I was 4 years old and it was Christmas Eve in our odd (but by no means charming) little house. Old-timers on the block said it was originally a barn, converted to a residence during the Depression. A story rooted not in fact, but born of the hip roof making it look as if it had once been a barn.
And that's where similarity ended.
Inside, the rooms were tiny. The city directory for 1926 shows it occupied by a telephone lineman and his wife, but most certainly it was built before modern conveniences became common. The kitchen was an add-on to the north side, as was the bathroom at the back. Enclosed but narrow stairs to the basement and second floor divided the living room from the dining room. The second "bedroom" at the top of the stairs, the space my younger brother and I shared, had no door and only three walls. More a landing than a room.
Sometime in the wee hours, Brother's cries for a drink of water woke me, and naturally, I discovered I was thirsty too. Mother soon appeared to escort us down the stairs and through the rooms below, using only the glow cast of a nearby street lamp and several inches of snow that had fallen the day before to navigate the shadows.
On the return trip, Brother was too sleepy to walk so Mother had to carry him while I trailed along behind. She didn't immediately notice when I stopped in the dining room to peek at the Christmas tree, which I could clearly see next to the living room window.
And just as clearly, standing next to the tree...Santa Claus!
Even before he winked and put gloved finger to lips to signal "Shhhh...this is our secret", I instinctively knew not to alert Mother to his presence. The Magic Moment only lasted a few seconds before she noticed I wasn't behind her, but long enough that, even now, I can still see him standing there.
Years later, of course, I'd learn Santa (supposedly) doesn't exist. One man and one reindeer-powered sleigh couldn't possibly deliver billions of presents to homes all over the world in one night.
Yet I know what I saw that night. A rotund man slightly under 6 feet tall (using the low LR ceiling as a gauge) with a snowy-white beard and mustache, wearing a red suit and hat, both trimmed in white fur. Not a life-size inflatable doll. Not my father (still snoring loudly upstairs) dressed as Santa, or any other male relative. Nor were my parents the type to ask anyone - not even the beloved neighbor we called Grandpa - to wait around for hours in a Santa suit for a 5-second appearance to make a child's Christmas "perfect".
Finding Santa in your own house on Christmas Eve is a child's dream come true, but I'm absolutely certain I didn't dream this. Mother did escort us downstairs to be watered and de-watered. And I'm just as certain I didn't imagine it. Imagination didn't live in that odd little house.
Yesterday, a childhood friend suggested it might be the ghost of a previous occupant, someone who never put his own family's gifts around the tree until he'd donned the Santa get-up. If this was the answer, it means not only have I been able to see ghosts as an adult, I could see them back then too. Alas, cross-checking city directories with death records, there was no occupant between 1926 and the year my parents bought it who fit the criteria. A little more digging is in order to find out who lived there before 1926, or if any of the occupants had an elderly relative living with them whose hobby was playing Santa.
How did Santa appear to me in that odd little house? Was it the ghost of a previous resident? Or was it simply a bit of the magic that happens in the wee hours of Christmas Eve. Because magic is the only explanantion for the total sense of wonder I felt that night.