A few years ago, I was reading the local paper when a story entitled “Helping Hands” jumped right out at me. It was a heart-wrenching story about a family in need.
After settling into my office, I contacted the Salvation Army to inquire about the family.
“This one’s a bad one,” the woman on the phone told me. “The mother was raped a month ago, the father’s no where to be found and the two little boys are in God’s hands.” There was a dramatic pause. “Except for a tree already donated, they have nothing!” The old lady sighed.
I glanced down at the paper and caught a quote from the older of the two boys. “The only thing I wish for is to have Christmas dinner with my Mom and little brother.” It was signed, Michael Joseph, 8 (my own son’s age). I checked the calendar. There were seven shopping days until the big night. As if my life depended on it, I promised, “We’ll make sure they get their dinner, and then some!”
The kind woman said she’d check with the mother and get right back to me. She did. I received an address, a telephone number and the clothes sizes of the boys.
The telephone hadn’t rested in its cradle for more than a minute before I began recruiting like a dictator preparing for war. Priorities were changed and my day planner was immediately altered to include shooting emails, posting flyers and bouncing from cubicle to cubicle in an attempt to wake the walking dead. Most agreed it was a noble cause and promised to lend a hand.
Within the first two days, neatly wrapped presents were being stacked on the threshold of my office. The cardboard box converted into a food bin was quickly filling. Someone even donated two brand new winter coats. The entire experience touched me more than anything had in decades. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, I was pleasantly surprised to witness one human being after another rushing to the aid of those who desperately needed it. It was both humbling and exhilarating at the same time.
When I finally got in touch with the mother, she was a babbling mess. In the midst of her heavy sobbing, we confirmed a mutual time to drop off the goodies. “How will I know it’s you?” she asked.
“I’ll be the fat guy in the bright red suit!”
She was crying even more when I hung up.
The morning of the big day, I watched as my wife filled two giant red stockings with plastic airplanes, Matchbox cars, various action figures and enough candy to disturb any dentist. When she thought I wasn’t watching, she also stuffed several wrapped presents into Santa’s bulging sack. I secretly checked the labels beneath the red and green bows. They read: “For Mom.”
Even the office pulled together like nothing I’d ever seen. It was absolutely magical. My one simple idea had snowballed into the common cause of many. It was amazing!
I pulled into the office parking lot and insured the entire rented suit was intact. I knew I was about to embark on a journey that would change my life forever.
Seconds ticked away like hours until three o’clock rolled around. As I headed for the bathroom to get changed, Danny Calis and Brad Cowen approached. “If you don’t already have some,” Danny said, “we’d like to play your elves and give you a hand carrying these things.”
“That would be great!” I told him. Time was the hottest commodity amongst my co-workers. Folks rarely volunteered for anything.
The caravan rolled past the graffiti-covered and charred dumpsters until finally halting in the heart of the housing project. I checked my white beard in the rear-view. It was already so tangled and matted with saliva that it made me gag. As my heart pounded out of my chest, Brad shoved the jolly fat man out of the van.
The self-contained neighborhood was desolate with the exception of three youths standing on the corner. As if they were dancers, they shuffled their feet in an attempt to keep warm. They heckled me once, but when I looked over they only smiled. There was nothing to worry about. I was Santa. Nobody was naughty enough to mess with Father Christmas. “A Merry Christmas to you, my friends,” I called out with a wave. They laughed.
Danny grabbed the food box and grunted with each step. It weighed over a hundred pounds and contained enough food to last three weeks. Brad took the two bags of clothes that were collected and I shouldered his heavy sack of toys. I was already sweating.
My white gloves hadn’t knocked twice before a young woman fumbled with the lock and slowly opened the door. She was crying and I knew right off that we’d found the right apartment. “Boys,” she squealed, “look who’s here!”
“Ho. Ho. Ho,” I pushed from the base of my diaphragm. One step in and everything turned to a blur. I tried to stop it, telling myself, “Santa Claus doesn’t cry.” It wasn’t so easy.
The living room was decorated to the taste of someone who had nothing. Still, it was spotless. There was one armchair, with strips of gray tape holding back the stuffing that fought to escape. There was a small TV, perhaps even broken, sitting atop a scarred wooden stand. A sad green tree was propped up in the corner—in terrible need of ornaments and lights. And there was a long brown couch with two little boys sitting right in the middle of its old lap. I think I actually gasped when I saw them. In a display of good manners, they both held their folded hands in their laps. Their eyes made me lose my breath. There was excitement, disbelief and overwhelming joy—all at the same time. I dropped to one knee. My plastic spectacles were fogging up and I didn’t want to miss a thing.
Looking to his mother for permission, the older one finally stood, confidently walked over and wrapped his arms around me. Like his mother, he was weeping freely. I fought to be strong. Breaking the embrace, Michael ran to his mom and hugged her. As if the words had been sifted through a wad of cotton, she exclaimed, “See…what did I tell you guys? If you believe hard enough, anything you wish for CAN come true!”
I struggled for air when I looked up to find the smaller boy standing two feet from me. I watched as his eyes danced from excitement to curiosity to doubt, circling back to excitement. I grabbed the little tyke and pulled him close. Just then, the tiny voice asked, “Are you da real Santa, or a fake Santa?”
I eased away. “What do you think?”
Again, those big eyes traveled a path that could only be described as heavenly. Finally stopping at a place called faith, his entire face lit up. He screamed, “You da real Santa!” Jumping into my extended arms, he turned his attention toward his brother and screamed again, “Mikey, it’s da real Santa!”
“I know, Robby,” a voice mumbled. Michael was still swaying in his mother’s arms.
I finally stood to catch Brad wiping his eyes and Danny straightening out the crooked tree. Reaching for my sack, I placed present after present—the love and compassion of nearly a hundred people I knew—beneath the evergreen. As I handed the red stockings over to the boys, I spoke slowly, “Michael, Robby…Santa’s very proud of you for the way you’ve been good for your mom. I want you to remember, I’m always watching and your mom’s right. If you believe hard enough, anything you ever dream for can come true. You just have to believe!”
There were more hugs from the boys. As I prepared to leave, I presented their mom with the lovely gifts my wife had packed. “Merry Christmas,” I said with a hug.
“How can I ever thank you?” she sobbed into my shoulder.
“You already have,” I told her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve believed in Santa Claus. Thank you for that!”
The ride back to the office parking lot was driven in silence. There truly were no words to describe the magic we’d just shared. After bidding my elves farewell, I stripped out of most of the sweltering outfit and started for home.
It was the best Christmas ever.
Merry Christmas from all of us at The Story Plant!
Steven Manchester is the author of the #1 bestselling novel Twelve Months, in addition to several other critically acclaimed works.