The Night We Talked to Santa Claus

by Lynne Lofting

During the First World War my brother Colin and I lived with my mother in the Catskill Mountains. Our house was perched on a raised plateau, surrounded by apple trees and commanding a beautiful view of the valley and the range of mountains opposite. My mother was not with us very much; she joined the Red Cross and went overseas so that she could be near my father, who was a captain in the Irish Guards. It was at this time that we received the many illustrated letters from him about a kind, little round-faced doctor who could understand and speak to animals – letters that later became the first Doctor Dolittle book. The doctor and his animal friends were drawn on any old scraps of paper while my father was actually in the trenches.


I remembered my father only dimly. One evening he had carried me through the garden, perched on his shoulders, and had shown me the faint speck of light that was the evening star, He told me that it was “our” star and that wherever he was when he left us, he would be looking at it and thinking of us at home.

Wars are remote to children. The months slipped past in our mountain retreat and suddenly it was just before Christmas. Our English Nanny appeared to be strangely excited. It seemed that soon, perhaps even in time for the holidays, Father and Mother would be home.

Happily forgotten in the excitement, my brother and I spent long hours in our nursery, curled up on the window seat, speculating on what we wanted most for Christmas. He was four years old and longed desperately for a real toolbox. My heart was set on a coral ring. We described these to each other in such minute detail that we had almost conjured them up before our eyes.

I can still smell the gingerbread cookies baking downstairs and taste the tang of cold air as it came in our window, blowing the curtains back suddenly to reveal the sky alive with stars. In this hushed, waiting atmosphere we stopped fighting with each other, no longer played tricks on Nanny, and became model children.

At last it was Christmas Eve, but no one had arrived and the house was oddly empty and unpromising. After supper we were allowed downstairs just long enough to hang up our stockings by the fireplace. It wasn’t very gay with only ourselves and Nanny there to celebrate. Disappointed and forlorn, we dragged our feet back up the stairs, getting little staccato prods in the back as Nanny hurried us up. She tucked us in and opened the window wide; she was one who believed in plenty of good fresh air. Then she came over and gave a kiss and a hug to each of us.

“Be good children and sleep tight,” she said as she left the room.

The faint smell of cookies still floated about in the hall as she opened the door to leave us, but aside from that it might have been any ordinary winter night.

For a while we stayed perfectly still, each thinking his own thoughts. Soon I was sure my brother had fallen asleep. I lay looking at the sky, where a moon the color of tin was suspended like a Christmas tree ornament. It made matters worse to feel so lonesome on such a special, beautiful night. I wished that my mother were there. My eyelids grew heavy. Despite the disappointment, sleep was overtaking me.

Then suddenly I heard the sound of bells – sharp, clear bells, coming closer all the time. No other sound had ever been so real; it could not be that I imagined them. I lay stiff as a poker with my legs straight out and my heart going like a hammer. My brother’s muffled voice barely reached me. “Are you awake?” he whispered.

“Yes.”

“Do you hear anything?”

“I hear bells,” I said.

“So do I!” In one leap we were up on the window seat, our heads thrust out into the cold, sharp air, our toes curled under us in excitement, our trembling bodies pressed close together, as we tried to peer through the dark orchard down into the valley. Now we could hear the squeak of runners in the snow and the thud of hoofs.

Suddenly the moon came from behind a cloud and painted all the landscape silver. In the silence of that snow-covered world a deep voice shouted, “Who-oa, Prancer! Who-oa, Donder! Who-oa, Blitzen!” But no one was visible.

The sleigh finally halted somewhere behind the trees that surrounded the house. There was a brief, suspended quiet. Then there were other sounds – human footsteps in the snow, crunching, coming closer to the house. And then a fat, bouncy figure with an enormous pack on his back walked toward us beneath the branches of an apple tree.

“It’s Santa!” my brother squealed, butting me in the stomach with his head. “And he’ll be in our chimlee in a minute!”

“Quick! We’re supposed to be in bed!” With that, my brother in a desperate effort to hide himself tried to get under his, while I hurled myself into mine and pulled the covers tightly around me like a winding sheet. In this state we waited breathlessly, while the steps, in the house now, came closer and closer to the nursery door.

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Slowly and with ceremony the door opened and then everything happened very quickly.

He came over to me first. I somehow gathered strength to put my head out from under the covers. He was near enough to touch. There were black streaks of soot about the hips and shoulders of his red suit. He put the enormous, bulging pack of toys down on the foot of my bed. Then he actually spoke to me. His great, booming voice came through a flowing beard which was white as snow and covered part of his chest.

“I hear you have been a very good little girl.” He was reaching down into the pack of toys as he spoke. “So I brought you your wish.” With that he handed me a tiny, beautifully wrapped package. I knew instinctively that it was my coral ring. I was so overwhelmed that my eyes swam with tears.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said with such love and kindness that I began to feel I knew him. “Take it – it’s what you have wished for.” I reached out and took it from him, unable to say a word.

Then he turned toward the other bed. My brother had covered his small face with his hands and peered through his chubby fingers now and then, when his courage allowed him to.

“I hear that you have been very good as well, so I have a special present for you.”

My brother seemed frozen but he took one hand away from his face and eyed the jolly stranger. Santa walked over and put the square, impressive box down beside him. For a second he looked as if he might be going to pick my brother up in his arms, but then he turned away. Slowly he shouldered his pack and started for the door.

“Good night,” he said. “I still have a lot to do. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” With that he was gone.

The silence was broken by my brother who had finally found his voice:
“If he gets stuck in the chimlee, we can see him in the morning.”

“He won’t,” I replied sharply. Two years older and wiser, I knew that such a thing could never happen.

Dazed, we moved forward again to look out the window. We heard the same steps in the snow, but this time we didn’t see anyone. We heard the bells as the reindeer started up. The sleigh moved away swiftly, down, down into the dark below. Then the night was again quite empty of sound, except for our breathing. Santa might never have been there at all.

The sleep we eventually got was deep and peaceful. In the morning Nanny came in looking just as she always did. We sprang out of bed both talking at once, showing her our treasures. She received the news with just the right mixture of belief and incredulity. When she could get a word in, she said, “Well, get your clothes on now. There’s a surprise downstairs for you. Your mother and your father are waiting in the living room.”

We raced down the stairs. Next to Mother stood a tall man with smiling eyes which were at once sad and happy. He took us in his arms and hugged us very tight. I don’t remember if he said anything to us because we were too busy telling him over and over again the story of what had happened. How, just when we thought there would be no Christmas, Santa Claus had come, we’d seen him in our room, he’d talked to us, he’d given me my coral ring and my brother his tool chest, and then he went away because he had a lot to do and other children to visit. Then, quite out of breath, we told it all over again.

My father listened intensely, as though every detail of what we were saying was something he longed to hear. It seemed to give him so much joy that the telling of our adventure was as tingling alive as the experience itself.

Even when we were a great deal older, we still were telling other children that we knew there was a Santa Claus. Our conviction remained unshaken because we had seen him and spoken to him. Against any and all assaults we stood our ground.

Later, of course, we grew to know the man who had come to our room that Christmas Eve and to understand why he had made us believe in Santa Claus. We understood why, after spending three years at war, he had come back to his children at Christmas time with one purpose in his mind and heart: to keep the magic in the world alive.

That magic was the real gift he gave us on Christmas Eve so long ago. And my brother and I cherish it still.

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