Thursday, December 22, 2011

Memories of Jolly Old St. Nick

(Note: This column initially posted as a repeat of this column. Sorry about the mix-up.) 

Tom Needham gets a new suit in 2001.
Once upon a time, long ago and far away …

My father worked for Monsanto when I was a kid, and each Christmas we would visit the plant north of Pensacola for the annual Christmas party. I was amazed by all the lights and decorations arranged outside, and entering the plant was like walking into a science fiction installation full of strange machines.

These memories are dimmed by time, but I still recall the employee’s band playing jazzy versions of holiday songs on some kind of organ, guitar and drums. A woman dressed as an elf thumped a tambourine. Christmas cartoons — Woody Woodpecker and early Chip’n’Dale — projected on a screen in a darkened conference room full of metal folding chairs. The sound of a movie projector whirring.

Waiting in line to see Santa Claus in the big cafeteria, then receiving a toy. I don’t member a specific toy, or even what we ate in the cafeteria, but I seem to recall being afraid of the Santa fellow.

You never knew where he would show up. There he was, on a frigid Saturday afternoon, riding atop the Century Volunteer Fire Department’s big red truck at the end of the annual Christmas parade. Ringing a bell outside the Kmart store. Riding a Norelco shaver on TV (I was pretty sure that animated Santa was the same version you saw on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”).

We even came across Santa one summer on a family road trip. Somewhere in Georgia, I think, a Christmas village where you could feed reindeer and have your picture made on Santa’s sleigh.

I’ve met quite a few Santas in the intervening years, covering Christmas events at the Navy base, schools, day programs and so forth. One of them was a talented and big-hearted photographer in the off-season, and I miss him especially when the days grow short and cold.

Writing notes to Santa was part of the childhood holiday routine. (I even tried sending him a note one summer, just to see what happened. For the record: Nothing happened.)

We had lots of traditions: Circling toys in the Sears & Roebuck catalog (Mego heroes were particularly important); baking and decorating cookies with Mom; visiting my great-grandparents along with all of the extended family; reading the Nativity story on Christmas Eve.

About a week before Christmas, we’d go to the tree farm somewhere outside of town to kill a tree in honor of Jesus. Sometimes I helped Dad bring it into the house after he trimmed the base. We always used silvery “icicle” decorations, which would sometimes melt in contact with the glass bulbs. The ornaments, also glass, were extremely fragile and shattered into a million sharp shards if dropped. You spent the last week of December picking glass or pine needles out of your socks.

Santa always seemed to come through, no matter my reluctance to speak with him directly. Something I had circled in the catalog would arrive — a Batcave playset, say, or a Major Matt Mason mooncrawler — along with other things I hadn’t thought to ask for. Often, this included a cowboy outfit with fresh rolls of caps; I loved the smell of gunpowder on Christmas morning.

Smelled like victory.

Peace.

(Note: This was my column for today's News Herald. You can see it here also.)
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