By Faith Van De Putte
On the mainland, Santa hung out in the big department stores in the weeks before Christmas. On the islands, Santa came on a ship. I remember one Christmas Ship I went to in Deer Harbor in 1979. It was a gray day and a gray ship. But its crew was colorful with Santa on the bow Ho Ho Hoing. There were jingle bells and Christmas carols and all the kids twittering with excitement.
Elves passed out candy canes and herded everyone up the dock to the Deer Harbor Inn. Santa was set up in a festive chair next to a large pile of presents. Kids lined up sucking their sticky mint and waiting for the ritual lap sitting to begin. After the compulsory photo, Santa would lean over and pick a new shiny toy from the pile. After a breathless “thank you” the lucky kid would make their way to the waiting exclamations of the parents. The department store Santa asked what you wanted and then you had to wait for Christmas. On the island, Santa chose and gave you something right then. None the less, I was eyeing the toys trying to figure out which one I wanted.
A truck, a bear, a doll were handed out. The girl ahead of me clambered onto Santa’s lap, smiled pretty for the camera and was given a big box. It was one of those Big Barbie Heads, a disembodied head whose base was a wide green tray that held the brush, curlers, barrettes and other doodads one needed for creating fancy hairdos.
And then finally, it was my turn. I climbed onto Santa’s red lap, the camera clicked and he reached over to get my present. He hesitated a moment and then he handed me a book. A book! I didn’t want a book. I wanted a gaudy, tacky, plastic Barbie head, or a teddy bear, or a matchbox car, or a sparkly crown. I could hardly say thank you through my disappointment. I walked back to my parents trying not to cry. I didn’t even look at the title. We had Christmas in Crow Valley at Grandma’s house and when we were home on Lopez I put the book on my bookshelf and out of stubbornness let it sit there, unread.
In the spring I got the flu. Home from school and I didn’t have anything to read. Then I saw on my shelf, “My Side Of the Mountain” by Jean George. The book from Santa. I started reading. “I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing that I am here.” I soon fell in love with Sam Gribley and his tale of surviving alone in the Catskills. He snares rabbits and deer, preserves berries and makes friends with a weasel. I loved the book and read it again and again. It informed the imaginary life I led in the woods around my house. I made my own tree houses and survived my own adventures but never did find a weasel to befriend. Now, I want to thank that Santa properly. I want to thank that Santa not just for the book but for the lesson. Even my kid self-knew Santa was right. I would have gotten bored with the Big Plastic Barbie head in a couple of days. How much can you do with fake hair after all?
People say “be careful what you ask for, you might just get it.” Santa taught me to be thankful for the unexpected; it could be better than anything on your Christmas list.