Story & art by Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times
Several years ago, Santa Claus came to town. But it wasn’t like his usual trips to Valdosta and cities across the world; there was no Rudolph, nor reindeers, no sleigh full of gifts, not even his red suit.
Instead, Santa Claus walked along the December streets of South Georgia. Empty-handed, he wore a wide-brimmed hat, pulled hard over his white hair so the brim nearly touched his nose. The hat shadowed the twinkle in his eye, or was the twinkling dimmed by something else? His full white beard fell over the open collar of a red work shirt tucked into a pair of jeans which led down to a pair of laced workman’s boots, which lacked the fur trim of his more famous pair of boots.
The clothes hung loosely from Santa’s frame. The shirt and pants were several sizes too big with the shiny buckle of his broad belt cinched tightly to hold up his trousers. Santa was skinny, as skinny as an old rail. For some reason, during this year of 1989, Santa felt that no one believed in him, or more appropriately, he felt that no one believed in the true meaning of Christmas any more. Shortly after Thanksgiving, he left his home in the North Pole for a stroll to find the true meaning of Christmas.
Santa walked and walked and he walked some more. He saw people fighting over items on store shelves, folks pushing and shoving past each other in the crowded aisles. To Santa, the mad shopping didn’t seem so much a wanting to give as it did a desire to take, grab, bargain and cajole. Everywhere he walked, Santa’s eyes saw the same thing, and the longer he traveled, the more discouraged Santa became. He wondered if anyone really believed in him any more. Well, Santa knew they believed in him, he saw his likeness everywhere, but from the things he witnessed, he doubted anyone still believed in what he stood for. And what is Santa without belief?
The more Santa thought people had forgotten the true meaning of his gift, the more Santa disappeared. He kept walking south, disappearing bit by bit, until he was just skin and bones, worrying that he would vanish completely and never make it back home to the North Pole for Christmas, wondering if he should even try.
Two days before Christmas, Santa walked past the city limits sign of Valdosta. He was pale and skinny and just raw tired. He felt a pebble, or something, rubbing against his foot, trapped in one of his boots. Santa sat on a curb. A shiver ran along his spine as he unlaced the boot. Temperatures had fallen in the South; cool winds whistled across the flatlands. Chilly for Down South, he thought, but nothing compared to the cold of the North Pole, where Santa could work in the snow and frost for hours with hardly a chill. Shivering from a cool wind in the South was only one more sign to Santa that he was in trouble ... that maybe the whole world and all of Christmas were in trouble too.
With the pebble dropping from his boot, Santa’s thin hands shook tying the laces. He could not stop the shivering that made the teeth shake in his bearded head. Despite the racket of his chattering teeth, a song reached his ears. A child’s voice sang “Silent Night.” Across the street, a little girl, maybe 6 or 7, walked along the sidewalk. Santa tried standing, to move on, so he wouldn’t frighten her, but he couldn’t get on his feet. Shakes and shivers kept him seated on the street’s curb. “Silent Night” abruptly ended and Santa looked up again at the little girl. From across the street, she stared at him, her mouth shaped in the loop of an O.
Suddenly, she ran along the sidewalk, hopping the few steps to a porch where she disappeared behind a slamming door. “Great,” Santa chattered, “now, I’m scaring young children.”
Trying to rise again, Santa heard the door open and slam again. The little girl was running across the street toward him; she carried a large quilt in her arms. “Hey, mister, are you Santa Claus?” she asked.
Santa fibbed a little and said he was not Santa Claus. Just an old man too cold and tired to stand.
“Oh, I thought, maybe you was Santa Claus with that big white beard and your red shirt ...”
Santa managed a chuckle despite his shivering. “Oh, no, I’m much too thin for Santa Claus, don’t you think? And would Santa be this cold here in Georgia?”
“That’s true,” the little girl said. “Well, Santa or not, I want you to have this quilt to wrap up in. Mama made it a few years ago and said it was all right to give it to you.”
Santa took the quilt and the little girl grabbed one of his sleeves in both of her hands, helping him to his feet. He was so skinny, she barely had to tug at all.
Standing, Santa wrapped the quilt over his shoulders, letting it fall around him.
“OK, mister, I’m fixin’ to go back inside now. You all right?” The little girl stared up at Santa, waiting for his answer. For the first time, he noticed she wasn’t wearing a jacket or a coat.
“Well, I know we’re in the South,” Santa said, “but it’s a cold day here. Where is your jacket?”
“I outgrowed it and Mama put it in a box to give to my little sister for Christmas,” she said.
“And you’ll get a new jacket, I imagine,” Santa said.
“No, Mama’s done told me I won’t get a jacket this year. She says maybe next year. But my little sister’ll have my old jacket and she’ll be warm. Mama’s lettin’ me make that my present to her.”
“Well, besides a jacket, what else would you like for Christmas?” Santa said, no longer shivering.
The little girl looked around her neighborhood at the little wooden houses, the trash scattering with the breeze in the streets. “I wish it would snow,” she said. “I ain’t never seen no real snow before, except on TV. My sister ain’t either. If it snowed then I could watch her play in it.”
Santa felt his warmth returning. It hit him in an instant that he had let himself become hard-hearted by what he’d seen during his journey. He worried so much about everyone losing sight of Christmas’ true meaning that he’d lost sight of it himself. The quilt slipped from his shoulders and fell to the street.
“Mister, ya dropped the quilt,” the little girl said, bending down to pick it up. A thick rosy hand reached the quilt first.
She looked up and found the skinny, pale man was now round. He filled his clothes. Santa’s cheeks were washed with color and his smile glowed in his thick, white beard.
The girl gasped, “You are Santa Claus.”
“Ho, ho, ho,” he chuckled. “My apologies for earlier, but yes, I am indeed Santa Claus, as much as you are Santa and anyone else who gives freely without thought of return is Santa Claus.”
“Wait until I tell my mama and sister ...”
“Whoa, whoa, wait just a minute,” Santa said and then he puckered his lips and loosed a loud whistle. Bells softly filled the air and the little girl saw eight tiny reindeer sweeping along the clouds, landing beside Santa in a wink.
“I have something for you, Abbie,” Santa said, reaching into the sleigh.
“How did you know my name?” the girl asked. Santa winked at her. “Oh yeah,” Abbie said, “you know all us kids.”
From the sleigh, Santa pulled out two thick jackets. “This one is yours,” Santa said, “and this one belongs to your sister, Brianna.”
“How did the reindeer know to bring jackets?” Abbie asked.
“You can say a lot in a whistle,” Santa chuckled.
“Now, I must be going. Lots of work to do,” Santa said, looking around, the doors and porches still empty to the sight of him and his reindeer. “Don’t wait up for me tomorrow night, Abbie. Get your sleep for Christmas morning. But until then, I have a little something that should keep you and Brianna busy.”
With a click of Santa’s teeth, Donner and Blitzen tapped their hooves and with a whistle all of the reindeer scurried off carrying Santa and his sleigh into the sky. By the time he disappeared on the horizon, snow was falling in South Georgia.
You can go back and look it up: A few days before Christmas 1989, snow fell in Valdosta. It wasn’t much snow, only an inch or so, but for the South it was a blizzard. And little children pulled on their jackets to play in the snow that night and Christmas Eve morning. And on the morning of Christmas Day, those same children found presents under the tree from a jolly, round man who remembered the meaning of Christmas.