Hank Phillippi Ryan, most recently the author of THE OTHER WOMAN, was attending a bookstore signing during the holiday season when she was reminded of a certain Christmas. She had just turned 16 and found out from her mom that there would be no Christmas tree in their house that year. Hank refused to accept this sudden break from tradition and decided to do something about it.
Spoiler alert! And you’ll read why in a moment.
It’s about Santa.
I was signing in a bookstore a few weeks before Christmas, and also having fun watching people select books and overhearing snippets of conversation.
A mom and a preteen daughter were heading out the door. The girl --- cute, hip, mismatched gloves --- was looking at her mother with a strange expression. She stopped and held on to her mother’s arm. Wait, she said. You mean --- YOU’RE Santa?
I almost burst into tears. What a once-in-a-lifetime moment. And it reminded me…
’Twas the night before Christmas --- no, it really was. And at my home in rural Indiana, back in --- 1960-something? I had just turned 16.
’Twas the night before Christmas --- and my younger sister and I were very unhappy. My mother had laid down the law. This year, there would be no Christmas tree.
We were too old, Mom said. It was difficult. And even though we’d always had a Christmas tree, and all that goes with Christmas morning, and unwrapping presents and candy canes and chocolate apples and Handel on the record player and oranges in the toes of our stockings --- this year, it was not going to happen. The Santa thing was long over (being careful here), and there was no reason for a tree.
My sister Nina, age 13, and I were devastated. We had three younger siblings, and even though they were no longer waiting for Santa, we knew they would be devastated, too.
Nope, Mom said. We would have presents, and brunch, and all the trimmings. But a tree was a pain (she probably didn’t use those words) and just not necessary.
Christmas Eve day came, and our living room was looking right out of Dickens. I mean, BLEAK HOUSE, not A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Sure, there were stockings hanging right where they should be. But where there should have been a tree, there was…living room.
It was about 4:00. And I had an idea. Mom? I said, all innocence. Nina and I need to go to the store. To get one last present. I remember trying to look guiltily sly, as if I were hiding that I was going to buy HER present. Could I, I continued, take the car?
With my brand new drivers’ license in my wallet, Nina and I headed out in the family station wagon. But not to the store. We went to the Christmas tree place by the shopping center. All that was left, as you can imagine, were Charlie-Brown-scraggly leftovers. No matter.
We put one of them in the wayback of the station wagon. Then we realized we had more to do. How were we going to decorate the tree? We couldn’t get the boxes of ornaments out of the basement; we’d get caught. So we went to the movies. But not to see a film. We hit the lobby and bought several boxes of popcorn. We got home and hid the tree behind the garage. By that time it was dark, and we totally got away with it. Then we ran upstairs. Mom thought we were hiding her gifts, probably, and actively ignored us.
We got out our sewing boxes (no comment) and madly started stringing popcorn with a needle and heavy thread. We worked and worked. I think we had to stop for dinner, then we went back upstairs. “Wrapping!” we said.
At one point, one of us had a brilliant idea. We headed down to the basement and got a bag of whole cranberries out of the freezer. “Being frozen will make it easier to string,” one of us said. And so we made frozen cranberry garlands too.
That night, we could barely sleep. What else is new on Christmas Eve? But we got up early early early, dragged the little tree from behind the garage, and set it up in its rightful place in the living room. (I don’t really remember how we did that, but somehow it worked.)
We festooned it with our popcorn garlands, and then our cranberry garlands (not terribly successful, however, as the cranberries began to defrost, drip and get mushy). We made a star-like thing out of aluminum foil.
Then we high-tailed it back upstairs. We had been instructed to come downstairs no earlier than 7 AM. We came down earlier anyway. So we were there when my mom and stepdad saw the tree. And, in their pajamas and robes and slippers, they stopped in their tracks.
Mom’s face was a mixture of shock, surprise and joy. And love.
“Santa!” she said. Her voice was a whisper. “He came!”