John Carmody had been Santa for 20 years. Ironically, 2020 was his 20th anniversary as Santa.
In that time he’d risen to the peak of his profession. Perhaps not the most wealthy Santa that had ever worn the red suit, but he had a solid client base, and was on his second generation of children, for some of the five year-olds that had sat on his lap were now bringing their own children to see the only man they’d ever known as Santa. More than a couple of them had continued to visit him as teens and college students, so there were strings of pictures that stretched 18 years in those cases. The first photos were with their parents, the most recent with their own child, and the new grandparents. Those were the things by which John measured his success: hearts touched and love shared.
But 2020 had been a terrible year for the 62-year-old man. His wife of thirty years had died of cancer just after New Years, and his house had seemed so huge with the loss. She was not just his spouse, but his best friend, and the only woman in the world who could snap him back when his britches got too big.
The lockdown had been especially hard for him, especially when five of his fellow Santas had passed from illness during the month of April. Were they COVID deaths? Nobody would ever know. Fat guys in their seventies were “a given” and no time was wasted in forensic diagnosis. What hurt was that these were the men who had mentored him and taught him all he needed to know about being Santa.
Spring came, and the world exploded in violence. John just loaded up his guns and waited as the rioting and looting got within three blocks of his home. But the need to defend himself never arose. The city he loved so dearly for so long was gone, burned and boarded. When the restrictions lifted in late June, there were none of his old haunts left to haunt.
July had pretty much iced the Christmas cookies when his giant Irish Setter Rudolph had been hit by a car. Someone had tried to burglarize his tool shed and left the backyard gate open. Rudolph went for a stroll and died instantly when he ran in front of a car driven by a young father hauling his kids to the park. John didn’t begrudge the driver’s actions, but he’d sure like to find the person who’d left his gates open.
The rest of the summer was filled with an occasional Zoom visit with friends, but mainly spent sitting on his patio reading from his tablet, and waiting for something to change. Summer turned to fall, and John was driven inside with the first rains of October. He hadn’t been outside the house except to get groceries since, and the latest lockdown had pushed him toward the edge. He was isolated, lonely, and drifting toward depression. It seemed every week brought news of some new calamity in the world, or the illness of a friend. Even if it wasn’t the Chinese virus, his friends were all prime targets for stroke, heart attack, cancer, and generally getting old.
Worst of all, in the great scheme of John’s life, his annual whirlwind of visits to children had vanished. There were no doors waiting for him to knock, no sneaky approaches to video doorbells, no peals of laughter and screams of delight when the herd of four-year-olds were sent to answer the door at the party. Instead of 30 visits each year, he was making 4 by video conference: his nights and weekends had never seemed emptier.
But Christmas eve was especially painful. Every Santa he knew loved the day. It either spelled the end of their season at the mall, or visits to favored families that evening. Neither of which would be the case for John. The virus had done away with human contact, and so he pulled some pork chops from the freezer, peeled potatoes for au gratin, and looked for a new thriller to read on his tablet.
After he’d cleaned up his porridge bowl from breakfast, he checked his email and was surprised to find two messages there inviting him to virtually visit families he’d known for a decade. The links were for the early afternoon, and he put them on his computer so that he wouldn’t forget. A smile crossed his face for the first time in a week. Something to look forward to at last.
The first visit was a veritable gala. He reminisced about their first visit ten years before when the child was quite ill and the prognosis terrible. While they were chatting other windows started to pop up in the waiting room. Within ten minutes there were twenty others in line to chat. He was sure he’d gotten something wrong, and felt bad for messing people up. As he ended the first call, his phone rang.
“Santa John, it’s Brianna from Hope Kids. You may have noticed all the families waiting to talk to you. I know we probably presumed too much, tricked you, and you probably don’t have time to take the calls, but these are all families you’ve spent time with over the last eighteen years. All of them consider you family. We were not quite sneaky enough, but we set it all up on our Zoom account. Are you okay with talking to them?”
John wiped his eyes. It wouldn’t do to cry on camera. “Yes. I want to talk to them all.”
For the next three hours, the families laughed, cried, and prayed with John. They were like his own children in so many ways. He’d grown to love them, and hadn’t realized how much he’d missed seeing them all this year. Only a handful had signed up for the video meetings in November, but it appeared the rest were here today.
John ended the call with his families and got up to make a cup of coffee and put the pork chops and potatoes into the oven. His phone pinged while the coffee splattered into his cup. He opened the message and saw that it was from Cali’s mom, Suzanne.
Many years before he’d been asked at the last minute to visit a desperately ill little girl who’s prognosis was terrible. She was having dozens of epileptic seizures each day, and it was killing her. Her mother had contacted the local Santa club and asked if anyone would visit her daughter, whom they’d brought home for what might be her last Christmas.
John had taken the call from the coordinator and accepted the task. The family lived near his home and it was for a short visit. He’d save them for last on Christmas Eve, the very next night. It might be sad, but John had always tried to give back to the public instead of just taking checks.
After talking to Suzanne, the mother, he turned his car toward the store and did some shopping. Nothing fancy, just some treats and a few stuffed bears for the kids. Mom was going to hide the Christmas presents outside for him to stuff in his bag.
Well, the visit wound up lasting an hour, and Santa John left for home with tears in his eyes and a gigantic pan of Hmong eggrolls in his bag. Mom had prepared a feast to thank him for the visit since he wouldn’t take payment. It was gourmet level stuff and all cooked just before he arrived.
For the next four years he visited the family and had a great time each Christmas eve. Cali got better each year and the other kids were moving to higher education. The family was doing well.
But for the last two years he hadn’t visited for a combination of reasons – and it had left a hole in Christmas Eve for both sides. Now, the message from Suzanne had brightened his day, and she wondered if he was going to be home in an hour: she had something to bring him.
He hoped it was eggroll time, and replied that he was home for the evening.
Forty minutes later she arrived with a gigantic box full of homemade Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), persimmons, and turkey curry. And a necklace that Cali had made in therapy. He put it around his neck immediately and smiled broadly. It was the nicest thing that had happened that year.
The two old friends stood on the porch at a distance because of the virus and laughed and cried about the love they shared for each other. John knew that he had touched some people along the way, but sometimes forgot how powerful Santa’s love was in tough times.
After he watched her drive away, John went into the kitchen and put the porkchops and potatoes back into the fridge – he had enough hot Pho to keep him fed for at least three days. There were even a dozen quail eggs from Suzanne’s private coop for the next day.
Looking at the containers, John was a little sad that his wife and dog were not there to help him eat this amazing bounty. He had decided to open one of the containers and freeze the rest, and as he reached for the freezer’s handle the doorbell rang. He set the hot container back on the counter and sighed.
John walked to the front door, but could see nothing beyond the Christmas lights glowing on the porch. He opened the inner door and walked onto the three-season porch, wondering who would be knocking on his door on a dark and snowy night like this.
He opened the door, but saw nobody on the steps. A shout of “Surprise!” rang from the space to his left, and out of the darkness came his daughter Maisie, her husband Ed, and his grandson Nigel.
“Dad, we were in the neighborhood and wondered if you’d like to have dinner with us.”
John sat down on the bench next to the front door and wondered if he’d lost his marbles.
Ed stepped into the three-season porch, offered his hand to John, and said, “Sorry about that, John. Didn’t mean to freak you out. But we drove up from Iowa to spend tonight with you. If you’ll have us. We forgot that all the restaurants are closed, so we picked up hamburgers on the way.”
John, who’d recovered a bit, just smiled and hugged his son-in-law.
“Ed, God has prepared a banquet for us all. You guys come in, get comfortable, and we can eat as soon as you put your luggage upstairs. Have I got a meal for you. I hope you like soup.”
And for the rest of the holiday, John was alone no more. His heart was filled with love, and the renewal that Christ brings to the season.
All around the world, people celebrated Christmas with joy. But not a single soul was more full of love than John Carmody’s.
Merry Christmas everyone.
(Oh. And some of the characters and events in this story are very real.)
We hope you’ll visit the other authors who comprise this collection: Paul Bennett, Robert Cely, Derek Elkins, Jamie D. Greening, Kathy Kexel, and Joe Shaw. As always, there’s no fee, we’re doing this to help you pass the time. We do ask that you buy our books/audio books to help pay the freight here. But that’s up to you! Mine are all on the right margin of the blog.