Here Comes Santa Claus
Big Timber, Mont.
In the dusk of the December evening, my snow-blanketed barnyard looked like a charcoal-drawn Christmas card. Iris Nerg was helping me adjust the harness and sleigh bells on Doodle, a misty-eyed bay workhorse.
“You’ve just got to do it,” pleaded Iris.
Doodle, an animal who had been part of the package I accepted when I married,
nodded his elderly head in agreement.
“After all,” Iris continued, “it’s CHRISTMAS. You can’t let everybody down!”
Sighing, I thought about Santa and the annual Community Hall Christmas party. Santa Claus was really Hank Murston. Disguised in a cherry-red flannel suit with cotton trim, Hank would lug a bulging sack into the Hall and dispense gifts and goodwill with the enthusiasm of a manic giant.
Iris bent her head to eye me beneath Doodle’s chin as I adjusted his headstall. “Hank Murston,” she wailed, “is down with lumbago and someone has to be Santa. You’re the only person who can do it. Hank’s wife, Bess, stopped by my house and gave me Hank’s Santa suit.”
I moaned as I patted Doodle’s neck. He lowered his head accommodatingly and I strapped on a set of elk antlers sprinkled with Christmas tree lights. The battery-wired lights blinked on and off like fireflies.
“I’m just taking kids for sleigh rides, Iris. Like I always do. I can’t be Santa. I’m sorry about Hank’s lumbago, but surely … ?”
“No, no,” she interrupted, “all the men have already gone to the Hall to set up the tree. There’s absolutely no one else available to be Santa.”
I could see tiny blinking lights reflected in the fat puddles forming in Iris Nerg’s eyes.
“Darn it, Iris, it’s always me,” I complained. “Remember last year when you made me be an angel and I fell off the ladder and dangled from the rafter for an hour?”
“Oh, that was just a small accident,” said Iris. “Surely you wouldn’t disappoint the children at Christmastime.” Her voice broke as she inserted a small sob. “We must have a Santa for the kiddies.”
“Okay,” I argued, “why don’t you don the suit?”
“I’d love to, but you have a sleigh. You can just put on a Santa suit and be Santa this year. Anyway, I don’t know how to drive a sleigh. And besides Doodle is your horse.” Iris rattled on as she placed an imploring hand on my shoulder. “I just know,” she said, her voice as husky as a the winner of a hog-calling contest. “I know,” she repeated, “you won’t let the community and the children down.”
“But Iris,” I protested weakly, “I’m too short and my voice is too high for Santa.”
Sensing victory, Iris pressed on. She clapped her other hand onto my other shoulder and looked deeply into my eyes.
“Oh, you’ll be just fine. You can sing and shout as you drive. That’ll roughen your vocal cords, make your voice husky. It’s a fine thing you’re doing,” she said and uncleaved her hands from my shoulders. “Here,” she added brisk as a chinook wind, “I have the Santa suit right here. Just put it on over your regular snowsuit.”
With huge reluctance, I unfolded a set of baggy red pants, slid into them and drew them up and up and up. I ran out of trouser material at my nose. Hank Murston was a big man.
“We can fix that,” said Iris, yanking the seat cushion off the sleigh. “We’ll stuff you with this to take up the slack.”
The cushion was constructed on the order of a flat, stiff, horsehair board, a foot across and three feet wide. First, Iris tried to secure the pad horizontally around my waist by stuffing it in the waistband of the red trousers but the thing kept snapping out sideways like a set of bat wings sprouting off my hips. Finally, she arranged the creature up and down the length my person and secured it with many coils of bale string. The beast banged my kneecaps at the lower end and propped up my chin at the top.
Next Iris held Santa’s coat so I could slide my arms into it. A foot of empty cloth dangled below my mittens. Ever resourceful, Iris hitched up the sleeves with more baling twine. The coat’s fur-trimmed hemline flapped nearly to my ankles. But Iris solved that problem, too. She cinched me up with a wide black Santa belt, blousing the jacket over the belt.
“Now,” she ordered, “stick your pant legs inside your fourbuckles.”
“You want me to bend in this body cast?”
“Let me help you,” said Iris.
She guided me as if I were a robot, backing me to lean against the sleigh where I braced, spread-eagle fashion. Kneeling like a worshiper in the snow, Iris stuffed the balloony flannel legs of the Santa pants into the tops of my four-buckles. Then she bounced to her feet and handed me a white woolly thing. “Here’s your beard,” she declared and hooked me into flowing white whiskers. The whiskers reached to my knees. In another faster-than-light moment, she yanked a curly white wig with a tasseled red cap attached over my head.
Still she was not satisfied. “Your padding sticks out funny at the neck. It looks like something is trying to eat your face.” Grabbing the knee-length whiskers, she whipped them muffler-style around my throat. “There,” she declared, “that sleigh cushion is hidden and you’re a fashion statement.”
I glared. “If I fall down in this strait-jacket outfit, I’ll die because I won’t be able to get up.”
“Nonsense,” Iris sympathized. “I’ll help you board your sleigh.”
I lurched my splinted body around. Iris positioned herself at my posterior and hoisted. Somehow, we managed to lever my incredible bulk into the sleigh where I fell back onto the seat. Iris placed the driving lines into my mittened hands.
“There you are,” she said with ghastly cheer. “I’ve put the sack of gifts in the sleigh, so all you have to do is remember to carry them into the school. See you at Community Hall. I’ll save you some hot spiced cider. Merry Christmas!” Without a backward glance she dashed to her pickup, hopped in and drove away.
With a sigh and an inner resolve that I would somehow get her for this predicament, I flapped the driving lines and patient Doodle leaned into the traces. The sleigh moved forward, whispering two thin tracks through the snow. I popped the lines again and Doodle broke into a trot, setting the sleigh bells jingling merrily.
“HO! HO! HO!” I bellowed as we swept around a snowy bend. The carriage lanterns threw alien shadows around Doodle and the sleigh and me. But there was no wind, the moon cast silvery light, and the air was filled with the blue magic of a snowy winter night.
“Jingle bells, jingle bells,” I sang as happy as if I had good sense.
Black stick shapes of a fence stretched parallel to the road. Doodle trotted on, brisk as a colt. We flew onward for quite awhile and then a while longer. I began to feel an uneasy twinge up my spine. I stopped singing. Oh, dear, had I turned the wrong way at that last section corner? Should I turn around? But where? The road was barely a one-way path between snow-filled borrow pits. I didn’t want to get stuck in a drift. I’d have to keep going till I located a wide spot.
I strained to see the road ahead and barely made out a black shape of windmill. Sheep Johnson’s windmill. Oh, good, I thought knowing that the Community Hall was only a short distance beyond.
I pondered Sheep Johnson and wondered why he never attended the festivities. Sheep kept to himself. Not exactly unfriendly, but he sure didn’t go out of his way to neighbor. Some folks said he was an old-time remittance man and others held he’d run away from a blighted romance. He ignored all invitations to join in Christmas fun. It was a shame. But Sheep lived only a half mile from Community Hall, so I figured I’d soon be at the school house. I relaxed.
“Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,” I warbled. Then I spotted a light yonder. A dog barked. Doodle broke into a lope, whizzed through an open gate and halted before a small frame house with a narrow wooden porch jutting from the front. It was definitely not Community Hall.
The overhead yard light spotlighted me and Doodle as the door of the house popped open and a barrel-chested individual ” at least 12 feet tall ” stood framed in orange light.
“Oh, wow,” I whispered, “I’ve goofed.”
A voice that sounded like an irritated grizzly bear growled, “WHAT’S GOIN’ ON OUT THERE?” Then the voice added, “SHUT UP, JEZEBEL!”
I knew the yeller didn’t mean me because the dog quit barking. I also knew that Doodle had taken me through Sheep Johnson’s gate right to his front door. Yikes, I thought. Oh, well, it’s Christmas. Most folks are nice at Christmas.
“Hello, there, Mr. Johnson,” I sang out. “Sorry to bother you. Just wanted to turn around in your yard.”
“Who’s that?” bellered Sheep Johnson.
“Er, it’s Santa Claus,” I said. “I’m on my way to the Community Hall Christmas party.”
Sheep Johnson’s impressive mustache twitched. Then it twitched some more and finally his teeth appeared in a grin wide enough to make a Jack-o-lantern proud. In another moment, he threw back his head and a strangled noise emerged from his throat. I realized Sheep Johnson was laughing.
Still chortling, he plodded down the porch steps, inspected Doodle’s blinking antlers more closely, then broke into another fit of laughter. “I hear tell,” he rumbled, when he caught his breath, “that women are doing everything nowadays ” but Santa Claus?” He slapped his knee as another fit of amusement caught him.
At that moment, I wanted to kill Iris. This was her fault. She was waiting warm and comfy at the Hall while I sat like a store-dummy in a baggy Santa suit feeling like a dope. Sheep Johnson kept on with his uncalled for merriment at my expense. Definitely I was going to kill Iris. Then as Sheep’s raucous throat-noise continued, inspiration struck.
“Mr. Johnson,” I said, making my voice firm, “you’re absolutely right about the inappropriateness of a woman Santa Claus. That’s why I’ve stopped here.”
“Huh?” he said.
I wrapped the driving lines around the brake handle, maneuvered my stick legs around and prepared to descend. My body, splinted against the stuffing pad, slid like a hunk of scrap iron off the sleigh and I pitched forward. With my face in the snow, I wondered if Iris would be sorry if I suffocated. I tried to rise, but the best I could do was to roll over on my back.
Sheep Johnson towered above me like a skyscraper on legs. By now, the man had tears streaming from his eyes as his merry appreciation continued. Gulping a couple of times, he reached down and scooped me to vertical.
“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve got 10 minutes to change into Santa.”
“Huh?” he answered, laughter vanishing.
I began stripping. I tossed him the hat, wig and beard. I unbuckled the belt, skinned out of the jacket and the seat cushion, sat on the sleigh’s step and pulled those voluminous red pants out of my four-buckles and fished them off. Wadding up the garments, I shoved the whole pile at Sheep Johnson’s chest. “Go. Get dressed. I’ll wait here. I’m your designated driver.”
Twenty-three minutes later, I halted Doodle at the hitch rail in front of Community Hall, hopped down, tied the lines to the rail and skedaddled inside the Hall, banging the door behind me.
A gaggle of children and adults were busily draping popcorn strings, icicles and angel cookies on a tall pine tree. Several mothers were busy in a kitchenette at the far end of the building. Iris, her back to me, was hanging a candy cane on a branch. Hearing the door slam, she called out in falsetto, “My, is that Santa’s footstep I hear?” Then she turned and her expression took a dive. White-faced, she leaped to waylay me in the middle of the long room. Nearly in tears, she gasped, “Oh, no. Oh, NO! I can’t believe it. You’ve let me down.” She shook me. “Where is your Santa suit?”
“I gave it away,” I answered solemnly. “It just wasn’t me.”
Iris’ face began crumpling as she tried to decide whether to cry, scream or hit me.
At that instant, from outside the Hall came a deep rolling bass “HO, H O, HO! MERRRRRRRRY CHRISTMAS!”
Every child in the room froze as if bewitched. Into the silence another bellowed “MERRRRRY CHRISTMAS!” shook the building. Then the kids broke, sprinted for the door and flung it wide.
Through the open portal, I saw a big bay reindeer with blinking antlers tethered to the hitchrail. An enormous bearded figure, dressed in cherry red, leaped off the sleigh and heaved a bulging bundle to his shoulder. “MERRY CHRISTMAS,” he roared as stomped onto the porch and through the door. The smaller children fell back in awe while some braver ones shrieked, “SANTA CLAUS! SANTA CLAUS!”
“Who,” squeaked Iris, “is that?”
“Well, it’s not the Lone Ranger,” I murmured as Santa strode to the Christmas tree.
Angling two ham-sized hands on his hips, Santa faced the assemblage and once more roared a Merry Christmas greeting. Then he opened up his bundle, reached in and drew forth the first brightly wrapped package.
Throwing an arm across my shoulders, Iris bent her blue-eyed gaze upon me. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down,” she whispered. “He’s perfect. Er, who is he?”
“Santa Claus,” I said. “Got any of that hot-spiced cider left?”