There were no footprints (Christmas. Decently long)

Many years ago my father wrote a story about a walk to church he had taken with his parents and some of his siblings. I happened upon it as a child (not more than ten nor less than five) and he later retold the story to my brother, who had not heard it before. I retell it now to you as I remember it … some of the details I probably will not get right, and some things I may say which have become part of the story in my mind, though they were not a part of his. And some I have added to it, in the spirit of oral tradition; the story grows as time goes on. It is becoming one of our family stories, and I pass it on to you now as he passed it on to me.

My father grew up not two miles from the plot of land that became his family’s church in the early 60s (a development with which his father had been heavily involved). It was sandwiched very loosely between two commercial areas that housed your average urban development … gas stations, bookstores, restaurants … in one, the sort of thing you’d find on the main strip of a not-too-big but not-so-small town; in another were the markings of a slightly larger town; slightly fancier restaurants, more expensive housing behind those restaurants and … well, bigger prices. Altogether the differences were not many nor important.

What is important is that his family was then living not more than a mile or two from this church (some of his ten siblings were visiting from out of town) and decided to walk there. Snow had fallen, and it was late, which may account for why they walked there. Or perhaps it was because it was not a far trip, and walking there afforded them more time to look at the Christmas lights put up by the elementary school on the way, and the Episcopal Church that soon followed, and the small cluster of houses nearby which, more than any other people, that church served.

As they made their way to church for Midnight Mass, they came upon a growing throng of people who were all staring at the sidewalk. Or rather, what was on the sidewalk. Snow had fallen, but it had stopped falling. As they arrived at this throng gathered, not restless but intrigued, they started to hear talk. “A sled? That’s impossible … look at it. That couldn’t be a sled.” And “How in the world did this happen?” And “They must have hidden the foot prints.”

In the snow on the sidewalk were sled tracks. They started out, got deeper, then leveled out after fifteen or twenty feet. There was no mistaking them; no other vehicle could have made those tracks in the snow.

There was also no hill nearby, nothing from which to launch a sled such that footprints would be unnecessary. There was no packing of snow to cover footprints; the snow not packed down by the sled tracks was pure; nothing had walked on it, nothing had touched it but the wind and the voices of the people who were gathered, some in awe, some in disbelief and some in bewilderment.

And when my father saw these tracks, he understood the voices. There was no rational, logical explanation for this to adults, because to them Santa Claus was who they became to their children after their little feet and hands had been tucked into bed, so giddy at the thought of Santa arriving that it was nearly impossible to do the unthinkable: sleep. To them Santa was not someone you hoped in vain you’d hear as he came down your chimney (or, as the Tim Allen movie would have you believe, magically created one if none were there), bells jingling and reindeer hooves making loud noises on the roof. For Santa to children is, more than anything else, the hope and expectation of what is to come. To some of them he is that last bastion of magic; upon being told that he is not actually real (which is partially true and partially false), the floodgates open; sometimes in tears, sometimes in questions, sometimes in cynicism, and sometimes in the pride of knowing something your little siblings have yet to find out.

It was no small amount of pride I had one year in being Santa for my parents, who were both rather tired and not a little ill. I distributed the goodies, I wrote the letter … and I got to peek at what everyone else had gotten for Christmas. My family doesn’t use wrapping paper (for a variety of reasons: mostly because of the mess it makes), so each person has a pile, and that pile is covered by a blanket or towel or something. I took as my Santa fee the knowledge of what my other family members were getting for Christmas (and took a brief peek at my own pile, I must admit). I was utterly bewildered in the morning when I discovered things there that had not been there when I let my parents know, the night before, that I was done. They were effectively dead to the world. You want to tell me Santa doesn’t exist? Go right ahead and think thatJ

To the children gathered (more than a few, despite the cold and hour), it was obvious, though few of them said anything. This was a sled, but it was by no means your run of the mill sled.

Santa, perhaps an hour or two early (unless some children had gone to bed early), had been there. His reindeer had made no footprints, but they didn’t have to. He had made no tracks, but why would he? Children expected him to land on the roofs of houses; he would have no need to use the sidewalk (and it would increase the odds of him being spotted, something few children didn’t relish). Adults expected him to be a kind old man at the Mall who tried to explain to the particular child in his lap why even though little Emily had been a good girl this year, there were a lot of ponies who wanted loving children to pet them and ride them, but there were many more good little girls than ponies, and wouldn’t she rather a Barbie or a nice new dress? Or little Thomas, who had been a very very good boy, (he insisted) wanted to be a fireman for Christmas but was still too young by at least fifteen years, and wouldn’t he rather a nice red fire truck or some cap guns—but elves didn’t make those, he quickly remembered, though Thomas thought they could make an exception.

It was an improvement, in the 70s, on the children who had asked only for their Daddy to be home for Christmas. Sometimes their Mommy didn’t know when he was coming home, but it was nobody’s fault. But they wanted their Daddy home, and he wanted nothing more than to play Santa for them again. The only trouble was that he was in another country in a trench or in a makeshift mess hall or in a MASH or in a fox hole … dreaming of far more hospitable conditions than those war afforded. Bleak was the existence in many cases even for those who were not resigned to trench warfare (or, in the case of the pacific theater, facing guerilla tactics and trudging through miles of jungle). Santa didn’t know when their daddies were coming home. He had a tough job every time someone wanted their Daddy back, because no amount of shiny red fire trucks or Raggedy Ann dolls could take the place of Daddy’s arms, however cold or tired they were.

But they asked … they asked with reckless abandon and they asked with more hope in their eyes than perhaps anyone else could ever have, because the one thing you counted on, after everything else, over anything else, and in spite of whatever else, was Santa was magical. He was just … magical.

The children gathered at these tracks knew who it was. And so did my father. No tracks were around because none had been made. And none needed to be made. No child had run behind this sled, no grownup had pushed it, no wooden plank could have made it (though some supposed otherwise, having no other recourse but the magic they discounted while the children, and some others, held fast to it).

Santa Claus had been there. My father knew it (he was then not a child, but not an adult by any means), those children knew it, and some of the adults knew it. No amount of persuasion could have convinced them otherwise.

He has never seen tracks like those since. I have never seen tracks like those ever. Any sled (or sled tracks) has always been accompanied by a hill, a child and an adult. No sled had reindeer, no sled had Santa’s sleigh bells, no sled had a jolly man with a bag of presents.

But this one did.

Nice story. :slight_smile:

About a week late for me (I haven’t been here since the 14th), but it was still very good. :slight_smile:

Sounds like Santa stopped off for a pint. :smiley:

Really, I liked it. It’s an original enough story that it doesn’t smack of glurge. I like that you’ve kept the tradition and told it to enough people that a few of them will remember it and pass it on themselves.