They would come barging through our bedroom door at precisely one second past 7:00 am. They would leap on to our bed and announce, "Santa came! Santa came!" We had told our sons, Matthew and Kevin who were about 5 and 7 when we built that house, that we were not to be wakened until 7:00 am on Christmas morning. Somehow, they successfully struggled to abide by that timeline, but could not tolerate a second longer.
They had been outside of our door for a good while watching the clock and looking over the second story bannister of our house into the living room on Puddleby Cove in Austin, Texas. The Christmas tree stood about ten feet tall in one corner of the vaulted living room below. It was lighted with presents spread beneath and around it. As the clock ticked toward 7:00 am, they could hardly contain their enthusiasm before bursting into our room.
"Are you sure?" I would say.
"Yes, there are presents everywhere."
I would say, "Let's all go back to sleep for one more hour."
"Noooooo," they would exclaim, "We need to go down now."
I would say, "I thought I heard bells during the night."
"That must have been Santa," they would tell me.
Judy would add, "I think I heard hooves on the roof."
"That had to be Santa's reindeer," they would insist.
We would all get our robes and slippers on, go down to the living room, have coffee and hot chocolate, and open presents.
This was our ritual at our Christmas house for the five years that we lived there. There would be other houses and other Christmases. But none would ever be able to capture the joyfulness of those mornings at the Christmas house, the place where memories and imagination merged to leave a lasting impression of a time, a place and an experience in one's childhood.
My Christmas house when I was a boy was on Hird Avenue on the west side of Cleveland. My family lived in the end unit of a cinder block four-flex that we rented. In my childhood memory, the place seems spacious. In actuality, it was a matchbox. As one entered the front door, the small living room was on the right, and directly across from the front door, with just enough room for the door to swing open, was the set of stairs that led to the two bedrooms and single bath on the second floor. The bannister on the stairs only went up about half way to the second floor before it attached to a wall. Another 6 steps led to the second level.
My brother, Johnny and I, shared a double bed at the top of the stairs.
One Christmas eve when I was about nine, I was awakened during the night. I climbed out of bed and tiptoed down to the top of the bannister and peeked around the wall. There were Santa's own helpers in the form of my family, which included my two aunts and two uncles, who were my mother's younger siblings and who helped to raise Johnny and me. Johnny and I always called them by their first names, never adding "Uncle" or "Aunt," because they always seemed more like older brothers and sisters to us. They had come over after midnight mass to make sure Santa would deliver on time.
Katie, unfailingly optimistic and outgoing, and Ronnie, reserved and protective, were wrapping presents along with my Mother. Bob, stoic and always worried about us, was helping my Dad put up the Christmas tree. Joe, the youngest of the siblings and always the most kid-like, was playing the pinball machine that Johnny and I would discover in the morning. The pinging is what had roused me from sleep.
I quietly backed up and returned to bed. I don't think they ever saw me, and if they did, they never let on.
That Christmas morning, Johnny and I opened our gifts. And I secured an indelible memory. I have treasured that image of my family elves at work preparing that Christmas house ever since.
This year, our son, Matthew, and our daughter-in-law, Melissa, have the Christmas house for our two grandchildren, Natalie Elaine (9) and Samantha Erin (3.5). The two girls have been really good all year. So I suspect that Santa will come. A couple of Santa's helpers will drop off gifts after the two of them go to sleep on Christmas eve so that the gifts can be under the Christmas tree when they awaken and urgently hurry their parents to go down stairs.
Judy and I will be there Christmas morning--with masks and socially distancing--to watch as they open their gifts. I will let them know that I thought I heard bells during the night. They will claim it was Santa. Judy will tell them that she thought she heard hooves on the roof. They will insist it was Santa's reindeer.
And Natalie and Samantha will get to experience their own Christmas house.