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Ghosts of Christmases Past

Christmas, 1956 was the year I saw Santa Claus. In our living room!

We were living on 19th Avenue in San Francisco – Mike, Judy, and me. Mom was pregnant with Arlene and Eileen. Phoebe wasn’t yet a twinkle in Pop’s eye.

Mike and I shared the front bedroom that was right next to the living room – and right above the entry way where we’re standing in the picture. This is also the house where Mike buried me up to my neck in the backyard a few months after this picture was taken – but that’s another story for another time. This is about Santa.

I was four years old when we live on 19th Avenue, but seeing Santa here isn’t my first real memory. One of my first memories is our neighbors Mike and Tim – much older than us – climbing out a window when we lived in the projects on Connecticut Street in 1953.

And I vaguely remember this picture from 1953 at Brock’s Department Store in Bakersfield where my grandfather worked.

And I definitely remember Christmas 1954 – also in Bakersfield at grandma and grandpa’s. Those trikes were way cool.

Pop had been accepted into the San Francisco Fire Department in July of 1954. We moved from the projects and were living in an upper flat on 18th and Balboa. This is the house where we had a miserable downstairs neighbor who constantly complained about us making noise and where Judy fell down the stairs – hitting every one of them as my mom went screaming down the stairs after her.

There was plenty of drama with three kids in the family. The folks were pretty much inured to it by the sixth.

But it was 1956 that will always stand out. With pop still a relatively new kid in the Fire Department, our Christmas trips to Bakersfield took a back seat to his schedule. Christmas 1956 saw us at home.

Christmas Eve was the typical chaos of a family of three kids and a dog the night before Christmas. Constant reminders to be good, stop fighting, Santa is watching, and finally, Santa won’t come if you’re not in bed.

It didn’t take much convincing to get me to go to bed – but actually falling asleep was a different matter. The excitement of Santa coming was almost too much to bear. At some point I must have fallen asleep because I remember waking with a start because I heard a noise in the living room. The house was otherwise quiet with light filtering in from the street lamps out front. I got out of bed, entered the hallway, and then stepped into the living room. There, right in front of me – with his huge bag of gifts – was Santa!

Before I could say a word, he smiled and put his finger to his lips for me to be quiet. With his other hand, he motioned me back to bed.

I was too full of awe and surprise to do anything but comply. Feeling almost like I was floating, I went right back to bed and fell immediately to sleep.

The next morning I awoke to a mountain of presents. We didn’t get tons of toys back in those days – more clothes and things we needed. My mom made us pajamas every year – two sizes too big so we could grow into them – not out of them. But we were definitely not deprived children – there were plenty of games, bikes, skates – things to keep us outside or reasonably quiet inside. I don’t really remember any gifts from that year. I just remember seeing Santa in my living room.

Of course I told mom and pop and everyone else that I had seen Santa, and it was greeted with the indulgent that’s nice, dear comments only an adult could muster.

And 62 years later, it is usually met with the same skepticism. Yet, to this day, it’s still one of the most vivid recollections I have of childhood.

And, as told to Virginia O’Hanlon in The Sun, it must be so.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

No Santa?!? Not at our house!

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