I’ve heard of parents who have trouble explaining Santa Claus to their kids. My parents called on the United States Navy to do the job.
I grew up in south Florida, so part of the Santa Claus legend always sounded a little off to me. Our house didn’t look anything like the ones in Santa-themed storybooks. I once asked my dad how Santa got into houses like ours, with no chimney. He assured me that Santa had his little ways. Little did I know that mom and dad had little ways of their own.
One Christmas Eve when I was four or five, we had an overnight guest – a sailor, or at least a man in a sailor suit. I remember his kerchief and cap because they looked so unusual to me. He was very quiet and polite, as I recall. We had a small house, and my sister and I slept on the living room couch that night so the sailor could have our room.
Sometime during the night, a sound woke me up – a very quiet sound, like people whispering. I opened my eyes but didn’t move, feeling a little scared. I was reassured to see that one of the people was my dad. The other was our guest, the sailor. Together, they were putting presents under our little Christmas tree.
All kinds of thoughts raced through my little brain. Daddy’s doing Santa’s work! Is Daddy Santa? And why is our new friend helping him? He doesn’t look like an elf. I’d better be quiet because the presents will disappear if anyone thinks I’m awake. And where’s Mommy? Oh, boy, I know something my little sister doesn’t!
I don’t know how I managed to get back to sleep, but I did. When my sister and I woke up, and we saw the tree looking beautiful and presents waiting for us, I wondered if I’d been dreaming. I think I declared something like “I saw Daddy!” Dad responded by gently telling me I must have been dreaming. Mom and our guest promptly agreed with him. My two-year-old sister was no help. Puzzled, but still happy it was Christmas, I went back to playing with whatever I’d just opened.
I never asked my parents about Santa again. I saw Santa on TV and in department stores and in books, and I knew he was make-believe. That was fine with me. I had learned that the same dad who took me to Midnight Mass was the one who did Santa’s work. Amazingly for a kid who had as big a mouth as I had, I never felt the need to spoil any other kid’s Christmas by announcing that there was no Santa. One exception to that: I tried explaining the facts to my sister a few years later. She flatly refused to believe me. So much for my powers of persuasion.
Forty years later, I knew my mom’s health was failing badly, and our days of conversation were numbered. My dad had died several years earlier. I had to clear up my persistent but hazy memory. Had there really been a Christmas with a sailor? “Oh, yes,” she said immediately. She remembered it clearly.
It turns out that the sailor, whose name was John Parker, was the nineteen-year-old son of one of mom’s college friends. He had recently joined the Navy, and he was having his first Christmas away from home. When his ship was scheduled to be in Ft. Lauderdale for Christmas, his mom called my mom and asked if we could take him in while he was on liberty. My folks were happy to say yes. And that lonely 19-year-old kid, who had never met any of us before, got up in the middle of the night to help my father arrange the gifts and finish trimming the tree.
I’m overwhelmed at that thought, even now. Nineteen years old, and he was putting out presents for us. Someone should have been putting out presents for him – although, knowing my parents, there was probably something with his name on it under the tree.
My parents always put the birth of Christ first as we celebrated Christmas. Even so, I don’t think I’m being irreverent when I say that my memory of this kid from the Navy has stuck with me more powerfully than the memory of any particular Midnight Mass we ever attended.
I never saw John Parker again. This recollection is all the thanks I can give him. Whenever I think of him, I’m four years old again, pretending to be asleep, peeking at two unlikely elves.