that convinced me some secrets, like some promises, are too precious to keep to myself. They must be shared. And so begins my open diary to you . . .
In the Beginning . . .
Every Santa remembers his or her very first time in the suit.
I was a senior in high school, working a holiday retail job at Belk’s Department Store in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. I had the opportunity to borrow the Belk’s Santa costume, and my brother had just the job for me. Come to the house dressed as Jolly Old Saint Nick, he prompted, and help wean Susan—his toddler, my niece—of her beloved blanky. Susan had promised to give up her baby blanket, but only to Santa for one of his elves, and only if Santa himself came to her house to claim the prize.
How could playing Santa and helping my brother hurt anything?
I agreed, imagining my brother and sister-in-law’s relief to get rid of that worn-out blanket—and little Susan’s delight at getting Santa to herself for a moment. She was sure to be mesmerized. And what fun it would be to play Jolly Old Saint Nick without her ever knowing it was Uncle Ed.
I rehearsed hundreds of greetings throughout what seemed to be a slow day at work. By evening, I was in the spirit of the surprise. I grabbed the suit, really feeling the part, and drove to my brother’s neighborhood. I parked in a lot down the street and wiggled
into the red slacks and jacket, then adjusted the beard, belt, and hat as I strode up the driveway. My heart was all aflutter as I took a deep breath and rang the bell.
I could hear Susan fumbling with the knob, then I watched her eyes widen as she opened the door. But before I could make my well-rehearsed greeting, she shrieked and raced across the living room, down the hall, and into her room. In a flash she was under the bed.
I looked helplessly at my brother. Bob looked helplessly back. Neither of us had anticipated Susan’s alarm about this personal visit from Santa. After all, it was her idea.
For an awkward moment, I stood dumbfounded as Bob sighed and gestured to an overstuffed chair. “Sit,” he said perfunctorily. He was just learning to expect the unexpected from toddlers.
So I sat, but not without fears of my own. I’d stuffed the suit with two pillows, my ears were contorted by the strings holding on the long, flowing beard, and my 7 3/8 inch head was forced into a 6 1/4 inch wig. Any minute I feared the buttons on my suit would
pop and the wig would squirt off my head, taking all my hair with it.
I held my breath as Bob and my sister-in-law, Virginia, tried talking Susan out from under her bed. They reminded her of her promise and reassured her that Santa loved her and would never hurt her. Then they begged.
My spirits were melting, along with the rest of me under all the Santa gear. By the time Bob pulled Susan out from her hiding place to comfort her, I had soaked the pillows and my beard with sweat. Maybe if Susan sees “Santa” is really Uncle Ed, I thought, she might calm down. Of course, that would ruin the Santa surprise for every Christmas after this . . .
I sweated more over what to do. It only took a minute to see there was no danger of my niece discovering my real identity. There was no way she was coming close enough to find out. With her right arm extended as far as possible, she did offer her precious blanky—from the very tips of her fingers. I reached for the gift, thanking her in the deepest voice I could muster and promising that
one of the elves would be glad to receive such a special blanket.
But Susan, with reflexes set on hyper speed, was already gone.
Laying my finger alongside my nose and giving a nod, I decided it was time for me to go too, if Bob and Virginia were ever to have some Christmas peace.
I left then, not knowing that Susan’s screams should have been expected. Seventy-five percent of children from eleven months old to age three scream and cry at the sight of Santa.
But I didn’t need a statistic to tell me the most important lesson of this experience. I saw it for myself: The red suit embodies something and someone so big and real that you must confront it or cry. Sometimes things to believe in make you do both. In any case, there is a power in portraying Santa, and with it a responsibility that calls for unconditional love—screams or not.
Embodying something to believe in is not a job for the faint of heart.
The Path to the Throne
Nobody sets out to be Santa Claus. Maybe in Hollywood an actor is selected for the role and goes down to makeup, where an artist sticks on a beard, adds a bit of color to the cheeks and nose, then sends the guy to wardrobe, where a dresser picks out a red suit and—voila!—Jolly Old Saint Nick. Yet like everything else about real life versus Hollywood, becoming Santa just isn’t that easy.
Of course, after the encounter with my screaming niece, I had no intention of wearing an all-red suit ever again. In fact, I didn’t particularly care for kids, especially little ones and infants. Maybe Susan did me in, or maybe I was just predisposed to be more annoyed than enamored with anyone vulnerable.
In any case, for the next forty years I became more like Scrooge.
I finished college at the University of North Carolina and took my journalism degree into the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. I donned green or tan suits every day as an infantry unit leader and learned forty-three different ways to kill and survive on the
battlefield. Self-sufficiency spoke volumes to me, becoming the quality I admired most. And I learned to love my troops and fellow officers as though my life depended on it—which, of course, it did. This was a limited love, however—a love based only on what someone could do for me.
Then in 1978, I retired from the Marine Corps and began working as a salesman for a medical diagnostics company. Around this time I met a young man attending my church who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. I presumed we would have nothing in common and nothing to talk about, so for about two years I kept our acquaintance to nods in the hallways.
In truth, I was intimidated by the chair.
When we finally had a conversation, I learned this young man was well-read and fascinating company. I began to visit him at his home, an apartment nearby.
On one of those visits, my new friend asked me to change a lightbulb.
Now, I had been decorated in the service by U.S. and foreign generals and had received all kinds of
awards for writing and for selling. I thought I was a good man who loved God and treated others Christianly. But none of those rewards or impressions of myself compared with what I suddenly felt while putting in a new lightbulb for someone who couldn’t do it himself.
Nothing I had done before in all my self-sufficient military service or church attendance seemed so significant as this. A simple flick of my wrist could be a huge gift. And I was the one receiving—a new sense of value, a “ministry” some might call it, a true purpose.
A light turned on inside of me.
Meeting Mrs. Claus
As if I had been bitten by the Good Deed Bug, I began to change other lightbulbs and do chores around the complex where a number of disabled people lived. Eventually, I found and bought an old Head Start program government van and installed a ramp and tie-downs for wheelchairs so I could give my disabled friends a lift to appointments and social events.
Then my daughter, Gail, and I went apartment hunting so I could live in a place where I could bring my friends who were wheelchair users. We looked at twenty-four different places in two weeks without finding one that was even close to being wheelchair accessible.
On one of our fruitless apartment searches, Gail wanted to stop at her bank to make a deposit, and she wanted me to come inside with her to meet the lady who had opened her account. I told her the last thing I wanted to do was meet any lady. I just wasn’t interested. I had been hurt enough already when my marriage ended some years ago.
It was too warm to wait outside in the car, though, so I went inside. Gail waved at a beautiful blonde woman whose desk nameplate said “Ann Moore.” Immediately I was struck by Ann’s beautiful smile— and her face and her sweet, melodic voice. We were introduced as Gail made her deposit, and the conversation turned to our father-daughter mission of the day. Ann asked what kind of place we were looking for; Gail told her we weren’t that particular, so long as we could get wheelchairs in the front door.
Startled, Ann looked both of us over again for evidence of wheels.
I explained that I’d been helping out some folks in wheelchairs and that I wanted them to be able to visit us. Ann thought the apartment complex where she lived had some units that opened directly onto the sidewalk. She wrote down the address on her business card and gave it to us.
It turned out the apartment directly below Ann’s (though we didn’t know it at the time) was wheelchair accessible, so two weeks later we moved in. And within a few weeks of that, Gail was staying with Ann’s nine-year-old son, Brian, who was on spring break, while Ann worked.
That week, Gail told me Ann was sick and that I should “do something!” I found Ann flushed, feverish, unable to keep her eyes open, and slurring her words.
“Get ready,” I told her and Gail. “We’re going to the emergency room.”
With a temperature of 104 degrees and an infection out of control, Ann was immediately put on
intravenous antibiotics. She would be in the hospital for eighteen days.
It was then and there that Christmas truly began to creep back into my soul.
I began checking in on Ann, and we began talking a great deal. One Sunday we spent the entire afternoon talking. We learned that we each believed in God and that her birthday was July 15, just one day after mine. We shared our pasts, our hopes, and our plans. She told me how she wanted to become a vice president at the bank. I revealed my desire to go to Indonesia as support for a missionary group I’d first become acquainted with during my service in Vietnam.
When I told Ann about my recent experiences with folks living with mobility disabilities, she lit up. She was intrigued to learn that at the place where the folks with disabilities lived, a Bible study group prayed for her at every session.
Once Ann was able to go home, we began to spend even more time together. We went shopping, and she bought an entertainment center after I promised to
put it together. As I assembled it, she introduced me to a song by Dallas Holm: “Rise Again.”
As we dined out on the fifty-dollar referral award Ann had received because we took the apartment in her complex, I felt like I truly was rising again from what I realized now were ashes. My marriage had ended three years before, after twenty-two years, and for all my bravado about self-sufficiency, I was beginning to realize I longed for someone to share my life with.
Ann’s marriage had also ended, seven years before under horrible conditions. One evening we talked about how neither of us wanted to plunge into another relationship. Well, that was what we kept telling ourselves and each other. But in the meantime, Ann, Brian, and I were talking and laughing together. We were becoming a family.
One evening I mentioned calmly, “The only way I would ever consider marrying again would be if I could find someone like you willing to marry me.”
Ann looked very thoughtful and responded, “If I found a man like you who would have me, I would get married again too.”
I startled myself by saying, “Would July 16 be OK?”
She shocked me even more by saying, “Yeah, I think that would be a perfect day.”
“Whoa, wait a minute!” I practically yelled. “Did what I think happened, just happen?”
She looked me in the face, smiled brightly, and said, “I think you and I have a wedding to plan. What do you think?”
We each confessed we had liked each other the minute we met, and now we began to tell our friends about our love. Our children, Gail and Brian, were ecstatic. So were Ann’s parents.
On July 16, 1983, Annie (my name for her) and I were married at the carillon at Stone Mountain Park, a historic theme park site near Atlanta—after we had celebrated my birthday on Thursday and hers on Friday. And now we were celebrating becoming a couple, partners in marriage, ministry, and life. Our friends and family—and some strangers enjoying the park that day—were all there. Everyone was a gift, and love was celebrated. That’s what Christmas is anyway. Love. A gift.
Who says Christmas can’t come in July?