When I was 2 years old I experienced an epiphany. I found out that Santa Claus was a poor, hard working coal miner. I also learned that life in the Mountains of Eastern Kentucky was not so bad, all things considered.
My parents were quite typical in many respects. Like every typical American parent, they lied to their kids. They told me the story of a delightful, jolly old elf that lived at the North Pole. They told me that if I was a very good little girl, ate my vegetables and did not talk back I would be rewarded with gifts. On the other hand if I was a bad girl, I would find no gifts under the tree and lumps of coal in my Christmas stocking. I knew all about coal because my father was a miner. His fingernails had a seemingly permanent buildup of coal dust underneath and he always smelled of the creosote that was used to coat the wood timbers that held up the roof of the underground mine. I wanted no coal in my stocking!
One day in December 1963 my mother asked me, “What would you like Santa to bring you this year?”
Weeks earlier I saw a doll on the shelf in the store that served as a grocery for sugar, flour and coffee, a hardware store, and an auto parts store. The store was owned by an elderly couple and for many years was the only place in town where we could buy things as we needed them because they would extend credit. I asked my mother to buy the doll for me. She scolded me.
“We don’t have money for foolishness Helen!” she hissed. “Don’t ask again.”
I hushed about the doll and unlike today’s 2 year old kids, I knew better than to attempt a tantrum.
Later when mother asked me what I wanted Santa to bring for Christmas, I hesitantly asked for the doll. It was a beautiful doll! I can not now remember the name of the doll that was emblazoned across the front of the pink and white box, but I remember she had the longest dark brown hair, brown glass eyes that closed when you tilted her back and she was nearly as tall as I was. If you held her hand and ever so gently pulled her toward you she would walk forward in a stiff legged march across the floor. I thought she was the most beautiful doll in the world.
Christmas morning came and went and the doll was not beneath the Christmas tree. There was a nice stack of coloring books and a new box of wax crayons. My grandmother gave me a package of frilly panties with the days of the week printed on the front of each – “because you are a big girl now” she told me since I had learned to hold my bladder and go to the toilet. The evening wore on, and as darkness crept up on the Eastern Kentucky hollow where I was born and where I would live until my 30th birthday, I was convinced that Santa Claus would not be bringing the doll I wanted. Relatives came and went, and each brought a small present of books, and hair ribbons, and paper dolls, but no Santa and no walking doll. Then there was a knock at the door and a tall skinny man dressed in a “Santa suit” entered the house. I immediately recognized him. It was my great uncle Bill.
Great Uncle Bill had served in the Navy during World War II and was “shell shocked.” These days we call it “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome” but way back then, it was considered a craziness caused by what he experienced in the war. I used to think that Great Uncle Bill was a giant. He was at least 6 feet 3 inches tall but thin as a rail. He had a long smiling face, but there was a deep sadness behind the smiling eyes if one had the ability to see beyond the surface. The fake Santa beard swung loosely beneath Great Uncle Bill’s chin and the suit hung on his body like scarecrow garb.
“Uncle Bill!” I shouted.
“That’s Santa Helen,” Mother corrected.
Great Uncle Santa Bill beckoned me forward and I approached him timidly. He knelt down and then reached into his gunny sack – no red velvet bag trimmed in white fox fur for a Mountain Santa. He pulled out a big pink and white box from his sack. It was the doll from the store. I was delighted, but I was very sad at the same time. You see, I discovered that there is no Santa Claus at the North Pole. He is not a kindly old elf that keeps his watchful eye on the naughty and the good, but a poor coal miner with dirty fingernails who always smelled of creosote. My father went back to the store that day in December 1963 when I asked for the doll and he bought it for me on credit. He asked his uncle, my great uncle Bill, to dress up as Santa Claus and to bring it to me on Christmas night.
Years later when I started school, I was surprised to learn that many children still believed in a jolly elf from the North Pole. I knew that my Santa was real and that he loved me. Even though he smelled of coal and he dirtied my dress when he picked me up, he cared about my happiness. Knowing the truth from a young age was not easy to take, but it has served me well, all things considered.