This holiday season, the Wyoming Public Radio news team is sharing stories about memories and traditions that stand out to them.
When I was in fourth grade, my belief in Santa Claus reached a fever pitch. Growing up in the isolated mountain town of Walden on the Colorado/Wyoming border, there wasn’t much else to do in the winter. But I wasn’t the only zealot. In Walden, the Christmas spirit took over like a communal madness.
One of the craziest things people did in the days before Christmas was go caroling. My parents wouldn’t go, not even my dad with his guitar. Too cold they said. Bunch of wimps, I thought. What was a little -40 degree temperatures? That’s how you got those crystals in your eyelashes that made all the Christmas lights glimmer. A big old truck pulled a wagon through the streets and people crowded in on hay bales, singing, “Deck the Halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la la la la la.” Practically the whole town was Methodist, so we had every verse memorized.
All the dad’s in town were either cowboys, forest rangers, loggers or, like my dad, roughnecks in the oilfield. We knew how to keep the frost bite at bay. People came out onto their porches and waved and we danced our feet warm waving back. All that music made me feel loopy with Christmas feeling. What is that feeling? Good will toward man? Joy to the world? Well, in my case it was mostly joy to Santa Claus. My Christmas list was a mile long and barely legible for all the line edits.
After the caroling, though, my parents had plenty of chances to get their dose of Christmas music. There was my bell ringing concert, my school band concert where I played trumpet and my brother played clarinet, not to mention the church choir concert we both sang in.
Finally, though, Christmas Eve arrived and I could barely stand the wait. I thought of Santa, already in flight in some other hemisphere. I went outside and looked up at the frozen mountains and sky in search of a sign of his arrival. I had a secret hideout in the cow pasture across the street. A rancher kept a collection of odd animals in there: some llamas, a bison that tore through all his fences, some peacocks that dropped feathers like jewels. Hoping to get a better view from the loft, I squeezed through the fence and made my way over to the falling down barns. One time, I’d come face to face with the rancher’s pet bull elk in there. Our eyes locked, his antler spikes like daggers, the musky wild smell of him. I retreated in terror.
But this time the elk was nowhere in sight. Instead, inside the barn, I found a tiny canary, yellow and green, perched glaze-eyed on a fallen timber. I took my hands out of my mittens and picked it up. It must have flown out someone’s window, gotten lost. A tiny fleck of the tropics in a frigid world. I took it home and showed my dad. Without a word, he went to his workshop and whipped up a beautiful birdcage with wood and wire. It seemed like a gift better than any that would come in a wrapped box. I wanted it to live and be my bird, teach it how to talk and sit on my head. I went to bed, barely thinking of Santa Claus.
But who sleeps on Christmas Eve? Sometime in the night, I heard a rustle. I tiptoed out and put one eyeball, like a periscope, around the corner into the living room. And what I saw was a patch of rough red wool. I can still remember it. My absolute certainty that I’d just laid eyeball on the elbow of Santa Claus. Mortified that getting out of bed would put me instantly on the naughty list, I scurried back under my covers. Was that the sound of jingle bells? I listened for ho ho ho’s until the sun came up.
In the morning, I came out to find my stocking bulging with goodies. And there was the boy Barbie doll I’d dreamed of. Donnie Osmond. Well, I guessed he’d have to do.
I turned to my canary. If Santa could fly and could squeeze down chimneys, surely he’d heal my canary. But at the bottom of her new cage, there she lay, lifeless but still brilliant. I didn’t cry. The idea of a canary in Walden, Colorado, elevation 8200 feet, suddenly seemed cruel. I couldn’t wish it on her. She didn’t even have a name yet.
A few months later, my class started a unit on the arctic. My teacher, Mrs. Hampton, explained the amazing ability of some species to live in deep cold. I raised my hand. “And reindeer are especially amazing,” I said, “because they can fly.” There was an awkward pause and then the entire class burst out laughing. Mrs. Hampton smiled gently at me and moved on.
When I got home that night, I told my mother what happened. The whole family sat down at the table for a long chat about reindeer and Santa Claus and the importance of being a true believer.
I might be in my 40’s but, every year, I still get lots of presents from Santa Claus.