With four mechanical reindeer “pulling” it, the thing looked like a parade Float, though this inquisitive six year-old suspected that under all that customized design was a flatbed truck equipped with a driver. The sleigh held about twenty people, who sat out in the brisk December air in seats that went along its four sides. As it circled the downtown block, a very live Santa Claus stood in the center of the sleigh, mingling with passengers while a tape of Christmas carols played.
John A. Brown’s, one of Oklahoma City’s finer department stores in the early sixties, sponsored the ride annually as a holiday attraction for kids with their parents. Mama noticed that I’d been eyeing the contraption from the time she, my three year-old brother Tony and I got off the city bus on Main Street. So, before we went shopping, we approached the sleigh station.
I wanted badly to ride, but felt out of place. The three of us were the only black people waiting in line, and I noticed several mothers and children shooting us disapproving glances. It was a time when Oklahoma City, like most parts of the country, had a hard time seeing blacks as equal. For its part, John A. Brown’s, while accepting black folks’ hard-earned money as shoppers, wouldn’t allow them to try on the clothes before purchasing them. At the sleigh station, Mama ignored the uncomfortable reception. “Move on up there,” she said, loud enough for other parents in line to hear as she pushed me forward while carrying Tony on her arm.
Growing up, I never heard Mama speak in terms of color. She wanted her children to know self-respect, but she emphasized our equality by example. Any time we patronized, say, a restaurant, shopping center or any other business on the white side of town, Mama proudly ushered us in with a quiet verve, making it clear to merchants that she expected the same service everyone else received.
Mama allowed Gerald, my oldest brother, sixteen at the time, to join a church group of about sixty adults and youth protesting the banning of blacks from Wedgewood amusement park. I was too young to know what was really happening, but I recall Mama’s satisfied smirk as the TV news reported that police had arrested demonstrators at Wedgewood. The only violence associated with the incident occurred when Mama smacked Gerald later that evening for saying he bet Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t have to wash dishes at home.
As we climbed aboard his sleigh, Santa, with his rotund belly and a bellowing laugh that sure sounded like the real thing, gave me a wink. Passengers were packed in like sardines. Mama had polite but stern words for one mother regarding the seating arrangement. “No, we’re sitting right here,” she said, pointing to a prime spot. I looked up into the woman’s insincere smile as her little boy, sitting next to me, through his body language, complained that the shoulder of his coat touched mine. Other children, innocent in their ignorance, gaped in curiosity at the brown people. With as many patrons aboard as could find a seat, Santa shut the door to his tacky chariot and we were off.
For the rest of the kids, the ice began to melt as soon as our jolly host began passing out goodies. Decades later, I still recall the sensation of feeling invisible after a large, candy-filled stocking making the rounds took a sudden detour before reaching us. It was as if we’d shown up at a party uninvited and unwelcome.
The fat man in the red-and-white suit must have noticed all this. Smiling broadly, he came over and was coaxing me to say my name into the microphone when Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” came out of the sleigh speakers.
“Oh! I love this song!” he said excitedly. “I need a dance partner!” He looked at Tony. “Would you like to dance with Santa?” Even as he asked, he was prying my brother from the arms of my mother. Santa cradled him over his shoulder, took him out into the center of the moving sleigh and began to dance.
At any moment I expected my brother to start crying, but when Santa turned his back to us, there Tony’s little round face was, nestled on St. Nick’s shoulder like a diminutive moon, wearing the biggest grin.
I looked up at Mama. She seemed tickled at how much both Tony and Santa were enjoying themselves. A mother and her three kids seated at the other end of the sleigh began to clap to the music. Soon more joined in.
Kids still stared, their curiosity replaced, I now imagine, by admiration and envy. After all, when you’re a child, you can’t do much better than have a personal relationship with Santa Claus. When the song ended, nearly everyone on the sleigh burst into applause. My shyness was replaced by an overwhelming sense of pride.
We were the last passengers to disembark. As we did so, Mama stopped to have a word with Santa. I couldn’t hear what she said, but it was in a tone direct yet cordial. Through the fake beard I saw a smile. The lilt of his voice was friendly and respectful. Suddenly, he didn’t sound like Santa Claus at all, but just a regular ol’ man who was happy to make a family comfortable in spite of the circumstances.
What a difference one imitation sleigh ride made. My family left the dock as nonentities in the eyes of many of those passengers and returned, whether or not every one of them approved, as first-class citizens. Mama, with help from Santa, saw to it.
Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].