During the Depression, my great aunt, Tura, taught at a country school in Eudora. Poverty was a way of life in rural Mississippi, and with the Depression lingering for many years, her students never experienced Christmas morning with a mountain of presents under a festive tree. In a time of bread lines to feed those who were hungry, even a traditional holiday meal was rare.
Needless to say, Santa Claus was an image never conjured in the mind of Aunt Tura’s students, and she hoped to change that during the annual Christmas pageant at the school.
With Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and three wise men, the pageant illustrated the first Christmas, complete with singing spiritual carols. Aunt Tura planned to surprise the children after the play with a special appearance from Santa Claus, and boy, did she.
As the audience applauded the young actors for their performance, Santa Claus burst into the school house and shouted, “Ho, ho, ho.”
With his red felt suit and curly white beard, Santa lumbered through the door with his bag full of goodies. The kids went berserk, and not in the I-just-won-a-date-with-Elvis kind of way.
Screaming from fear, they launched themselves out the windows – the manger overturning and a plastic baby
Jesus falling to the floor. Like pirates bailing out of a sinking ship, all of Bethlehem flew out the building and hit the ground at a sprint – running through neighboring cotton fields to safety.
Still inside the school, parents sat open-mouthed in shock at the chaos around them, and poor Santa was left in the middle of the room with no children to deliver his goods.
I can’t imagine never knowing Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, we would have dinner at my grandparents, complete with a gift exchange and scripture readings (and not in that order much to the disgust of the Sexton children). With our bellies full and a new toy, my sisters and I would return home, wash our faces, and climb into bed for the longest night of the year.
At approximately 4 a.m. we would wake and perch ourselves on the top step of the stairs – forbidden from going down until a “reasonable” hour. That was usually 6 a.m. when my parents wobbled down the hallway with bed hair and red eyes from “waiting up to greet Santa” the night before.
Again, we were forced to wait on the stairs for Momma to make coffee and Daddy to get the camera. With a simple “okay” called up the stairs, my sisters and I thundered down the stairs, swinging around the banister, and trying to gain traction on wood floors in footy pajamas.
Bulging stockings hanging from the mantel were the first to catch our eye. Inside were plastic candy canes filled with chocolate, decks of cards, silly putty, and Lifesaver Storybooks.
Then as if the heavens opened up, the gift display left from Santa shone in the early morning light. I always wondered why Santa never left toys inside the boxes, and there was never any assembly required. Every gift had the necessary batteries, and bicycles were always ready to ride. Santa was so thoughtful!
Santa was always tested at the Sexton house because most times he was required to buy three of everything – matching dresses, different colored pastel bikes, and three Barbies in different outfits.
Santa once delivered three matching macramé shawls for my sisters and me to wear to church on Sunday. I will confess Santa must have gotten our house confused with another because the last thing any of us wanted was a macramé shawl.
White yarn, these shawls had a single button at the neck and two slits at the pocket to stick your hands through. Fringe dangled from the hem. They were the most unattractive garments we had ever seen.
Every Sunday after, Daddy would insist for us to “go get your shawls,” and we would stomp back upstairs in protest. Apparently even in the warm weather, a shawl was needed. There was something about the “night air” that was harmful. (Now thirty-something, I still haven’t figured out what.)
Oh, but I was the lucky one. As the youngest, I got hand-me-downed Stephanie’s shawl and Deana’s shawl. I was still getting my shawl in junior high.
But not all of my gifts were unwanted. In fact, many of the same things Santa left for me, he will be leaving for children this year. Hello Kitty, Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbie, Smurfs, and others are still being longed for today by children across the United States.
We even had video games, but we did not ask for a Nintendo or Xbox. We asked for Atari. A family gift from Santa, my sisters and I ripped open the package and found our new Atari – shiny black plastic adorned with wood-grained stickers. It came with three games, Frogger, Miss PacMan, and Donkey Kong.
There were three games, but only two joysticks. Many fights ensured over which one would be left out, and again as the youngest, it was usually me.
Momma also enjoyed the Atari – maybe a little much. She would stay up all night playing Frogger, her game of choice. She was truly addicted to it at one time and had nearly beaten the machine before the intervention.
Christmas is definitely the holiday for children. Now that I am grown and asking for bath towels from Santa, the thrill is gone. I even secretly wish I could sleep in on Christmas morning, and I am sure Momma and Daddy wished for that as well.
Bu t I miss the excitement. I miss the anticipation. I miss the frenzy. I miss a time when a Lifesaver Storybook could make everything in the world seem good again.