My husband and I, we never made our children believe in Santa Claus or any other mysterious gift bearer. Quite the opposite – the kids always know precisely which gift comes from whom. We didn’t decide to go for the ‘more truth, less mystery’ version in order not to lie to them, or to spoil the magic. Instead we told them that we can’t rightly know whether or not there really is someone like Santa, and that if there is, he must have loads to do, and since we can afford to buy our own gifts, we don’t want to exploit him.
I don’t know what that makes us. All I know is, some stories insist on their existence. Some mysteries simply persist, no matter what parents say or do. Santa Claus, it appears, is one of them.
Jack is an old friend of my husband’s family. Originally from Ecuador, he spent a few years in Germany working as a surgeon. That’s how he met my mom-in-law; they worked at the same hospital, and became friends. Jack took his own family back to Ecuador decades ago, nevertheless, he stayed in touch.
Jack has always been what some people might call a character. That hasn’t changed now that he’s retired, grown a belly and a beard, and his hair has turned snowy white.
He came for a visit a week or so ago. He still speaks German, but occasionally needs to turn to his wife, Monica, to help him out with a missing piece of vocabulary – and vice versa – and he speaks with the sweetest Spanish accent.
“I went to Los Angeles, in summer,” he told us. I saw Monica briefly close her eyes and shake her head. “So embarrassing,” she muttered. Jack ignored her. “I wanted to hitchhike to New York,” he went on. I pricked up my ears. Hitchhike from L.A. to New York? At the age of 70-something? Jack’s face was perfectly solemn, but there was a twinkle in his dark eyes. “I found a truck driver,” he went on. “Guy told me he wouldn’t drive me to New York, he was going to San Francisco, so I told him, fine, take me there.”
That was probably the point where I decided that I want to be like Jack when I grow up.
“And then I thought I’d go back to Los Angeles by bicycle.”
“No way,” my husband interrupted. “That’s too far.” I said no, it’s not, Jack agreed with me, though neither of us was quite sure how far it actually is. “You can go all the way along the coast” – that much at least I knew – “and it’s a beautiful route.” Jack turned his solemn nod my way. “Very true,” he said, “it took me twelve days to get back to Los Angeles. And then I thought I might earn a little money. Here, I’ll show you.”
He dug his phone from his pocket. Monica’s eyes closed again.
The video someone made of Jack showed him sitting on a sidewalk, upturned baseball cap before him, with his flowing white hair and beard, dressed in hat and poncho like the living embodiment of every South American cliché, playing the guitar and singing some Spanish song – not too bad, actually.
My husband burst out laughing. “You look like Santa Claus on holidays.” Jack grinned. “That’s because I am Santa Claus.” My nine-year-old son rolled his eyes. My seven-year-old daughter looked skeptical.
Later, when we said our goodbyes, Jack pointed at his cheek and demanded kisses. My daughter couldn’t reach high enough, so she stood on tiptoe and he stooped, but whenever she got too close, he moved up a bit, just out of her reach. “You need to be taller,” he said. I wasn’t having that, so I lifted her up and she successfully planted her kiss. He laughed.
She was a bit jittery when she put her shoes on, so my dad-in-law couldn’t resist teasing her. “What did you do, kiss Santa Claus?” She scowled. “He’s not really Santa. He’s just Jack.”
Back home again, though, in the familiar comfort of her own bed, the question apparently ran too deep and she couldn’t sleep. “Mom?” she asked me when I came to her room for one more bit of cuddles. “Did I really kiss Santa Claus?”