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Spying on Santa

Food for Thought

When I was still young enough to have that unshakable faith in the Christmas myth, we lived in a house that had a coal furnace in the basement and the heat it produced depended on gravity to get it where it was wanted. Needless to say, without an automatic fan or duct work to the upstairs bedrooms, gravity didn’t always produce the desired effect. The ground floor rooms had big square metal grates near the walls closest to the furnace below. These were fed the warm air through large ducts that came as straight as possible from the furnace itself.
The upstairs bedrooms were a different matter. Their source of heat was through similar grates that merely covered openings in the ceilings of the living and dining rooms, allowing what heat that might collect near the ceiling to rise on up through a matching grate in the floor of the bedroom above. An enclosed narrow stairway could be closed off with a door at the bottom to keep needed heat from pouring up the stairwell during the day when the bedrooms weren’t in use. On particularly cold days when the furnace needed to be fed frequently, heavy draperies between the living and dining rooms were kept closed and the living room heat register was blocked off until suppertime to save heat for the rest of the downstairs. My dad stoked up the furnace early on winter mornings, and again when he came home at noon for dinner so it would keep the house warm until he got home at suppertime. Firing up the furnace again before he went to bed, and opening the door to the stairway kept the bedrooms reasonably warm throughout the night.
Our Christmas tree was always located in the living room, which was directly under the large bedroom where my sisters and I shared two double beds. There were few electric outlets in the room and, because of the problems of having a safe place to plug in the tree lights without an unsafe tangle of extension cords, the tree ended up almost directly beneath that heat register in the ceiling. That heat register that couldn’t be closed off because the heat was needed to keep our bedroom warm. That heat register where we could peek through the twin grates and get a glimpse of the Christmas tree and any activity going on around it. In other words, if we could stay awake long enough, we could, just maybe, catch sight of Santa doing his thing during his midnight visit. We could watch him stuffing our stockings and piling our presents under the tree. We might get a preview of the wondrous things we were sure to find on Christmas morning—but the biggest thing was that we could actually catch him doing it! We would actually see him, in person!
We knew there were department store Santas, and a Santa that came to church during the Sunday school Christmas program and handed out candy canes and bags of peanuts. But we knew those were not the real Santa. The real Santa was much too busy for such nonsense and we would never be fooled by a guy in a red suit and a false beard. We wanted to see the real thing, the real magic, in the middle of the night when we peeked through the register in the floor of our bedroom. On more than one Christmas Eve we piled pillows and quilts on the floor by the register and snuggled down in our cozy nest to keep watch through the iron grate. We waited, whispered warnings to each other whenever we thought we heard sleigh bells in the distance or footsteps on the roof. And then—we woke up back in our beds and it was Christmas morning. Somehow, the blankets and pillows had been restored to their proper places and we had been tucked in and covered up, and nobody ever mentioned how we got there. It was probably part of the Christmas magic and either didn’t need explaining, or couldn’t be explained.
But, one year we did get a glimpse of Santa– only it wasn’t by peeking through the grating in our bedroom floor. We were ready for bed, had hung our stockings on the tree, and Mother said the bedroom was still too cold and Dad was going to make the fire hotter and we could stay up until 9:30 p.m., when it should be warm enough. Just before 9:30. we heard sleigh bells jingling outside the house. Dad turned the porch light on and we peered through the kitchen window just as a short, round figure strode past at the edge of the circle of light. Many years later, I learned that a neighbor, who was one of Dad’s good friends, and who managed the hardware store, always dressed up as Santa on Christmas Eve and the store stayed open until nine o’clock that night to accommodate late shoppers.