The Santa Within Me
by Jay Frankston
There’s nothing so beautiful as a child’s dream of Santa Claus. I know; I often had that dream. But, I am Jewish and my parents didn’t celebrate Christmas. It was everyone else’s holiday – a big party I wasn’t invited to – and I felt left out. It wasn’t toys I yearned for; it was Santa Claus and a Christmas tree. So when I got married and had kids, I decided to make up for what I’d missed.
I started with a seven-foot tree, all decked out with lights and tinsel. The year was 1956, and we were living in New York City. My daughter Claire was only two, but her eyes sparkled as she smiled at the tree. It gave off warmth that filled every corner of our home. I Put a Star of David on top to soothe those whose Jewish feelings were disturbed by the display. And, it warmed my heart to see the glitter, because now the party was at my house EVERYONE was invited.
But, something was missing, something big and round and jolly, with jingle bells, and Ho! Ho! Ho! So I bought some bright, red cloth and my wife made me a costume. Inflatable pillows filled out my skinny frame. A Santa mask, complete with whiskers and flowing white hair, made me look genuine enough to live up to a child’s dream of old St. Nick.
When I tried on the costume and looked in the mirror, there he was, big as life, the Santa of my childhood. I felt myself becoming Santa. I leaned back and pushed out my pillow stomach. My voice got deeper and richer. “Merry Christmas, everyone.”
Claire was almost four and Danny not yet one when Santa first came to our house. They stood in awe and I saw in their eyes the fantasy and magic of what I had become. Santa was special. He was the personification of kindness and gentleness. He was a little scary, too.
For two years I played Santa for my children, to their fright and delight, and to my total enjoyment. And, when the third year rolled around, the Santa in me had grown into a personality of his own and he needed more room So, I sought to accommodate him by letting him do his thing for other children.
One day, late in November, I saw this pretty little girl trying to reach a mailbox slot, and saying, “Mommy, are you sure Santa will get my letter?” My mind began to whirl. All those children who wrote to Santa Claus, whatever becomes of their letters? A phone call to the postal service answered my question. The dead-letter office stored the thousands of letter in huge sacks.
The Santa in me went Ho! Ho! Ho! and we headed to the post office. As I began rummaging through the letters, I became a little flustered at the demands and greed of so many spoiled children. Most of the letters were gimme, gimme, gimme letters. But, the Santa in me heard a voice from inside the mail sack, and I continued searching until I came upon one letter that jarred me.
“Dear Santa, I am an 11-year-old girl, and I have two little brothers and a baby sister. My father died last year, and my mother is sick. I know there are many who are poorer than we are and I want nothing for myself, but could you send us a blanket ’cause Mommy’s cold at night.” It was signed Suzy.
A chill went up my spine and the Santa in me cried, “I hear you Suzy.”
I dug deeper into those sacks and came up with another eight such letters, all calling out from the depths of poverty. I took them with me and went straight to the Western Union office and sent each child a telegram: “Got your letter. Will be at your house. Wait for me. Santa.”
I knew I could not possibly fill all the needs of these children, but if I could bring them hope, if I could make them feel that their cries did not go unheard… I budgeted $150 and went out and bought presents. On Christmas day, my wife drove me around. It had snowed graciously the night before, and the streets were thick with fresh powder.
My first call took me to the outskirts of the city. The letter from Peter Barski had read,
“Dear Santa, I am ten years old and I am an only child. I’m not sad because I’m poor, but because I’m lonely. I know you have many people to see and you probably have no time for me. So, I don’t ask you to come to my house or bring anything. But, could you send me a letter so I know you exist?”
“Dear Peter,” my telegram began, “not only do I exist, but I’ll be there on Christmas Day. Wait for me.”
Peter’s house was wedged between two tall buildings. Its roof was of corrugated metal and it was more of a shack than a house. With a bag of toys slung over my shoulder, I walked up the steps and knocked. A heavyset man opened the door.
He said a word in Polish and his hand went to his face. “Please,” he stuttered. “The boy… at Mass. I go get him. Please wait.” He threw on a coat and, assured that I would wait, ran down the street.
I stood there in front of the house, feeling good. Then, across the street, I noticed another shack; through the window I could see little back faces peering at me, and tiny hands waving. The door opened shyly and some voices called out, “Hi ya, Santa.”
I Ho! Ho! Hoed! my way over there, and a woman asked if I’d come in, and I did. Inside were five kids from one to seven years old. I spoke to them of Santa and the spirit of love, which is the spirit of Christmas. Then, seeing the torn Christmas wrappings, I asked if they liked what Santa had brought them. Each thanked me – for the woolen socks, the sweater, and the warm underwear.
“Didn’t I bring you any toys?” They shook their heads sadly. “Ho! Ho! Ho! I slipped up,” said I. “We’ll have to fix that.”
Knowing that we had extra toys in the car, I gave each child a toy. There was joy and laughter, but when Santa got ready to leave, I noticed one girl crying. I bent down and asked her, “What’s the matter?”
“Oh, Santa,” she sobbed, “I’m so happy.” And the tears rolled from my eyes under the rubber mask.
As I stepped out on the street, “Panie, Panie, Prosze…? Sir, sir, please,” I heard Mr. Barski say across the way.
Peter just stood there and looked as Santa walked into the house. “You came,” he said. “I wrote and… and you came.”
When he recovered, I spoke with him about loneliness and friendship, and gave him a chemistry set and a basketball. He thanked me profusely, and his mother asked something of her husband in Polish. My parents were Polish, so I speak a little and understand a lot. “From the North Pole,” I said in Polish.
She looked at me with astonishment. “You speak Polish?”
“Of course,” I said. “Santa speaks all languages.” And I left them in joy and wonder.
The following year, when the momentum of Christmas began to build, I felt a stirring and I knew that the Santa within me was back. So I returned to the post office and to those heartbreaking letters. I enjoyed playing Santa so much that I did it the next year and the next. Then, at age ten, Claire handed me a poem that began:
I know that Santa’s make-believe
But I still love him so
Because he’s my daddy
Ho! Ho! Ho!
So, now she knew. I took her to the basement where the toys were and let her rummage through Santa’s shop, ogling at the imposing array. She read the letters and cried with me and became a true Santa’s helper, sorting and wrapping the toys in preparation for my rounds.
I made them for 12 years, listening for the cries of children muffled in unopened envelopes, answering the call of as many as I could – frustrated at not being able to answer them all.
As time went on, word got out about Santa Claus and me, and manufacturers sent me cartons of toys. Having started with 20 children, I had wound up with 120, door to door, from one end of New York City to the other, from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.
On my last call a few years ago, I knew there were four children in the family and I came prepared. The house was small and sparsely furnished. The kids had been waiting all day, staring at the telegram and repeating to their skeptical mother, “He’ll come, Mommy, he’ll come.”
As I rang the bell, the door swung open and they all reach for my hands and hold on. “Hi ya, Santa. We just knew you’d come.” And these poor kids were beaming with happiness and laughter.
I took each of them on my lap and told stories of joy, hope and waiting, and gave them each a toy. All the while there’s this fifth child standing in the corner, a cute girl with blond hair and blue eyes.
I turned to her and said, “You’re not part of this family, are you?’
She shook her head sadly and whispered, “No.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“How old are you?”
“Come, sit on my lap.” She hesitated, but then came over. “Did you get any toys for Christmas? I asked.
“No.” she said.
I took out a big, beautiful doll. “Do you want this doll?”
“No,” she said, and leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’m Jewish.”
I nudged her and whispered back, “I’m Jewish, too.” Lisa grinned from ear to ear. She took the doll I had handed her, hugged it, and ran out of the room.
I don’t know which of us was happier – Lisa or the Santa in me.
Merry Christmas, my friends…