Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How Christmas Came to Hank's House (circa 1965)

Hank Phillippi Ryan: Talk about a Christmas tradition--telling this story is one of my favorite ones.
Spoiler alert! And you’ll read why in a moment. It’s about Santa.
I was signing in a bookstore a few weeks before Christmas, and also having fun watching people select books, and overhearing snippets of conversation. A mom and a pre-teen daughter were heading out the door.
The girl—cute, hip, mismatched gloves--was looking at her mother with a strange expression. She stopped, and held on to her mother’s arm. 

Wait, she said. You mean—YOU’RE Santa?
I almost burst into tears. What a once in a life time moment. And it reminded me…
Twas the night before Christmas—no, it really was. And at my home in rural Indiana, back in–1960-something? I had just turned sixteen.
 Twas the night before Christmas—and my younger sister and I were very unhappy. My mother had laid down the law. This year, there would be no Christmas tree. We were too old, Mom said. It was difficult. And even though we’d always had a Christmas tree, and all that goes with Christmas morning, and unwrapping presents and candy canes and chocolate apples and Handel on the record player and oranges in the toes of our stockings--this year, it was not gonna happen.
The Santa thing was long over (being careful here) and there was no reason for a tree. My sister Nina—age 13—and I were devastated. We had three younger siblings, and even though they were no longer waiting for Santa, we knew they would be devastated, too.
We pleaded. Nope, Mom said. We could have presents, and brunch, and all the trimmings. But a tree was a pain (she probably didn’t use those words) and just not necessary.
 Christmas Eve day came, and our living room was looking right out of Dickens. I mean—Bleak House, not A Christmas Carol. Sure there were stockings, hanging right where they should be. But where there should have been a tree, there was…living room.
 It was about 4 o’clock. And I had an idea. Mom? I said, all innocence. Nina and I need to go to the store. To get one last present. I remember trying to look guiltily sly, as if I were hiding that I was going to buy HER present. Could I, I continued, take the car?
With my brand new drivers’ license in my wallet, Nina and I headed out in the family station wagon. But not to the store. We went the Christmas tree place by the shopping center. All that was left, as you can imagine, were Charlie-Brown-scraggly leftovers. No matter.
 We put one of them in the wayback of the station wagon. Then realized—we had more to do. How were we going to decorate the tree? We couldn’t get the boxes of ornaments out of the basement, we’d get caught.

 So—we went to the movies. But not to see a film. We hit the lobby, and bought several boxes of popcorn. 

We got home, and hid the tree behind the garage. By that time it was dark, and we totally got away with it.
Then we ran upstairs. Mom thought we were hiding her gifts, probably, and actively ignored us.
We got out our sewing boxes (no comment) and madly started stringing popcorn with a needle and heavy thread.
We worked and worked. I think we had to stop for dinner, then we went back upstairs. “Wrapping!” we said.
At one point, one of us had a brilliant idea. We headed down to the basement, and got a bag of whole cranberries out of the freezer. “Being frozen will make it easier to string,” one of us said. And so we made frozen cranberry garlands too.
That night, we could barely sleep. What else is new on Christmas Eve? But we got up early early early, dragged the little tree from behind the garage, and set it up in its rightful place in the living room. (I don’t really remember how we did that, but somehow it worked.)
 We festooned it with our popcorn garlands, and our cranberry garlands (not terribly successful, however, as the cranberries began to defrost, drip and get mushy). We made a star-like thing out of aluminum foil.
Then we high-tailed it back upstairs. We had been instructed to come downstairs no earlier than 7 AM. We came down earlier anyway.
So we were there when my mom and step-dad saw the tree. And, in their pajamas and robes and slippers, they stopped in their tracks.
 Mom’s face was a mixture of—shock, and surprise, and joy. And love. “Santa!” she said. Her voice was a whisper. “He came!”


  1. What a truly special story . . . it’s what Christmas is all about.

    Wishing everyone all the blessings of the season and a new year filled with all the very best of everything. Thank you, Jungle Reds, for a wonderful year . . . .

  2. What a touching story. It brought tears to my eyes. Thelma in Manhattan

  3. made me cry.


  4. Aww...happy holidays, all! Just check in and say hi..and see you tomorrow for a visit from *many* mystery pals!

  5. What a wonderful memory - thanks for sharing! Merry Christmas!

  6. How sweet. When I was first married we did't have money or room for a tree so I made an outline of one on the wall with masking tape and tacked a paper ring garland and paper doll ornaments to it. We put our gifts under it on a tv tray.

  7. ::Sniffles:: Merry Christmas, y'all. :)

  8. How sweet and wonderful and brilliant and perfect. I am weepy and smiling. Merry Christmas!

  9. Hank, I seem to remember you sharing this story before, but I burst into tears at the ending--again.

    When I was in about tenth grade my mom was desolated because there was going to be no money for gifts. She was in the ladies room at her office (where she was paid a whopping $2,500 a year) when one of her co-workers heard her sobbing in a stall and asked what was the matter. Mother explained about the four kids, husband out of work, etc., and the woman later gave her $100. Which at the time (about 1966) was more than enough to provide a pretty nice Christmas.

    Paying it forward, whenever I get a chance.

    Merry Christmas to all!

  10. Thank you for this wonderful Christmas story. (no big tree in my house, but three miniatures, and lights in the window to brighten this cloudy morning. Hugs! <3

  11. Love all your stories, Hank. This is another award-winner. :) Merry Christmas!
    Cathy Shouse

  12. Happy Christmas, Hank! I so love that you and your sister made Christmas happen for your family, and that your mom loved it, after all. Life doesn't always give hard-pressed families what they need, but the heart often does.
    Warmly, Laraine (from TLC days)

  13. Lovely story, Hank!!!!!!!!!!!

    Love and warm Christmas wishes to you and my Jungle Red sisters, and to all our readers, whether their trees are real or imaginary.

  14. Wonderful.
    Thank you for sharing.

  15. Oh Hank... thank you. What a sweet story. Again you make tears dribble down my cheeks.

    Love to all,

    Reine & Kendall

  16. Merry Christmas and big hugs to all the red gang! xoxo Lucy

  17. That is such a special moment in your family life. Thanks for sharing.

    Merry Christmas to those who celebrate.

  18. HOpe you are all having a wonderful day! We went to see Saving Mr. Banks-and it's terrific!

    Ad did you ever think the universe is speaking to you? One of my captcha words is SYNOPSIS. I know, I know! TOMORROW!

  19. HOpe you are all having a wonderful day! We went to see Saving Mr. Banks-and it's terrific!

    Ad did you ever think the universe is speaking to you? One of my captcha words is SYNOPSIS. I know, I know! TOMORROW!

  20. Hank, I love this story. What a wonderful memory. Merry Christmas!

  21. This is such a wonderful story, Hank. I remember when I read it last year I had to go read it to my mom. It brought tears to my eyes again this year.

  22. Oh, my, what a wonderful story, Hank! You and yours sister went beyond making all the kids happy, with the wonderment of your mother's joy. Not a dry eye in the house after reading this beautiful Christmas story. Thank you.

  23. Love to you all! And thank you for sharing a holiday tradition...see you tomorrow!

  24. What a great story, Hank. Love it.