In 1976 when I was in 2nd grade, the man in the red suit still reigned supreme over Christmas in my fevered eight year old imagination. After all, we didn't attend church, so Christmas as the birthday of Christ was just a fuzzy conceptual nicety, resulting in Andy Williams singing "Away in a Manger" on our living room turntable, dusted off for its yearly usage.
Santa now, he was a different story.
Resplendent in his red crushed velvet suit, his barely nicotine stained beard only detracting slightly from his Macy's-esque splendor, the Santa at our local mall eagerly made himself available to hear the deepest wish of my heart. A new bike - purple, with flowers on the banana seat. Ho-ho-hoing quite convincingly, he sent me on my way with a very firm rejoinder to remain good in word and deed, and a wink at my dad, who - I am now sure from the distance of my own parenthood - was happily nodding as I made my Santa request.
For some reason, I remember that Christmas in Technicolor splendor, like colorized scenes from Miracle on 34th Street. Mom made sugar cookies that year, like every year, but I remember the blue bells, because I was learning "Carol of the Bells" on the piano. It was our last year for a big, real Christmas tree, and as I inhale the aroma now from my own grown-up living room, I can see that long-gone year's brightly colored glass balls and the tinsel - oh, the tinsel.
The weeks passed agonizingly slowly as Christmas morning drew near. First the bringing out of my favorite Christmas book - The Sweet Smell of Christmas, by Patricia Scary. Then, the onslaught of Christmas television specials: Charlie Brown, Rudolph, the Grinch and of course, Heat Miser and Snow Miser. Finally, the Christmas cards coming from aunts and uncles, Grandma and my older cousins.
Wrapping presents, painstakingly, with my neat-freak mom and her perfectly folded corners, her beautifully tied ribbons. Then with my dad, corners smashed down to fit, curly ribbon the go-to package enhancer. Sneaking about the house with my brother, looking for the packages: under mom and dad's bed, in the linen closet, even in the bathroom cupboard with the toilet paper.
Finally, Christmas Eve arrived. It snowed, and my parents seemed oddly harried; dad went out for a while, driving on the ice, which he hardly ever did unless he absolutely had to. Mom baked and baked and baked. My brother and I bickered, ate cookies, watched the snow and bickered some more.
At last, it was bedtime. My room was dark; I knew my brother was asleep. The television in the den muttered with Johnny Carson as usual. Eventually, as I dropped in and out of a doze colored with bright bicycle-infused anticipation, Johnny’s voice dropped off and faded out all together, and I realized that it was much later than my parents usually stayed awake.
This was alarming: if mom and dad were still in the living room when Santa came, we would all be faced with certain present-free disaster. So, I gathered my courage (mom hated it when I got up at night) hopped out of bed and made my way down the hall - ostensibly to get a drink of water, but in actuality intending to gently nudge my parents off to sleep, before it was too late.
My eyes partially glazed over, my red footie pajamas sticking to the carpet as I shuffled my feet; I edged into the living room, blinking like a bat in the sudden light. Both my parents were still up, and our den resembled some type of mad assembly line.
Over there rested a purple fork, near the couch nestled a wheel; clutched in one of dad's hands, a handlebar, clutched in the other, a wrench. Sitting alone on the magazine rack, as though my parents wanted to keep its pristine flowered glory away from anything that might mar it, rested a bicycle seat. A banana seat. My banana seat.
My dad was wearing that look he got when he worked on the car sometimes, the one that even shut my mom's derisive commentary off. It didn't look like the wrench was helping him out much. And mom seemed sort of freaked out to see me pop around the corner, like a wandering elf.
All of a sudden, through my Christmas half-sleep haze, it hit me: my parents were Santa Claus. The trip through the snow on some mysterious errand was to get my bike, my longed-for, Santa-requested bike. And my early-to-bed parents were literally burning the midnight oil trying to make a Christmas morning surprise possible.
I mumbled something, pretending to be more asleep than I was, drank some water my mom brought to me, standing there at the cusp of the hallway, and refrained from remarking on the bike pieces, my dad's obvious frustration or my epiphany about Santa's true identity.
And in the morning, I gleefully ripped the big red bow off of my dream bike, exclaimed "Santa brought me my bike!" and never uttered a word about what I had discovered that Christmas Eve night.
But in the back of my mind I realized what learning about Santa's true identity meant; I could still be a kid, but I was no longer a baby. I knew the truth.