A (belated) Christmas Story

By Karen Zautyk

Sometimes I wonder why my parents did not put me up for adoption. I wonder this particularly around Christmastime, when three specific childhood memories come to mind.

The first incident occurred when I was 3 and we were living in Jersey City. One night, my parents bundled me up and took me for a walk to nearby Journal  Square where a “surprise” awaited. On Bergen Ave., where it met Hudson (now Kennedy) Boulevard, there was a piano store. In the window, there was a life-sized mechanical Santa Claus sitting at the keyboard playing holiday tunes.

I am sure my parents thought I would be thrilled, my having never seen Santa “in person” before. Instead, the sight scared the bejeebers out of me and I screamed and tried to flee down the street. Consolations and explanations did not help.

So much for comfort and joy.

The following year, Mommy and Daddy took me to Macy’s in Manhattan, where I could sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas and have my photo taken with him.

Now, I knew this was not the real Santa, but just one of his many helpers who did department store and parade duty while Santa himself remained at the North Pole with his elves, putting in toy-making overtime as Christmas approached.

But, now being a grand old 4 years of age, I was ready to meet the pretender. I remember the line was incredibly long, winding between the stanchions and velvet ropes, and my mother stood patiently with me holding my hand.

Finally, we were at the head of the line — and Santa smiled and beckoned me forward. And I screamed and tried to flee into the toy department. My father caught me before I could get too far, and I think my mother actually apologized to Mr. Claus for my behavior.

So much for that treat.

By the next Christmas, we had moved to Newark, and I was 5 and had overcome my fear. [See photo, taken at either Bamberger’s or Kresge’s.] I still don’t understand my earlier terror, for I was always a true believer in Santa and his kindness.

On Christmas Eve, I had always put out milk and cookies and fell asleep listening for the sound of sleighbells. The next morning, the milk glass would be empty, there would be only crumbs on the cookie plate and the living room would be full of toys.

I knew my parents had bought some of them — but I was also certain that at least a few had arrived by sleigh.

Some of my little friends were already skeptics and would challenge my belief. Example: “You live in an apartment building with no chimney. How does Santa get down from the roof?”

My answer: “The fire escape.”

“How can reindeer fly?” “How can one sleigh carry toys for all the children in the world?” “How can Santa travel around the world in one night?” My answer to all: “Magic.”

But, as might be expected, eventually I, too, began to question the truth of the Santa story. I think I was 6 or 7 when I wrote the letter and put it next to the cookie plate. I wanted to know if Santa was real. I wanted an answer from HIM.

And on Christmas morning, there it was — a handwritten note.

I cannot recall the exact wording, but it was more than just a few lines. And it basically came down to something like, as long as you believe in me, I exist.

My reaction? “That’s not an answer!” I wailed. “I wanted a ‘yes’ or a ‘no!’” I think I crumpled it up and threw it in the trash.

Years later, I read the “Yes, Virginia” story, involving 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s 1897 letter to the New York Sun and the famous response by editorial writer Francis Pharcellus Church. It brought back memories of the note I had received.

Of course, I had also eventually become aware that my note from Santa had been written by my father. (And, no, he did not plagiarize “Yes, Virginia.”) It had been written from his heart, which I likely broke by my bratty reaction.

Yet, I never thanked him, and he has been gone for many years. And I never apologized.

So, I will do it now.

Thank you, Daddy. I am very sorry. And I love you so very much.

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent