I had climbed upon my father's empty chair, which was normally "hands-off," and pushed my 6-year-old self against the seat back like a queen. I sensed I belonged there on that 1960s Christmas morning. The cuckoo clock cuckooed six times, but it remained dark outside. And birdless. My mother told my two older brothers, my older sister and me not to disturb her until at least 7. "And for God's sake, don't wake the baby."
I had already been to the tree and found my red felt stocking with the missing jingle bell, my name, Kathy, stitched in crooked white yarn letters across the top. The stocking marked my area of four or five unwrapped gifts, spread out with their cellophane box tops. I did not receive the Chutes and Ladders game I had seen on television, or a doll with long, blond hair that I could braid. Instead, I received a rubber baby with unbendable arms and legs, her hair short, black, curly and unbrushable. She did not have eyelids. She could not even wet herself.
My brothers tiptoed into the room and looked for their stockings, but I did not stir. I was busy thinking.
The evening before I had been to my neighbor friend Judy's house, where she showed me their front room crowded with colorful boxes, delicious in themselves with their cherry red bows and patterned paper. I had never seen so many presents. Her Christmas tree was green, a real one that drank water from its stand and smelled like a cedar chest. Our tree was fake, the silver branch tips curled by my father with his pocketknife. He made us leave when he worked on the tree. We got in the way.
"We're going to have our Christmas now," Judy's mother had told me as the family began to gather. Judy's older sister, Rosella, put on a Christmas album. Judy's father patted my head. I loved how his eyes twinkled all the time, as if he were holding in a joke.
"You better get on home," Judy's mother said. The family turned my way, but I could not move. It was all too beautiful.
"Judy, you be Santa's helper." Her father smiled, letting all his white teeth show.
"I'm sure your mother wants you at home," Judy's mother said again, her look stern. I moved off to the side.
Judy placed a gift before one person and the entire family watched them unwrap it amidst oohs and aahs, like a happy story that seemed to go on for hours. Judy's mother and older sisters frowned at me when I squealed over Judy's presents. Judy got Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, a two-story dollhouse with a bajillion pieces of furniture, a tea set, a pretty nurse doll with long hair that you could braid, plus a bunch of clothes. Before I could help her try out her new toys, her mother shooed me out with instructions to come visit after the New Year.
I wondered why Santa treated people differently. I kept replaying Judy's Christmas as my brothers looked at their gifts and whispered appreciation. But not pride.
Our presents gave me the same feeling I got from the Fish Pond game at the Knights of Columbus fair, where I paid a nickel to hold a fishing pole with a colored bucket hooked on the end of it. The attendant made me use the pole with the pink bucket and my brothers the pole with the blue one. I lowered the line so that the bucket disappeared behind a curtained booth, and a shiver of possibilities passed through me when I felt the string tug, a signal to pull the pole up again. I wanted a present plucked from the depth of my imagination. But the prize was always dumb: a plastic ring, a comb or a small coloring book. My brothers got yo-yos.
If Santa received lists, why didn't he pay attention? Why did some people, like Judy, get more than what they could possibly want, and others, like those starving kids from Africa on TV, get nothing? Seemed like he would at least get starving kids some Cheerios or chicken noodle soup.
I heard my mother's slippers scuffle down the hall and pass the living room on the way to the kitchen, but I remained in my father's chair and waited for the heater to clink on and drive out the chill. Cabinet doors opened and closed. The lid snapped off the coffee can.
Why was it that every Santa I had ever seen was fake, the elastic from their slobbery cotton beards showing? How could anyone believe in them?
My mother came to the edge of the hallway and called out to my father. "The kids are up." My brothers glanced at each other, all of us wondering if he would be in a good mood. Soon there would be breakfast and itchy clothes to put on for church.
The quiet was leaving, my time in the chair over, but before I slid off, a shocking thought crept into my head. I looked at the cold aluminum tree and the lack of paper, ribbons and grins. And slowly, it made sense.
There was no Santa Claus.
Katherine Heimann Brown is the executive co-director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in California. She teaches English and creative writing at College of the Redwoods.