“Holding On to Christmas:”

I have an unpublished novel, Starling’s Call, about a some magical occurrences in the life of young Andy McKinney. This Christmas Story is set some years before the action of that novel, but I thought I’d share it with as a bit of Christmas Magic. If you enjoy it, let me know.

“Holding Onto Christmas”
M.J. Downing
On the twenty-fourth of November, 1962, eight year old Andy McKinney figured out that his Dad was buying all of the Christmas presents. Before that, Andy was absolutely sure that Christmas magic must be a real thing. So, at the tender age of eight, the boy had his first totally conflicting thoughts standing in his head, at once, alongside of the knowledge that both must be true.
Now, as that season got a bit colder, Andy never let on to his Dad or his older twin sisters, Mary and Gracie, that he did not believe that Santa Claus did not bring gifts. Just because Santa didn’t bring the toys was no reason for Andy to consider that the Man himself was a fake. That was a preposterous notion. Andy had read that Santa went by a great many names in many places and was sure that so many stories would not have been written about him if there was nothing to back them up. The man was important to many folks, and Andy had an eye for what was important to people. The death of his mother just four years before had made him an expert in listening to what was important to folks.
So, with his cousins around him on Christmas Eve, Andy dutifully stood at the window, watching for signs of Santa and his reindeer in the frosty sky. A radio announcer had just released the news that Santa and his sleigh had been sighted on the eastern seaboard an hour earlier. Andy even nodded with enthusiasm as Gracie said things like, “Boy, I bet you’re hoping he’ll bring you a bike, huh?” Mary added, “I bet you want a cool red one, so it’ll be fast,” and Andy waggled his head in agreement, thinking, ‘Great! Dad got me a new bike, and it’s red!’ He dismissed the notion that a bike’s color something to do with its speed, like he dismissed the ideads that it would come down the chimey. They had an old floor furnace in the center of the house but no fireplace.
At the time, these realizations carried as much sadness as gladness, for it was more proof that there was no one except Dad busy under the tree on Christmas morning, with the twins helping. It was a hard thing to accept, this happy reality. But when he heard the noises of shuffling around and whispers from the living room in the early morning hours, Andy sighed and accepted that he had it right. Dad brought the bike, and that was good.
As dhe lay therenoty moving, he just hoped that he wouldn’t fall off of it and look like a dope. His Dad would think about Andy ‘growing into’ a bike, which meant that it would be big enough for him when he was forty, and he would most likely fall off of it at his present, diminutive size. Andy was the second smallest kid in his class at St. Michael’s, except for Milton Miller, who stared out of the school windows all day, picked his nose, and ate all the paste he could find. Milton was, well, different.
So, Andy rejoiced in the thought of getting this new red bike, as any kid, maybe even Milton, would do. And, as sure as God made little green apples, it was there in front of the tree the next morning, huge, trd, and gleaming. In the days to come, after enduring the minor hell of training wheels for a while, he soon mastered the technique of getting on and off of the giant thing without concussions or many abrasions. He was glad, but he knew with a certainty that Santa did not squeeze that 26” frame and wide handlebars up through the floor grating on Christmas Eve and that his sisters had helped his Dad pick out the bike at the Western Auto Store over at Ridge Manor, a bike that Andy had seen many times in his trips to the store with his Dad.
Oddly enough, this did not diminish his belief in Christmas Magic. It would not convince him to give over the practice of letting grown-ups believe that he gave Santa credit for his presents. But this is nothing special. Any kid who sees a present for him in the deal is going to be quite convincing about his belief in the Jolly Old Elf, in order to keep such a practice alive. It’s cool to get stuff. Any kid knows this.
Andy, however, hit upon a plan to find the source of Christmas magic: through the next year, he would keep Christmas close to himself in an effort to keep some of its magic alive, if there was any. In order to do so, Andy kept one ornament from being packed away when his Dad finally over-ruled his children’s pleas to leave the tree up one more week—and that was in late, late January. Andy chose one old ornament to keep out in secret. In the McKinney household, Christmas time was for Christmas things, but Andy was bent on breaking that rule in order to cultivate a heightened awareness of Christmas Magic. The ornament, a small, plastic figure of Santa himself, was doomed, anyway. His Dad had threatened to pitch it once, because it was sort of chipped and faded. This figure of Santa had a beard that was fading to gray. It dated from the time before Andy’s mom had passed away. The figure itself was of a short, dumpy man, who wore a confused look on his molded plastic face, but Andy loved it and always made sure to get it on the tree. It became his secret Christmas talisman.
Keeping it out of the way was hard, too, because his Dad, a veteran fireman, believed in Saturday morning ‘scrub outs,’ as he called them, which meant a ruthless cleaning of everything. Andy hid the figure in drawers, rolled up for a time in some heavy socks that he did not much like. Then, it hid above the World Book Encyclopedias that stood on a shelf in Andy’s corner of the living room. Later, it hung in the back of the closet he shared with his sisters, who never looked much past their clothes when they bickered over what to wear to school. And in the summer, the hidden Santa went to live in the garage, on a nail, up underneath the tall, heavy workbench, where the diminutive boy was the only one who could still see it above his eye level.
Keeping it hidden, though, wasn’t nearly as much trouble as trying to recapture that Christmas feeling, where Andy was sure the source of Christmas Magic lay. When the rest of the world was thinking of school, and sports, and romance, and politics, and such, Andy had to work at recapturing that glowy, tingly feeling in his heart that made Christmas time special. Louisville’s the thick summer air made finding that feeling almost impossible, like trying to figure out why some people’s smiles looked better than others. But if he worked hard and made himself think about it, he could bring it all back, though it made everything else seem odd, fuzzy, out of focus.
And as the year went on, it got harder. Before last Christmas, there had been the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for a long while, everyone, everywhere spoke in hushed tones about “the bomb” and the worry that the crazy Russians would blow us all to kingdom come, and, further, that we would blow them to kingdom come and then the whole world would go. They tried to tell Andy and his friends that during a nuclear attack, they could hide under school desks. Andy’s Grandma Lee had stored enough canned goods in her garage to feed all of Louisville, in the event of such a catastrophe, but Andy knew that the atomic bomb explosions of the kind he saw on television would not leave anything like a school desk or a garage full of canned goods intact. So, feeling the spirit of Christmas got a wee bit harder all the time, especially among cold war speculations.
When Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy just a few days before the next Thanksgiving, Andy’s year long quest for the Christmas spirit just about passed away, too. In the aftermath of watching the coverage of the funeral in school and at home, Andy just gave up on Christmas and its magic. The world was just too hard a place for Christmas magic. Signs of love and joy were few, if Andy looked at all going on around him. He also knew his Dad was going to get him a football helmet and pads. In early December, his Dad had asked him if he didn’t want such things for Christmas, and then went right out afterwards, bringing back home a box which he promptly took to the attic. So much for Christmas magic. Even keeping the old ornament hanging on the back of his bedside table didn’t help much. When he looked at it at night before he slept, he wondered if he shouldn’t have let his Dad toss it out.
As school limped to a close, Andy got ready to drag himself through another Christmas Holiday having lost any hope of the magic. He had failed and knew that he might never, ever feel anything like that glowy tingle again, and only a week or so was left until Christmas Day, 1963. Yet, he was determined to get in on the Santa actrion and use his own money to buy his Dad a new pipe from the drugstore. His Dad would really appreciate a new pipe, instead of the usual Old Spice Sampler. His Dad deserved a nice, new pipe, and Andy knew it would give his Dad some genuine Joy.
A sudden nudge in his head told him that it was time to get rid of that old ornamenton his own. That faded image of Santa Claus hadn’t fared any better than Andy’s quest, what with being handled so much and stashed in cramped places. When he fished it out, Andy noted that most of its already faded paint had chipped off, and the figure looked more like one of the down-on-his-luck men that Grandpa George often stopped and spoke with downtown, after giving them some change. As Andy held the thing in his hand, it even looked to him like it was asking for something. Andy decided that it was asking him to let it go, so he decided to take the poor, bedraggled Santa Claus down to one of his favorite places, The Swamp, tie it to a rock, and drop it into the water.
So, clad in his Cousin Larry’s hand-me-over wool coat, several sizes too big for him, he let his steps take him first down to Davis Drug store to get the pipe for his Dad, a special white Kaywoodie that sweet, old Mabel had put under the counter for him to pick up when he had the money. He even had enough left to buy the most recent Spidey comic book, which promised the return of The Vulture, who seemed like an appropriate foe, given Andy’s gloomy spirits. Mabel gave him an even bigger smile than usual, and he pocketied his purchases, left Davis Drugs, and started down Ridge Road for the Swamp.
But as he reached the margin of Ridge Road, just ahead of him, walking along the opposite side shoulder, heading south, Andy saw a man. He knew it to be a man, for it had a beard. The fellow was short, maybe a bit over five feet high, round, and clad in old dungarees, heavy boots, a knotty, red toboggan, and a faded and much patched red coat. Slung over his shoulder was a red cloth bag that looked like the ones paper boys and letter carriers used.
Andy pulled the ornament from his other pocked, stared hard at it, and looked again. That man could have been the model for the old ornament. And on the road ahead of him, the small heavy man stopped in his tracks and turned around to stare at Andy. Although the fellow’s face was covered with a grey-white beard, like the hair that escaped from beneath his wool cap, it looked exactly like the figure of the ornament, even its odd, questioning smile. There in front of him stood the living embodiment of his Santa Claus ornament, solid as the earth itself, standing on the gravel beside Ridge Road, looking like just another man from the neighborhood on his way down to The Bucket to have a beer on a frosty afternoon. This one, though, smiled and waved and said, “Hello, Andy. Merry Christmas!” in a happy, raspy sort of voice.
“Uh, hello,” Andy said, his mind adazzle with the sudden inflowing of all the brightness and sparkle that he had ever associated with Christmas. His heart swelled with joy, as though he had heard that first angelic chorus in the air above Bethlehem on the first Christmas morning. The fellow stood there, his eyes resting easily on the boy, and he chuckled.
“Wh, who are you, mister?” Andy knew better than to just run up and talk to strangers, no matter what his heart was telling him. It just wasn’t all that safe. Yet, they were standing on different sides of the road and there were people coming and going from St. Michael’s and the shopping center. Andy knew that he could get somewhere safe if he needed to. Yet even as he thought these things, the old fellow nodded at him.
“Bill McKinney is not raising a foolish child, it seems,” the old man said. smiling his approval of Andy’s caution. “You can call me Joe. Do you reckon he’ll enjoy that pipe, your Dad, I mean?”
“Uh, ye, yes, I hope so,” Andy said, seeking something to say. “Are you—are you really…him?”
“Well, I’m me. Pretty sure of that one,” the old fellow replied, in another raspy chuckle. “Let’s you and me go back over to Davis’ where you will feel safer, talking to someone who looks like an old bum, hm?”
Andy nodded, turned his back on the fellow and sprinted back up to the drugstore, turning after he entered to watch the short man come skipping across the road and walk through the parking lot, waving to someone who just came out of Blodgett’s Groceries. Andy retreated to the lunch counter, deserted now, except for the lady from whom he’d just bought his Dad’s present and the comic book.
“Did you forget something, sweetheart?” Mabel asked.
“N, no, ma’am, I just, just…” Andy stammered, watching as Joe entered. When she saw him, Mabel’s face lit up. Mabel Caldwell, a familiar fixture in Andy’s life, simply beamed at the shabby old fellow, crying,
“Why, it’s Joe, isn’t it? I haven’t seen you in years, have I?” she asked, wiping her hands on the apron she wore and reaching for the old fellow’s hand.
“Yes, Mabel, it’s me,” he returned with a broad grin, taking her hand in his. “You’re right. It has been a long while. But you have not changed a bit. Say, do you think you could get me a cup of my namesake and maybe a hot chocolate for Andy?” Joe said, pulling the hat off his head and taking a seat on one of the red padded stools at the counter.
Andy backed away to make room for Joe, and the old fellow waved to a stool and said,“Take a load off, son,” he said. Andy doffed his own outer garments and took the seat, while Joe and Mabel chatted like friends who haven’t seen each other for too long.
And as they talked of times long gone by, Andy fished the ornament out of his coat pocket and placed it on the speckled Formica counter in front of him, in the shadow of the sparkling soda taps, just where the shiny napkin box and knobby glass salt and pepper set stood. He had sat in this spot—how many times, he could not guess—with his Dad or his buddy Kenny Monahan, or his Grandpa George, but now he was here with, well, Santa Claus, if his eyes weren’t fooling him. It was a miracle.
Listening, Andy heard Joe say that he was in the area to help out an old friend, Father Dominic, at St. Michael’s. Mabel listened and added that she knew Father Dom to be “a saint in this world,” who had done his level best for everyone in this parish with never a word of thanks. She was glad to have Joe around, she said.
“If you’d give Andy and me a minute, Mabel, I’d like to talk with you more about that,” the old man replied with a wave of his hand, “just be close by, okay?”
“Sure Joe. Anything for a friend,” Mabel said and busied herself in back of the counter not three feet away. With her nearby, Joe turned a bit on his seat, sipped his coffee, and took up the ornament from the counter.
“This is an old one, huh?” he mused, studying the figure that he turned in his short, heavy fingers.
“Yessir,” Andy replied, “Been on our tree since before I was born, I guess.”
“And you have kept this out all year, huh?” Joe replied. When Andy shook his head yes, Joe asked, “What for, son?” And with that, the old ornament disappeared in a short flash of light that made Andy gasp.
“Well, sir, I just thought that it might, you know, help me hold onto the Christmas feeling all year, like I want to. That, and it might help me see some real Christmas Magic for once.”
“Looks like it might have worked,” Joe said with a grin.
“Yessir,” Andy returned, suddenly unsure. Was the disappearing of an ornament the magic of Christmas? Sure, this man knew things that Andy didn’t think he had any business knowing, but what did that mean, except that he was another old guy, who had been around forever, in Andy’s eyes, much like Grandpa George, his own Dad, and every other ‘dad’ in the neighborhood. They always knew stuff that Andy didn’t. Maybe Joe was just another of those—
“Except, I’m not,” Joe replied to Andy’s thoughts with a wink. “No, I’m not reading your mind, but I am reading your face, and I’m a pretty good guesser. Do you want more Christmas Magic?”
“Was that a copy of you, that old ornament?” Andy asked, thinking about the sort of magic he’d desire to see. He didn’t mind at all that the real Santa had zapped his ornament into atoms. It seemed right, somehow.
“Yessir. It’s one of my appearances. I can take on many, you know. Sometimes, especially around these parts, I look like this,” Joe said, waving a hand in front of his face. “Other times and places, I look like the people there expect me to. After all, I am a Jolly Old Elf,” he finished with a laugh. Joe. Andy finally got the short riddle of the name. The boy knew that the next thing out of his mouth had to be good, worthy, not childish or selfish.
“How can I hold onto the real magic of Christmas, sir?” Andy asked, which was what he really wanted, for suddenly, the question of Santa Claus’s existence was made certain for the boy. The questions about delivering toys to all the good girls and boys and living at the North Pole, and what elves were like, and how reindeer can fly—all of those things seemed trivial. Joe smiled at him and said,
“Well, you can just remember the love that comes to us all, the reason that we have this season. For when He came, He brought love and hope into this sad old world, which I have wandered through since before time was time. His coming was the saving of me—you too if you believe it.” Old Joe stopped, turned his head aside for a moment, and when he turned back, his eyes fairly glowed. “You know, I can show you something, some magic, if you like,” Joe whispered.
“Yes, please do,” Andy whispered.
“Mabel, would you join us again for a moment?” Joe called, not taking his bright blue gaze off of Andy. When she walked over and leaned on the counter, Joe said, “See,” and touched Andy atop his head with one finger.
Andy was staring at Mabel as Joe’s finger touched his head. In a flash, the years fell away from the woman, and she was young and beautiful, like she remembered herself. Her gray head became black with thick hair, her squinting eyes widened, and her smile would have captured the heart of any young man. But Andy saw the true beauty or her generous, loving heart, shining in her eyes. It was who she was, really, inside.
He turned eager eyes upon Joe, then, and different faces and shapes coursed through Andy’s mind. Some were dark, some fair, some old, and some young. Many sizes, too, Joe contained: big and broad with flowing beard, crowned with Holly leaves, others tall and elfish, wreathed about with sparkling light—the man had worn as many shapes as there were different people who believed in the coming of the Bethlehem child.
And then, Andy closed his eyes, and his sight was turned inside. In a flash, he looked into every Christmas he would ever have, ever celebrate, and they were many. Some were loud and bright; others were sad and somber. He saw himself surrounded by faces of love, young and old. He saw himself grown, big and strong, old, too, and wrinkled with many years, and in every Christmas moment. In one, ge saw himself holdinmg his Dad’s present, the pipe he’s just bought. In tnhe vision, it was old, blackened, and cracked, as he turned it in his fingers. But, it was the same white Kaywoodie pipe, though his Dad wasn’t around. Heavy, sweet and sad at the same time, Andy saw himself in that other time, older than he ever thought he could be, as old then as his own Grandpa George was now. And it was real. Then, the light that burned within him was brighter and time was deeper, when it was all time, all at once, not just the passing of days, hours, minutes: time that was always present.
Andy saw that the light of Christmas would burn brighter in him with every Christmas he would ever have. They were all one, a growing brightness at the very center of his life. Then, a picture settled in his mind, a portrait. He was old and broad, sort of like Joe. He saw himself with his own white beard. He was loved, had been all his life, and Andy caught his breath at the beauty of it.
Joe lifted his finger from Andy’s head, and the boy opened his eyes and drew a long breath, staring at the old bearded elf. “Will, will I always remember this?” Andy whispered.
“No. No one always remembers everything,” Joe said in a sigh, “but if you want to feel Christmas always in your heart, you need only look for it. Just turn within and open to it, for that is where He will be, because, first, He came, Emmanuel, God with us, and made Joy possible, and that is a flame that will never die. That’s the only Christmas Magic I can bring, and I will always bring it, wherever I can.”
Andy nodded and whispered, “me too.”
The old fellow turned to speak with Mabel again, while Andy sat lost in wonder. ‘So this is the magic of Christmas, just remembering that God came to live with us and give us the power, the magic, to turn our hearts to love and see the real beauty in everyone, everything,’ he thought. And even though the visions of a moment before slipped away, that was okay. It was more than enough, a matter of presence, not presents.
Andy turned his gaze out the front door, out past Davis Drug store to the neighborhood outside the window, St. Michael’s, the houses, the places he loved, the people he knew and didn’t know, all sparkled in his imagination like stars on a frosty night. Yes, this is Christmas magic, he thought, but it is magic because it is more real, truer than anything else, ever, just because God chose to risk everything on love, love that came down on everything, everywhere. Then, Andy rejoiced at Joe’s gift, as he does now.

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