Kids’ Letter Leads to Meeting Real Santa
In 1973 I was a reporter for a small town California newspaper. One of my jobs that year was to read “Dear Santa” letters that children sent to the newspaper and select the best ones for publication.
Most letters asked Santa to only bring toys for the letter writers. In my 14-year newspaper career I read many such letters. But that one year, one letter stood out. It was from two younger sisters of a 12-year-old. The younger sisters didn’t ask Santa for a single present for themselves.
Instead they asked Santa to only bring gifts for their older sister. Since that was unusual I “smelled” a possible Christmas story. Fortunately a parent had written a return address and the family’s last name on the envelope. This allowed me to check it out.
A phone call confirmed the letter’s authors were real and, yes, their mother said that they did have an older sister. She also said she knew her younger daughters had written to Santa Claus asking him to bring presents only for their older sister. I asked why the younger kids hadn’t asked Santa for presents for themselves.
She told me that their older sister was dying from an inoperable brain tumor. The mother stressed that the older sister did not know she was dying. She said that the two younger sisters were aware of the seriousness of their sister’s illness. They asked for the gifts so she could have the best Christmas ever.
She was hesitant to discuss her sick child’s condition any further. I explained I would like the family’s permission to write a story around the unusual Christmas letter, promising not the reveal the family’s identity.
She said that she would have to discuss this with her husband, and if he agreed, it would be fine with her. I also asked if I could call the girl’s doctor, explaining that a good reporter checks his facts before writing a story. She said that would be up to her husband.
The father, after some persuasion, agreed to let me write the story, but with the condition that the story not reveal the family’s identity. He also gave me permission to contact the child’s doctor to verify her condition.
A telephone call to the doctor confirmed that the child did suffer from an inoperable brain tumor and only had a short time to live.
I really wanted to write a Christmas story about the unselfish letter to Santa and the dying girl, but for the life of me, could not figure out how to do it without revealing the family’s identity. Worse, I feared that dying girl could inadvertently learn of the terrible secret that her family was mercifully keeping from her.
After weighing my desire for a story against the family’s request for anonymity, I decided not to write the story. But I had to do something. I couldn’t just walk away from it. I was deeply touched by the close, loving family. I had written about merchants donating food and gifts to needy families during Christmases past and thought that they might help.
I called a nearby mall to ask for a chemistry set and other gifts the dying girl’s siblings requested. After assuring the merchants of the legitimacy of my story and request, the gifts were generously provided. I even asked to borrow a department store’s Santa to deliver the presents in person. Permission was granted. To my surprise, a gentle-mannered, elderly neighbor; a salesman in a department store turned out to be my Santa.
I called the family to arrange for Santa’s visit. They were thrilled and gave permission. The visit was scheduled for the night before Christmas. Now I had to figure out how to deliver Santa Claus to the family’s house in a style suitable to Old Saint Nick. One problem, it doesn’t snow in that part of California. So a sleigh pulled by reindeer was out of the question. Besides, I had no idea where to find one. But because of my news beat with the local police department, I obtained the services of a burly cop and his squad car, complete with red lights, to replace the sleigh and eight reindeer.
On Christmas Eve, a department store Santa, a reporter and a cop knocked on the very sick young girl’s front door. The door opened. Lying full length on a couch was the most beautiful, surprised and wide-eyed 12-year-old I had ever seen. She had dark, doe-like eyes. Her voice was small, sweet and excited, and she had eyes only for the white-whiskered man in the red suit.
Everyone else in the room —mother, father, an aunt, uncle, a burly cop, and two siblings had eyes only for the frail figure on the couch. Her face glowed with a smile that warmed the room with the pure light of innocence. From the open doorway Santa gave forth with a gentle “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas.” He entered the living room. Seeing the two younger sisters, he gave each a present.
Then, carrying a sack of presents, Santa turned back to the couch and the frail little girl lying there. Softly he said her name and gently sat down beside her and began handing her presents. The living room was hushed and transformed as if by magic; we all felt it. Time stood still. Nothing outside of that living room existed. The department-store Santa disappeared. Now sitting beside the little girl, she believed, was Santa Claus himself. She talked shyly about her presents, communicating as only a child can with Santa.
This can’t be real, I remember thinking. Yet it was happening before my eyes. I looked around at the others in the room. I could tell that they saw and felt what I was seeing and feeling. For a moment each adult in that room felt the spirit of Santa Claus. After a period of time reality intruded. The moment had become too poignant even for Santa. He began to tear up and had to take his leave. He kept his composure long enough to be rewarded with a beautiful smile and a warm hug from the ecstatically happy frail little girl.
As we drove away in the squad car, we were all awestruck by what we had just experienced. My Santa Claus neighbor was totally flabbergasted. After Christmas I went to the mall and thanked the merchants for the gifts they donated. Shortly after that memorable night, I left the newspaper and moved to another town.
I’ve experienced many things, but that night before Christmas I was privileged to stand in the very presence of Santa Claus himself.
Lyle La Faver lives in Alameda.