Not to brag, but I once saw Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer with my very own eyes.
It was Christmas Eve, 1981, and we were piled in our family’s Ford Granada, returning home from service at Cannon’s Campground United Methodist Church. The service was my favorite of the whole year (a close second being any of the days we took Holy Communion, because as good Methodists we knew better than to actually drink wine like those heathen Catholics down the road, bless their hearts, and instead had a communal chalice of Welch’s Grape Juice, which is how my young mind imagined holiness itself must taste.)
Now, I could tell you that the reason the service held so much appeal for my six year-old self was that it was the one night of the year when even my child’s soul felt the true purpose of our existence, as it manifested itself that night in Bethlehem in a lowly manger. But it was really about the Snickers.
You see, I knew that night, as tradition dictated, I would receive one fun-size Snickers candy bar, buried amongst citrus fruits and whole walnuts (which I found fascinating, as I had only ever seen them cracked, shelled, and sealed in zippered pouches on shelves at the local Community Cash grocery stores) in a Christmas stocking.
Now, we were poor, but we weren’t so poor as to have never bought candy bars from the local Fast Fare gas station (sometimes even with an Archie comic if Daddy were in charge of the errand,) but with an older brother who commandeered most things I had my young heart and eyes set on, and a Daddy with an insatiable sweet tooth, the rare box of Debbie cakes or store-brand Oreos or Whitman’s Chocolates that found its way into our pantry had a very slim chance at long-term survival.
My family took their sweets seriously, though. There was one fateful occasion that I almost dare not speak of when my Mama (who ALWAYS..and this part is important to remember….brought Duncan Hines brownies on our frequent picnics along the Blue Ridge Parkway) brought, instead, Fig Newtons. Well.
I’m not even sure if a fig is a real fruit, if I’m being totally truthful. It always seemed to me to be like the love-child of a kiwi fruit, with its showy and unnecessary abundance of impossibly tiny seeds, and an overripe cantaloupe, with its gooey innards.
I was not a fan. Now it may be unfair to the humble Fig Newton to compare its appeal to the decadent chocolate goodness of a Duncan Hines brownie, but as soon as we saw the Newtons emerge from the picnic basket and were assured that no, there were not brownies further in the basket’s depths, our faces fell and we children began a series of grumblings the likes of which child-kind had never known.
Daddy, disappointed, but unwilling to incur my mama’s wrath, just shook his head silently, mourning the loss of his beloved picnic treat.
In what would come to be remembered simply as “The Silence,” my mother wordlessly placed the unwanted Newtons back in the basket, and carried the basket back to the car. We followed, full of equal parts fear and disappointment. Hours would pass before she spoke, and we would soon come to have a wistful fondness for “The Silence” once “The Venting” began. Sweets were just that important, y’all.
So that cold December night, after what seemed like hours of restless fidgeting and desperate attempts at appearing reverential and not-at-all-wildly-impatient during the service, I knew just what was coming. Sometime after the congregation sang “O, Come All Ye Faithful”, Preacher Barbie would put a hand to his ear, furrow his brow, and say something like “Do y’all hear that? Sounds like jingle bells…” and all us children would move to the edge of our seats, holding our collective breath.
The sound would grow louder, until suddenly, the Big Man, Santa Claus himself, would appear through the door at the front of the sanctuary. Now, between you and me, I always thought Santa looked an awful lot like a particularly rotund gentleman who was a beloved member of our congregation, but, again, there was not a chance I was forfeiting my Christmas chocolate for a fleeting moment of “I told you so.”
And although I was six at the time, the ideal age for Santa and Christmas magic, I would continue to play along with this whole event long into my disbelieving years, unwilling to let my burgeoning cynicism and worldliness cheat me out of my beloved yearly Snickers.
Santa would be seated just in front of the first row of pews, beside the giant Chrismon tree, and declare (in a Southern accent incongruous with his status as a resident of the Northernmost point on Earth,) his availability to any child wishing to speak with him. It had not escaped a single eye amongst us kids that Santa’s “helper” had lugged in a giant bag and placed it alongside Santa’s chair.
We all knew what was hidden inside that lumpy old sack…precious stockings made of some kind of impenetrable red webbing that was impervious to any dull scissors which might be used against it, containing cheap trinkets, citrus fruit, nuts, and that much-coveted candy bar. To a six year-old, it was the equivalent of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all wrapped into one wonderful, plastic, technicolor Christmas miracle.
With the invitation officially extended, we children all stood, and began our solemn processional to Methodist Santa.
As I sat on Santa’s lap that year, I was shamefully unfocused on my actual exchange with the Giver of Gifts (whose legitimacy I questioned even more once I got a good look at his face.) I’m sure I muttered something about a present I hoped to receive, but my eyes never strayed from that stocking he had removed from the bag. My stocking. With my Snickers bar.
Gripping that stocking with all the strength my tiny body had, I lept from Santa’s lap and maneuvered my way urgently back to the pew, lest some rogue congregant snatch it from my tiny, sweaty hands as I passed. My brother, Jason, was already in the pew, having talked to Santa before me.
I squinted at him fiercely, sending a clear reminder that not only was possession 9/10ths of the law, but also that Santa himself (or a reasonable facsimile) was watching him there in God’s house. Getting on Santa’s bad side on Christmas Eve was one thing…ticking off Santa AND Jesus in one fell swoop would surely prove fatal to a child’s Christmas dreams.
We ended the service that night as we always did, with a rousing, full-participation rendition of “Joy to the World.” Even the children were entrusted to hold one of the white candles, with their stiff white paper collars, just like the grown-ups.
As the ushers made their way down the row of pews, lighting the candle of each person nearest the center aisle, I sat in abject terror, envisioning a conflagration caused by my impulsive and, frankly, borderline-reckless, brother’s “sharing of the light” that would consume my stocking and its precious contents before I could savor the sweet taste of Christmas victory.
Thankfully, the sanctuary and its contents, my candy bar included, survived the three minutes of the joyful song (being good Methodists, we strictly adhered to the “First and last stanzas only, lest the Baptists get benedicted before us and we miss all the good tables at Wade’s” rule of hymn-singing.) That night, I was more grateful than usual for the gift of tradition.
After what seemed like hours of goodbyes and Christmas well-wishes, we piled back into the primer-gray Granada and began the short trip home. My brother and I were uncharacteristically cordial to one another that night, a by-product of either Christmas spirit or fear of being a naughty list addition. We laughed and talked eagerly about our stockings from the church and the gifts the morning would bring.
Just then, my Daddy, who was one of the firmest and most vocal advocates for Santa’s existence, peered momentarily out his window and up into the sky while we were stopped at the caution light that was our tiny town’s answer to a stoplight. “What’s that up there?”
At that point, my brother and I were too engaged with our conversation to really notice his comment. Until…
“It’s a red light in the sky, hmmmm….” Stockings were instantly forgotten, as this heretofore unknown detail was revealed.
Sitting up on our knees (our Granada was from the days when, as comedian Sinbad noted, “kids weren’t too good to go through the windshield with their parents”,) he and I craned our necks and strained our eyes as we slid around on the burgundy naugahyde seats to catch a glimpse of the purported light. Sure enough, there it was.
A small, but bright red dot, slowly making its way across the cloudless night sky. The awed silence that befell us kids was followed quickly by cries of “Rudolph!” and then “We have to get home!” We knew, through years of being coached on how “the process” of Christmas worked, that Santa was physically incapable of manifesting himself through the chimney (or, in our case, the front door) unless every single eye of every single child inside was shut tightly in sleep.
Fortunately for my poor Daddy (who was no doubt regretting his observation as his offspring lost their minds in the backseat) we were mere minutes from home by that point, but the last several miles were agonizing, as Jason and I swore allegiance to all sorts of deities if they would just be benevolent enough to ensure our timely arrival home that evening.
When we finally made our way down the gravel road, then up the steep driveway to our log house, he and I burst forth from the car and dragged my parents up the porch stairs, to the door (which took, in our little minds, approximately four years to unlock) then in the house.
In record time, we had donned our Christmas pajamas, brushed our teeth, climbed into bed, said our prayers (which seemed a bit superfluous, given our recent departure from church, but there was no way we were side-stepping the other Big Guy that night, just in case he passed along such information to Santa) and yelled our good-nights to our parents.
Christmas morning came, and with it, an abundance of gifts. Our stockings, the real ones my mother had embellished with works of personalized cross-stitch art, were filled to the brim with treasure, and festively-wrapped gifts were piled beneath the tree. Our hearts were full, and our joy was palpable.
Decades have passed since that night, but I will confess that each subsequent Christmas Eve, I have cast my gaze skyward in search of Rudolph. And what do you know? I’ve seen him every time. Christmas magic can, and should, stay with you, not just for the span of childhood, but always. Merry Christmas, and may you all be filled with the wide-eyed wonder of a child spotting a flying reindeer as it crosses the winter sky.
About the Author: Shauna is an Upstate SC native and graduate of Converse College and ETSU. With a passion for both history and writing (and an advanced degree in Appalachian Studies that her parents SWORE she would never use,) she is excited to be able to share stories of the colorful people and places of the South. In her spare time, she enjoys archery, rollerblading, and looking for that next great story.