Christmas Eve 1975; 11.55pm
Time was standing still, or at least that’s how it seemed to my seven-year-old mind as the large hand on the old carriage clock beside my bed had refused to move for what must have been a full ten minutes. To be so close, all that planning, careful, secret, not even a whisper of it to my nine year old brother snoring heavily beside me. And certainly no mention to my three year old sister who had sneaked into our bed after Mum and Dad had sent us to bed hours before. She could not keep secrets, or silence. So my plan was my own, crafted over several weeks as I trained myself to stay awake twenty extra minutes every night. I learned how to breathe that little bit heavier when the bedroom door opened gently and my mum would listen to be sure that we slept.
The large hand moved clunkily, four minutes more, nearly there. Don’t mess it up, stay awake! The house slept in silence, a strange stillness given the usual farm noises that interrupted the night earlier. The whole world slept, it seemed to me, and only I lay awake, watching the scratched face of the clock illuminated by an almost almond moon. Three minutes, finally two; it was time.
The wooden floor was ice cold, the door creaked louder than I expected. I froze; listening carefully. Nothing! I made my way down the hallway; had it grown longer during the night. My hand reached out, shaking, almost afraid to grasp the metal handle, but I had someone to meet, excitement steeled my nerves. I touched the handle just for a split second; then it turned without my help. I jumped, struck with shock as the door swung open, my mother on the other side, equally startled. “What are you doing up?” she demanded, moving quickly into the hall. I stuttered, voice trembling, “I wanted to see Santa, has he been yet?” “No, not yet, go back to sleep, he might be running late.”
There was nothing for it, back to bed, my face reddening, my plan dashed. I lay in the moonlit darkness, listening to my parents going to bed; their muffled words softening my anxiety. They weren’t angry, they were laughing. And soon the house grew still again. The clock face mocked me by speeding up, minutes passed in seconds, twelve thirty already, I had missed my chance. But wait, I mightn’t meet him but I could see had he been. ‘Pact handshakes’ meant nothing now. Our agreed plan to waken together and go into the kitchen early was no longer my concern. I crept out of bed again, heavy breathing from every room I passed, a leap of fear as a bed creaked and then settled. Stood stock still for ages, then moving again, down the hall, through the door, click on the light. Yes, yes, he had been. There they were; all packed into the wicker shopping baskets we had left under the cornered tree earlier. Bags filled to overflowing. In deference to my betrayed siblings I refused to look at what they had gotten, we could still share the surprise later. Straight to my haul; excited hands taking everything out in seconds; placing each toy and sweet in the middle of the kitchen floor. A moment to stare in wonder at everything, then wonderful ages to pick up each item, examine it, my heart surging to new heights of pleasure. A large truck, Meccano, chocolate Santa, it was all too much. I had to go through them several times to take it all in.
There really aren’t words to describe the next few hours; the wonder of that night has stuck in my memory for nigh on forty years. Those hours playing on my own with Santa’s gifts were some of the happiest of my life. I enjoyed the excitement of my brother and sister as they discovered their treasure some hours later. If there was a warm self-satisfied glow in me that was less than honourable I ignored it. Un-slept hours were finally catching up on me. I moved to my mum’s armchair and sank into a contented sleep. Time played its tricks again as it seemed only minutes later that I woke up, but the room was now bathed in daylight and everyone was milling around getting ready for church. My mum was leaning over me, a bemused smile on her face. “Santa was in such a rush last night,” she said, “that he forgot to give you one of your presents. When he got back to the North Pole and realised his mistake he sent Rudolph on a special trip back here to deliver it for you. The dawn was breaking as he arrived so he had to drop it outside and get back to the North Pole before anyone saw him.” With that she produced a blue and black football, the light ones that blow off course when they are kicked high. My eyes bulged with this news; the ball was still wet from being dropped on the frosty dew outside. For me? For me! He had made a special journey for me, to give me what was to become one of my greatest personal treasures. The rest of that Christmas day is a blur now, melted into an array of Christmas memories that have a sameness that is wonderfully comfortable.