How well do any of us really know our parents?
The whole world, it seemed, knew my dad, Jimmy Stewart.
A few years after my twin sister, Judy, and I were born, Look magazine named him the most popular movie star on the planet. To us he was just plain Dad.
We loved how he’d fold his lanky frame down to our level and pull us up on his lap for a story. His folksy, halting drawl left us in stitches. He was so loving and good-natured, we hated to upset him.
Sometimes, though, we heard the “disappointed” voice instead of the laughing one. Judy and I weren’t always angels.
Today, people tell me they can’t hear Dad’s voice without thinking of Christmas and his portrayal of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. But I’m partial to one of his later holiday roles. It had a limited run before a very select audience.
It was 1958. Judy and I were seven and our family was spending the holidays in Hawaii. You’d think we’d be thrilled, but we were wondering if it would even feel like Christmas so far from home.
There’d be no singing carols on the piano bench next to Dad, his long fingers gracefully skimming across the keys. No Christmas dinner in the formal dining room. And what really mattered–how would Santa know where to bring our presents?
We asked about it night after night in our prayers, and Mom assured us again and again that Santa would find us, even in Hawaii. But there’d be no chimney to slide down in a hotel room. How would he even get in our room?
Christmas Eve the hours dragged by. Finally, Mom announced, “It’s time for little girls to get to bed. Santa won’t come until you’re asleep.” She was already in her nightgown and Dad had on his blue-and-white-striped pajamas. Even with his long arms the sleeves fell past his wrists.
Judy and I got in bed and looked at each other. We didn’t have to say a word to know we were thinking the same thing. This didn’t feel like the night before Christmas at all. There wasn’t even a place to put up our stockings!
Mom and Dad kissed us goodnight and for the first time in my young life I fell asleep dreading Christmas morning.
The next thing I knew Mom was shaking me. “Dad went out to get a newspaper and then there was a knock on the door,” she said. “Wake up and see who’s here.”
I sat up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. There was Santa! “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas, Kelly and Judy!” our visitor said, laughing merrily, his voice deep and powerful.
It was really him. White beard, red suit, black boots and a big belly–though he was taller than I’d imagined. Santa sat down and Judy and I scrambled onto his lap. I felt so comfortable, as if I’d sat there hundreds of times. Everything about him felt so…familiar.
I looked closely at Santa. I didn’t recognize his face, covered by mounds of white beard. But I’d seen those hands before, those long fingers. And sticking out ever so slightly from one red sleeve was the cuff of his pajamas with those blue and white stripes.
Mom and Dad were trying to fool us into thinking that Santa had come!
“So, Santa, how ya doin’?” I asked, punching him playfully on the shoulder. Judy looked at me in astonishment. With a wink I shared my skepticism. She nodded–now she knew what our parents were up to. “Yeah, Santa ole boy,” Judy joined in. “Long trip, eh? How are those reindeer doing?”
“Ho! Ho!” Santa boomed. “Why they’re having breakfast. They eat hay and mangoes here in Hawaii. They sure do like soaking up some sun before we head back to the North Pole.”
On and on Judy and I went. We couldn’t break him. He had an answer for everything, delivered with that jolly booming voice and twinkling eyes.
By the time we hugged our visitor goodbye and he reminded us to be good girls, my stomach was churning. What if he was the real deal? What happened to little girls who were rude to Santa?
Mom told us to wash our hands before breakfast and then we’d see what Santa had brought us. She seemed irritated. In the bathroom with Judy, I was nearly in tears. “I think that really was Santa,” I whispered. “He didn’t sound like Dad at all.”
“We were so mean to him,” Judy said.
“Mom’s not happy,” I said. “She’ll tell Dad when he gets back from the store. They’ll be so disappointed in us.”
But Judy thought of something far worse. “What if Santa takes our presents away? What if he leaves us with coal?”
There was no doubt what was in store for us. And we’d brought it upon ourselves by not trusting Mom and Dad. We walked out to the breakfast table quaking. There sat Dad.
“Merry Christmas!” he cried, sounding just like George Bailey. “I hear Santa dropped by. Boy, I wish I’d been here.” We went to his chair and he lifted us up onto his lap, his long arms hugging us close.
Soon we were telling him all about Santa and everything we’d said and done. He didn’t scold us. In fact, he laughed so hard there were tears rolling down his cheeks. Like he was hearing it all for the first time.
I’ve long forgotten what Santa brought us that year. But I will never forget the greatest gift of that Christmas–the knowledge that Mom and Dad loved us so much that they would do everything in their power to help make our prayers come true.
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