The Night I Saw Santa Claus


I have seen Santa Claus. The real one. It’s simply one of the facts of my childhood, along with visiting the Grand Canyon, falling off that slide in Kansas, having a Boston terrier named Beauregard, and winning the fire prevention poster contest in Mrs. Easterling’s first-grade class.

People normally smile or give me a sidelong yeah-right eyeroll when I tell them this. Then the awkwardness sets in as they realize my expression hasn’t changed and that I am, in fact, completely serious. Perhaps that’s you right now.

It happened in Alaska, which seems fitting, given its proximity to the North Pole. When I was six years old, we were stationed at Fort Richardson, the army base just outside of Anchorage. It was a magical land where day and night traded places throughout the year and moose ambled down from the mountains during the winter to stare at you through your dining room window on taco night.

I was a smart kid and not especially gullible. I had seen the helicopter land at the base PX the week before Christmas and recognized that the red-suited man who jumped out was not actually Santa (or, at best, a low-level deputy Santa). Similarly, on Christmas Eve, when our doorbell rang and “Santa”—who was working the whole neighborhood—came in to give us candy, get a cup of cheer, and talk military business with Dad, I immediately saw his darker whiskers under the loose-fitting white beard. I was not fooled.

It’s not that I was skeptical of Santa, mind you. Perhaps it was because I was so passionately on board with the program that I could easily recognize a phony.

Awhile after #FakeSanta left on that Christmas Eve, it was time for bed. My older brother, Rick, and I shared a room in the basement of our government-issue housing unit. I climbed into my lower bunk (Rick got the upper one by virtue of seniority) and managed to calm my excitement enough to fall asleep. However, at some point in the middle of the night, my eyes opened. As I groggily came to, the significance of the opportunity before me presented itself.

My first thought was, “I wonder if Santa has come yet???” Then my eyes widened: “I wonder if he’s STILL here?!?” And that idea gave way to the most tantalizing possibility of all: “I WONDER IF HE’S STILL HERE AND HIS SLEIGH AND REINDEER ARE PARKED BEHIND THE HOUSE RIGHT NOW?!?!?!?

I couldn’t stand it–I had to check. I slipped out of my bunk and scooted across the floor to the fire escape ladder that led to the window. From inside the room, the window sat up near the ceiling; however, because we were in the basement, it looked out into the backyard at ground-level. I gingerly climbed the rungs, breathless with excitement.

I reached the top and peered through the frosty pane. And there, directly behind the house, lit up by the moonlight’s reflection off the snow, was . . . nothing. The field that ran from the back of the house to the distant woods was empty: no sleigh, no Rudolph, no Santa. I sighed.

AND THAT’S WHEN IT HAPPENED. At that precise moment, Santa walked around the corner of our house, right in front of the window. The real McClaus: red suit, rosy cheeks, white hair and beard, twinkling eyes, and all. (Also, if anyone asks, Santa does not wear black gloves.  Rather, red-and-white-striped knit mittens.) He seemed to be on his way somewhere, but suddenly he stopped short and turned toward my astonished little face in the dark window. He smiled at me kindly, leaned down, and tapped on the glass. And then he straightened up, waved, and continued on his way.

About to burst with excitement, I scurried down the ladder and flew up the stairs, where I was clobbered by the sight of piles of presents, bulging stockings, and a BRAND NEW COLOR TV sitting under the tree.  I raced back down and woke up Rick, and we felt it imperative to immediately alert the rest of the family. Christmas came early that day.

When I die, this will be one of the questions on my shortlist for the Big Whom/Whatever (you know, along with the one about The Meaning of Life): “So, what was that Santa sighting about?” I suspect that both questions might have similar answers.

At any rate, I find myself here 50 years later, still wide-eyed, still believing this preposterous story. In fact, one gift the experience has given me over the decades has been precisely a sense of wonder and the ability to willingly suspend disbelief.

I figure that believing in Santa is the least I can do. Because there’s a way in which, through this experience (and other similar ones), I’ve long felt as if Someone out there was telling me, “Hey, I believe in you. As proof, here, take this little piece of magic. It will be our special secret.” So, I guess the title of this post only tells half the story.  Because, yes, I saw Santa Claus. But, perhaps even more importantly, he saw me.