T'was The Night Before Ski Season
The night was crisp and getting colder, snow was on the way. I could smell smoke from the fireplaces in the neighborhood as they were lit for their first time this season. A couple of snows had already come and gone already, but this night was different; this was real winter settling into the air. Fall was becoming an orange memory, the Halloween candy was reduced to wrappers and long since discarded. The un-opened Thanksgiving turkey was resting comfortably in the freezer awaiting his debut in a couple of weeks .
I looked out into the clear night sky and watched the stars, I scanned the vast distances of the Milky Way looking for that special star, I always wondered what it may look like, I imagined a red satellite slowly traversing the heavens, or maybe a flashing streak of color like a jet at low altitude. I never saw it, I didn't really expect too anyway.
I drained the last sips from the beer bottle and tossed it away in the recycling. I gave one last look at the other beer slowly chilling in a bucket of ice next to a lone plate of warm, leftover lasagna on the kitchen table. I went upstairs to bed where my wife slept soundly.
I must have fallen asleep quickly, because the next thing I remember was waking up quickly with a start. The house was quiet but alive, I looked out the window and I could see the big flakes of snow falling in the moonlight. That’s when I heard it; the distinct sound of a bottle of beer being opened with a twist, the cap being deposited into the trash bin. I knew he was here. Without even thinking I bounded down the stairs, I felt eight years old.
Sure enough the pair of brand new skis stood by the fireplace, shiny and mounted with the exact bindings I like. No ribbons, no stockings, wreaths or trees decorated the room. Christmas was still weeks away. Yet there they were, my new skis waiting for me, waxed and ready to go for the next day. The edges were glinting in the low light, the top sheet looked like candy waiting to be eaten. I was too busy drinking in this amazing pair of skis to even notice that he was still there.
He gave me quite a start. I wasn't expecting him to still be hanging around, he was always gone! I gave up years ago trying to catch him in the act. But there he was, sipping his beer, smiling at me. Santa had not left in a puff of smoke or flew up the chimney this time.
45 years of waking up to the newest set of skis, with no one there to thank, had become my odd little tradition, I didn't think twice about usually. But for whatever reason this year I was able to actually see the legend, he was standing right there in my kitchen.
He was dressed in a red t-shirt, brown cargo shorts and work boots. His beard was trimmed and neat. His bald head was rimmed with neatly brushed white hair and was speckled with age spots, freckles and the red blotches of someone who enjoyed the sun a lot. If it wasn't for the faintest upturn of his mustache tips you would hardly know who he was. He smelled like fresh hay and pipe tobacco. I noticed then that he wasn't alone, he had two ladies with him. Young, smartly dressed gals in red pant suits. Their slight pixie-ish appearance gave away the fact that these must be his elves, but otherwise you could have passed them on the street without a second look. My complete shock and amazement must have been obvious as Santa chuckled a bit and nodded to the chair. He pulled it out slightly for me, as he sat down in the opposite chair.
Being a good host took over my thoughts and I found myself offering drinks or snacks to my new guests. The elf ladies smiled a "no-thanks" and continued to stand at the end of table as I awkwardly sat slowly down in the chair to face the famous Saint Nicholas.
Not sure what to say I was about to stammer out something when Santa broke the ice and said in deep voice tempered with a quality of kindness that I had never heard before. "Thank you for the lasagna by the way, you found my weak spot!" His eyes twinkled as he confessed his secret pleasure. I had learned this years ago in college, when I did not have the milk and cookies that was traditionally left. (He only sipped the milk and took one bite of the cookie anyway, mostly just to be nice I figured) Being a poor student I put out the only things I had in my fridge; a beer and a piece of lasagna. The next morning they were both completely gone. I began a new tradition from there on out.
My mind was full of a hundred questions, but my tongue was star struck and I could only move my mouth with absolutely no sound coming out. Mercifully Santa knew and again spoke" I know you probably have a lot to ask, so I will save you the trouble and tell you why I am here." He leaned forward across the table and looked in my eyes with stern compassion. I recognized the look from my parents when they had bad news to tell me but did not want to say out loud. "This will be the last year I can come." Santa said as if he was confiding in me a deep secret.
I was still star struck and the words and thoughts were backed up in my mind like water behind the Hoover Dam. "Santa I just want to say thanks so much for all the skis and...." He interrupted me with a gesture and said "No, it I who needs to thank you, that’s why I wanted to stick around tonight." He looked at the elves who were still politely standing at the end of the table, looked back into my eyes and continued.
“For the last few years you were my only ski delivery, I used to bring hundreds of skis to my older believers at the start of every season. But as the years have gone by the adults have believed less and less, mostly they have their own families and kids and feel it’s too silly or strange, some have had jobs and corporate positions that did not allow for believing in fairies, some have given in to the peer pressure, most have gotten too old to ski anymore. You are the last one on my list, and you are also my favorite. You have always believed in the magic of winter. You never let the pressures of growing up in the real world diminish your enjoyment of the cold and ice and snow. Your heart remains in the snow, your thoughts are always with the snow clouds, and I have always enjoyed rewarding your obsession for all things winter. We are a lot alike in that regrard. I live in the land of eternal winter, you see, sometimes it gets rough, I won't lie to you. But it's the unending love you and others like you have for season of cold quiet that keeps me going. It reminds me of why I am there. I owe you more than you could imagine, you are the last to truly believe."
I found myself nodding along in agreement. Snow was my life and love. I never stopped believing in magic and Santa Claus. Even when I was eight and my parents sat me down to tell me there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I knew better. "What about the skis I get every year?" I asked them, "Did you bring me those too?" "Well no." they replied. "We are pretty sure your Uncle Morty brings those to you." My Uncle Morty used to work at the ski resort and was the only other member of my family who went to the slopes on any regular basis. He denied it every year, but my parents were not convinced, they were sure it was him and eventually the matter was dropped. Morty was sure it was me who was providing the skis, figuring somehow I acquired them through some nefarious means and was using Christmas as a convenient excuse to "launder" the new pair every year. He was on the receiving end of many of the year-old skis I passed on to him - so he never pressed the issue.
My wife also gave up years ago; she humors me every year as I come in to the bedroom beaming with the new season’s pair. She is pretty sure it is me who buys them and I am just being silly. People on the lifts ask where I got the new skis and I always proudly reply "Santa brought them!" which, although is an acceptable response, makes my wife just roll her eyes behind her goggles anyway.
It was then, after that talk with my parents when I was eight years old, that the skis started showing up not on Christmas morning, but weeks earlier, on the first day of the season. It was our little secret; Santa was real and brought me skis every year. Every year I sent him a thank you note. Skis aside, I was truly grateful for having such a good friend, I never felt alone or lonely ever. Somewhere Santa was out there and I could depend on him, and now he is here, in my kitchen, eating my wife's lasagna.
I Looked out the patio sliding doors and watched the snow come lightly down and kiss the ground. Santa was right; snow was magic! Sure I understood it when the weather men talked about low pressures and dew points and such. On some level I knew the science behind it all, but that still did not explain the feeling I got when you opened up the front door in the morning to discover that big, pillow-top comforter of snow had been laid down on the neighborhood overnight. Light precious jewels sparkling in the early morning sun. It could only be the products of fairy magic, there was no other explanation.
"But but Santa, where are you going? W- what are...I mean...Why..." I stammered again as the news was finally settling in. Santa smiled with comfort and gratitude, his eyes twinkled again, not with the jolly happiness as he is known for, but with what seemed like a small tear glassing over his blue eye.”Times have changed, the business is rough. I am afraid it is time to outsource Christmas to the Chinese; most all the toys are made there anyway. The Chinese elves work harder, longer hours. Mrs. Claus passed away years ago and I am just getting too old. Even jolly old elves can't live forever and I am going to enjoy my last years at home. The land of never-ending winter is getting warmer and I only have so many powder days left, you know. It's time to enjoy them."
He went on, "The Chinese will only be doing Christmas, I’m afraid. They can't do these extra little touches, this was my personal project anyway - just a little extra magic for my ski friends that shared my love for the deep winter snow. I will still do some personal appearances here and there, but the all the heavy lifting and long nights will happen in China. I'm sorry, I will miss visiting you."
Santa looked out the sliding doors too, and his twinkle returned as he saw the snow collecting. We both watched the falling snow in silence for a moment. I could tell he was just as excited to see it as me. After a long pause he looked back at me and said "It's going to be a great morning, eh? What do you think, eight inches maybe?" I nodded, still too tongue tied to form an intelligent sentence.
He then looked deep into my eyes and whispered “Those skis are special..." He said nodding toward the pair leaning against the wall in the living room. "They will never rust, their edges are always sharp, and the bases will never need waxing. They'll never let you down and you will never need another pair…ever. These were my personal skis and I want you to have them now. Don't ever let the magic of winter fade my friend." His smile was etched into my mind at that moment. The obvious melancholy he felt circled the room like pipe smoke.
He grabbed my hand from across the table and gave it a firm squeeze. He took the last bite of lasagna and quietly put the fork down next to the plate. As he pushed himself away from the table he finished the last swig of beer and wiped his mustache. He looked at the elves and they all walked toward the front door together. I jumped up, I have been waiting to meet him all these years and he was leaving! I had so much to ask him still, I wanted to tell him about all those incredible days I had riding on the skis he loyally brought me. But he cut me off again as he turned back from the door. "The lifts will be turning in a couple of hours! Save a first chair for me will ya?" He disappeared into the falling snow, with the lady elves in tow. I ran to the door and saw a red, older model pick-up truck parked on the street. It shook a bit as it started up, coughing up a puff of blue smoke. There were a couple of dogs and some hay bales in the truck bed.
He winked, smiled and put his finger along his nose as he put the truck into gear and drove away. I watched them drive down the street. I turned, grabbed the skis and went running upstairs, beaming. "Look Honey! Look what Santa brought me!"