CHRISTMAS SPECIAL: “Santa Claus, Cinderella, and Me”
“Of all the people Santa sees this year, I feel sure you’re one of the best, but if you don’t believe this Christmas story then I’ll understand, I guess.” --By Paul Burden
The ground was covered with a heavy blanket of white snow that cold December night long ago. The night air was very still as my mom and dad and my older brothers and I walked down to Embry School that night. The light from a full moon cast long shadows on the ground beneath the snow covered branches of the tall trees that stood on the playground next to the schoolhouse. The rustic old building at the end of the lane was made of rough cut sawmill wood. It sat high above the ground on a foundation made of rock pillars stacked one top of the other. It was surrounded by tall trees. Many parents, like my mom and dad, didn’t own a car so they often traveled in a buggy or wagon. I suppose the place must have looked like a winter wonderland with all the horses, buggies, and wagons that were scattered around the school yard but what I remember is what happened inside the school house that late December night.
Maybe it was because World War 2 was ending or maybe it was just something that couldn’t be explained, but the Christmas spirit seemed to be everywhere. As we crossed the playground, I overheard some children saying that they had heard a rumor that Santa Claus was in the area. Many of the children didn’t really believe Santa Claus was real, much less believe that he would actually come to a small backwoods event like we were having that night, but I still couldn’t help thinking that maybe they had seen or heard something.
Navigating the snow-covered steps leading to the front door was a challenge for a young boy like me, but I eventually made my way to the top of the steps and opened the front door. Kerosene lamps hung on the wall of the dimly-lit one-room schoolhouse. Desks were lined in neat rows on either side of the aisle that led to the front of the room. The house was filled with boys and girls, moms and dads, and grandpas and grandmas. They were all talking, laughing and having a good time. I had the feeling that this was to be the beginning of a special night.
I soon spotted my friend Cinderella sitting at a desk near the back of the room on the right side of the aisle. Cinderella was a tall, plump woman with an unusually deep, distinctive voice that could be heard above all the noise. She often had a dip of snuff between her gum and lower lip. She had nothing in common with Cinderella in the fairy tales. Cinderella and her husband Lihu owned the local country store where we purchased groceries. We really didn’t have much in common, but that night our friendship and shared experiences would be something that we would remember for the rest of our lives.
I walked over and seated myself comfortably in the seat next to her. I asked her if she had heard the talk about Santa Claus that was going on outside. She said she had heard some of the children talking and she said she wasn’t sure, but she thought she may have heard something above the treetops outside the school earlier that evening herself. Before she had time to say more, my attention was drawn to something I spotted in the front corner of the room by the side entrance door. It was a Christmas tree decorated with bright shiny red ornaments, angel hair, popcorn balls, and icicles. At the base of the tree were several packages wrapped in Christmas paper.
In those days, it was tradition for the school children to draw names and exchange gifts at Christmas time and I knew the packers were not the school children, but I was thinking how nice it would be if only I could have just one small present. My thoughts were soon interrupted as I heard an unusual clattering noise on the roof. I looked up at Cinderella and started to ask if she had heard it, but I could tell by the look on her face that she had heard the same noise. Before I could say a word, I noticed a funny looking little man that had entered the side door and was standing by the tree.
He was a fat, jolly little fellow wearing a toboggan and huge bright red breeches. He had a twinkle in his eyes and a nose that looked like a bright red cherry. His cheeks were red from traveling in the cold night air, and his grayish white beard was a little untied, to say the least. I was sure that this was the mythical old man who brought gifts to children on Christmas Day.
He picked up the packages one by one and started reading the names on the attached tags. The children came forward to receive their gift as he continued to call their names. From Treva Dean to Eddie; from RJ to Deronda; from John to Bootie; from Royce to Beverly; from Toots to Willard…..
He continued reading names and passing out packages until they were all done. After he had passed out the last package, he reached into his pocket. He pulled out a very small package and held it in his hand. He said, “To Paul.” He didn’t say from anyone; he just said, “To Paul.” I could feel my heart pounding as I looked up at Cinderella to see if she had heard what he said. She said, “Get up, he’s calling your name.”
I jumped out of my chair and started running toward the front of the room, but as I got closer, I started to walk slower and slower. Eventually I was just creeping an inch at a time. I was sure that this was the mythical old man who brings gifts to children at Christmas but I suddenly realized that I was a little afraid of this fat, jolly little fellow wearing a toboggan and huge red breeches. I realized that I did’t know much about this mythical old man.
When I was about three feet away from him I extended my arm as far as it would reach, hoping he would give me the little package and let me get out of there. Just as he gave me the little package, he started that deep belly laugh. “Ho, Ho, Ho” was all he said but that was all it took to scare the daylights out of me.
I made a dash for the back of the room, jumped into my seat and started examining the strange looking little package that I held in my hand. It was not wrapped like any of the other packages; it didn’t have a ribbon or a bow; it didn’t even have a box. It was just a small object that had been covered with a funny looking piece of Christmas paper. I slowly unfolded the paper and inside I found a bright, shiny, new silver dollar. I felt the neat little grooves on the edge. I saw the beautiful picture on the front and back side of the coin. I ran my fingers over the mounds and the valleys feeling the texture of what was the most beautiful gift that I could have ever hoped to get at Christmas time.
Somewhere, I suppose, there is an unwritten rule that says Christmas is for small children and older brothers are much too big to believe in Santa Claus. They have a tendency to discourage younger brothers from believing in Santa Claus also. My brothers were no exception to this rule. They almost seemed to delight in breaking my spirit that night. They couldn’t wait to tell me how I had been taken in by this mythical old man in the red suit.
As we left the schoolhouse that night they told me I had been fooled but the little man in the red suit. They told me he was not Santa Clause. They said he was a neighbor man named Roy Cardwell. They said that it was obvious, that the gray beard was such a tangled mess it couldn’t possibly be real. They also explained that Cinderella had secretly wrapped the silver dollar in Christmas paper and slipped it to Ray while I was’t watching, and they said the noise I heard was the wind blowing the tree limbs against the roof of the school house.
I figured my big brothers must have been telling the truth because they usually knew what they were talking about, but the night had been so perfect. Every magical moment seemed so real. I couldn't understand why it had to end this way. As we continued walking up the narrow lane toward home, I thought about how the little man in the red suit had called me by my first name. I had never met or heard of a man named Ray Cardwell in my life. I wondered how he could have known that I would be there that night, and I wondered how he knew my name.
I had had a very close look at the little man in the red suit and it seemed so obvious to me; his beard was snarled and tangled, his nose was red and a cherry, and his cheeks were red as a beet because he had traveled a very long distance from the cold north pole that night.
I was almost sure that Cinderella had not left my side all night and I felt she certainly had not had the opportunity to pull a piece of Christmas paper out of her pocket while sitting right beside me and wrap a gift. I wondered how she managed to give the gift to this man they called Ray Cardwell without me seeing a thing. If she had wrapped the coins in Christmas paper surely she would have put it in a box and carefully wrapped it with ribbons and bows and put a tag on it that said, “from Cinderella to Paul.” But my gift did not have a box or tag or ribbons or bows and it wasn’t from anyone. It clearly didn’t have a woman’s touch.
A night that had started so perfect had suddenly come to a dismal ending. The yard seemed to be filled with plug horses and dilapidated old wagons, the cold night air chilled to my bones, and the trees were drooping from the weight of the heavy snow that now looked more like the end of a winter storm. It had lost its Christmas spark.
As we continued walking up the narrow lane, I stopped and looked back at the dreary looking schoolhouse one more time. Suddenly the Christmas snow returned and my heart started to pound again as I looked up at the tall trees in the school yard. The snow covered branches were draped over the old horselike willow trees! I suddenly realized that they were wrong! The snow was still there! The wind was calm and the fluffy white snow was still clinging to the branches! I knew that they were mistaken, they didn’t know what had happened because they didn’t think about the trees! The tree branches had not been banging against the roof; they are still covered with snow!
Time has a tendency to distort our memory. We sometimes confuse fact with fantasy and we have trouble remembering if things really happened the way we think they happened. I’m sure we almost always see things not as they were, but as we wished them to be, but I am also sure that Christmas is a special time for those who believe in miracles. Many years have passed since that cold December night, but I have never forgotten and often think about what really happened. Santa Claus came to Embry School that night, landed his reindeer on the tiny rooftop with a loud clatter, jumped down to the ground and delivered a tiny little package. No one else knew what was going on and the secret has been kept between Santa Clause, Cinderella, and me for all these years.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: The article above was submitted to Beech Tree News by Renee Hogan. Her father, Paul Burden, is the author. Mr. Burden wrote the Christmas story and it was published in the Butler County Banner on December 24, 1993. He was born in Brooklyn, KY on Adam Flener Road in1940.
Mr. Burden died in 2019. According to Ms. Hogan, “many of the people in the story have passed but their children and grandchildren still survive and might smile reading it.”