Christmas 1979

By E.A. Comiskey

My sister and I lay beneath our Holly Hobby bedspreads watching our breath plume into the freezing cold air.

In 1979, old farmhouses didn’t have forced heat on the second floor. We had a vent cut into the living room ceiling. In theory, warm air would drift upward and heat our room. In practice, ice coated the windows and we slept with our ratty terrycloth robes tied tight over our footie pajamas. That vent didn’t do much in the way of keeping us warm, but it did bring a square of light and the sounds of our parents’ voices closer to us.

“Why are they still up?” I asked. “It’s Christmas Eve. If they don’t go to sleep, Santa won’t come.”

My sister, five years older and wiser than me, sighed in the darkness. “He’ll come. Go to sleep, Lizzy.”

Was she kidding? Who could sleep?

I slipped out from under the blankets without pulling them back — an important trick for keeping the sheets warm — and tiptoed to the vent. Laying on my belly on the green shag carpet, I could see them. Mom wore her long white nightgown with the pretty lace around the collar. Dad had his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. All around them lay glittering paper and bright, shiny ribbons. Half-empty glasses of eggnog sat on the floor between them, and a bowl of popcorn, too. They spoke in hushed tones and laughed. Mom sounded young and girlish. Dad’s deep baritone rumbled upward toward me.

“They’re having a party down there,” I whispered.

“No, they’re not,” my sister said.

“They made popcorn and everything.”

She couldn’t take it. In a moment, she lay stretched out beside me, but before she could get a good look, my dad walked away and we heard the front door creak open.

“He’s probably getting more snacks. It’s not fair,” I said.

They’d told us, in no uncertain terms, everyone had to be in bed, or no one would get presents. They were going to blow it for everybody.

Mom stood and wandered out of sight.

And then…

Bells.

My sister and I gaped at each other.

“Did you hear it?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Quick!” she said.

We scurried back to our beds and squeezed our eyes shut tight.

Again, a soft, rhythmic jingling reached our ears. Was it closer now? It was right outside our window!

I didn’t dare move or even breathe. Perhaps, over the years, a few doubts had slipped into my mind, but know I knew. I’d heard him. He was real and he was right outside.

As it does when you’re tucked into a soft warm bed with your eyes closed, sleep snuck up on me and soon my sister’s hands were on my shoulders. “Wake up, Lizzy! It’s Christmas! He came!”

We dashed downstairs. We passed the front door, where a wide brown strap covered with sleighbells hung. It rattled gently when our feet pounded against the floor. My dad’s boots stood in a little puddle of snowmelt. I didn’t know why he’d been outside, but at least he made it back in before Santa came. That was a close one. Silly old dad.

I can’t remember what I unwrapped that year. It doesn’t really matter. That year, I experienced magic.

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