It was our last Christmas in North Carolina. My son, Kevin, was 8. Wallis, my daughter, was 5. That would make Drew, my youngest, a 1-year-old, newly mastering the art of walking. It was the week before Christmas, and our good friends, David and Denise, had invited us over to their home with two other families for a kid-friendly Christmas celebration.
Among our four families, we had ten little kids -- with Kevin being the oldest. While we were transplants to the area, the other families were all natives. Southern to the bone.
I love Christmas in the south. I love celebrating Christmas with southerners. They masterfully blend the richness of formality with the warmth of tradition. And while I will always love the smell of the Nebraska evergreens that draped our mantel when I was a kid, I've grown to appreciate the beauty of a southern mantel adorned with magnolia leaves. (And I even learned the glistening glow on the leaves comes from a special mayonnaise rubbing.)
So here we were, with our adopted southern friends, enjoying the warmth of a roaring fire and the smell of cinnamon-apple cider on the stove. The kids played games and sipped their drinks out of fancy, glass Christmas mugs, while the parents guarded every sip to ensure that not a drop of the holiday juice ended up on their velvety best. Kevin ran around, his shirt untucked, with two fistfuls of peanuts. Wallis, with her long, flowing hair, quietly smiled -- absorbing everything that was taking place. And Drew stuffed his cheeks with crackers, remembering to swallow every so often.
It was, indeed, the perfect party.
And then, the perfect party got even MORE perfect!
"What's that?" exclaimed our host, David, to all of the children. "Did anyone hear bells?"
Bells? Even the adults looked a little curious and tried to figure out what David was talking about.
"There it is again," he said. "I think I hear bells out back!"
Instantly, every child scurried to the sliding glass doors at the back of the house, pushing their frosting-covered faces to the windows -- desperately trying to see into the darkness beyond. Wondering. About bells. And the possibility of...
Now ten pairs of little feet went scurrying to the front door.
Ten pairs of eyes. Wide open.
And then it happened. David opened the front door.
"Ho, Ho, Ho!"
It was Santa! It was Santa! Apparently, he and his reindeer had just flown in from the North Pole.
So while the reindeer rested in the backyard, Santa was going to enjoy some time with us!
And then Santa, after finding the perfect chair to plop his tired body in, did something I will never forget. He patiently took the children, one-by-one, sat each one on his lap, and talked to them. He conversed with them. Individually. For a good five to ten minutes each. And these weren't talks centered on what each child wanted to find in his or her stocking. (Although Wallis managed to get in her request for a new stuffed teddy bear!) Santa talked to each child about their lives, their hopes and their dreams.
Santa listened. Santa cared. And Santa gave them reason to believe. In everything. Including themselves.
While the adults attempted to do typical grown-up things like clear dishes and tie shoelaces, we were all taken aback by Santa. He wasn't the typical white-bearded, rotund man in a red suit we were accustomed to seeing at the mall. His beard looked pretty darn real. When he bent down to pick up the next child, you could see his long underwear, which didn't look like anything you could purchase in our neck of the woods.
"He's amazing," I whispered to David. "Thanks."
"We didn't do anything," was his only reply.
Something magical was taking place.
After the children took turns with our visitor from the North Pole, Santa then talked to us as a group. He told us about his wife, about his life and about how happy he was to be with us.
And then, sadly, he told us he needed to leave because he still had other families to visit that night. The children took their turns hugging Santa good-bye. So did the adults.
And then Santa stepped into the darkness of the backyard as he called out to the reindeer.
The last thing we heard was the sound of sleigh bells in the distant loblolly pines of our friends' backyard.
On our short drive home, with the three children in the backseat of the car, not one of us spoke a word, until...
"There's Santa!" exclaimed an excited Kevin who was peering out the backseat window.
And as I pulled the car over to the side of the road so we could all look, I saw what Kevin saw. A flashing red light moving slowly through the Carolina sky. Moving from right to left. Blink. Blink. Blink.
A typical observer might have thought it was the Duke University Life Flight helicopter.
But not my children.
"I see Rudolph!" exclaimed Wallis.
Drew tried to wiggle out of his car seat to see.
I looked up in the sky at the blinking red light moving silently through the moonlit night. Then I looked back and saw my three children gazing up at the world above them. Eyes bulging. Mouths open.
"See you next week, Santa!" Kevin yelled out.
I looked back again at the kids and realized this moment had little to do with what they saw.
It had everything to do with what they believed.
My daughter, Wallis, with the Santa that changed my life. (Photo from author's library)
The above is an excerpt from "Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew." Reprinted with permission from the author, Jim Higley.
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