*The following story is one of my fondest memories of the holiday season. It is yet another reason I have such affection for the memory of my mother, respect for kind men in Santa suits and why Bobby Helms’s classic “Jingle Bell Rock” will forever have a special place in my heart.
I was fascinated with Santa’s sleigh.
With four mechanical reindeer “pulling” it, the thing resembled 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’d sit 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 as 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 parents 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 instance, the store had no problem accepting black folks’ hard-earned money, but wouldn’t allow them to try on 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 ahead while carrying Tony on her arm.
Growing up, I never heard Mama, tall, lean and quiet-spoken, speak in terms of color. She wanted her four sons and one daughter 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 got.
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 remember 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 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 stern words for a parent about the seating arrangement. “No, we’re seating right here,” she said, pointing to a prime spot. I looked up into the mother’s imitation smile as the little boy, sitting next to me, quietly protested the shoulder of his coat touching 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, though, I still recall the sensation of feeling invisible after a big, 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.
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’s “Jingle Bell Rock” came on. “Oh! I love this song!” he said excitedly. “I need a dance partner!”
He looked at my little brother. “Would you like to dance with Santa?” Even as he asked, he was already prying Tony from the arms of my mother. He cradled Tony over his shoulder, took him out into the center of the sleigh and began to dance. I expected my brother to start crying at any moment, but when Santa turned his back to us, there Tony’s little round face was, nestled on Santa’s shoulder like a diminutive moon, wearing the biggest smile.
When I looked up at Mama she seemed tickled at how much both Tony and Santa seemed to be enjoying themselves. A mother and her three kids at the other end of the sleigh began to clap to the music, and 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, the whole sleigh applauded. 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 words to Mama was friendly and respectful. Suddenly, he didn’t sound like a Santa Claus at all, but just a regular ol’ man who was happy to make a family comfortable in spite of circumstances.
What a difference one fake-sleigh ride can make. We left the dock as nonentities in someone’s eyes and returned, whether or not every passenger approved, as first-class citizens. Mama, with help from Santa, saw to it.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]