Ghosts of Christmas Past — 1968: The Year I stopped Believing in Santa Claus

1968 hot wheels 09

An Excerpt from I’ll Be Home For Christmas

It was a historic year on all fronts—that started with the seizure of the USS Pueblo off North Korean coastal waters in January and culminated with the flyby of the moon by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve.

In between there was the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, riots in Chicago, and the election of Richard M. Nixon in November. It was a tumultuous year in America, to say the least.

Although I was only 10 years old, I knew something was going on that year when I heard and watched the news of these events. I might not have understood completely what each one of these events meant, but I did know—by observing and listening to the adults around me talk about them—that these events rattled and shook our nation to the core.

It was also the year I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

* * *

The holiday season for a kid traditionally began with the arrival of the Christmas catalogs from Aldens, Montgomery Ward, and Sears. As soon as our mailman, Earl Jansen, delivered ours, my brother Robbie and I spent hours perusing the toy section until we knew it by heart. Still too young for a BB gun, but too old for G.I. Joes and Lincoln Logs, I had my sights set on a Hot Wheels Double Dare Drag Set, Battleship, Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, and a Bobby Hull hockey game.

Mom told us that we shouldn’t expect too much this Christmas because our father wouldn’t be with us, which I thought was strange because I didn’t know how his absence had anything to do with what we would or wouldn’t get for Christmas. It was toward the end of our summer vacation when Mom sat me down and told me that she and our father had gotten a divorce. I knew what it meant. There was another kid at school whose parents were divorced and all the other kids made fun of him. They also made fun of him because he still believed in Santa Claus. Of course I still believed in Santa Claus; I mean, who in their right mind wouldn’t believe in him, but after I heard about the ribbing Lester got from those older kids, I feared Santa’s days were numbered.

Robbie, on the other hand, wasn’t worried about Dad not being with us; he was afraid that Santa wouldn’t find us because we moved.

* * *

Halloween came and then Thanksgiving. By then, the pages in the toy section of the Aldens’ catalog were worn, creased, and dog-eared from all our visits. At night, when my brother and I were supposed to be asleep, we pulled the covers up over our heads, and with a flashlight, looked again at the toys we hoped Santa would bring us. When it came time to write our letters to Santa, I made sure to write down the description of the toys exactly the way they were written in the catalog and why I couldn’t live without them. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, before we watched Miracle on 34th Street on WGN’s Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, my brother and I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote those letters. I let my tongue hang outside the corner of my mouth to aid my concentration as I slowly and carefully printed each letter with my pencil, the same way I had been taught up through the third grade. I put those A’s received for penmanship to good use as I composed what I felt was the best letter ever written to Santa Claus.

When I finished one hour later, I couldn’t wait to show our mother the neatly written letter to Santa. I gleamed as I passed it across the table where my mother nursed a Bloody Mary and thumbed through a recent issue of Family Weekly. She took one look at the letter and the color immediately drained from her face.

“Don’t you think this is too much?” she asked, looking up from the letter.

My heart sunk. It wasn’t the answer I expected as I immediately switched gears and pleaded my case. “All the other kids ask Santa for a lot.”

“All those other kids have parents who make more money than I do,” she said, as she got up from the table to make herself another drink. “Go and watch your movie.”

I wasn’t sure how the amount of money that my friends’ parents possessed had anything to do with the stuff I asked Santa to bring, but I knew better than to talk back to Mom when she had been drinking. I picked up the letter, stuffed it inside an envelope and went into the living room.

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