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Illustration by Heidi Berton

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It was December, 1950, and I was four years old. I was living in Birchtown, a little village on the south shore of Nova Scotia, with my mother, my baby brother and the old man who owned the house we shared. The old man was a widower and my mother was his live-in housekeeper. It wasn’t much of a home, but it kept us dry if you put pails under the drips that seeped through the ceiling when the snow on the roof melted. It was cold, too, but there was a big black wood stove in the kitchen, and if you opened the oven door and pulled your chair up close you could stick your feet on a log and warm yourself. Overhead, a clothesline stretched across the kitchen and there my mother would hang my red corduroy jumpsuit to dry after washing. I loved that red jumpsuit. It was my school outfit and she bought it new when I started kindergarten.

This was one of the final years I would be living with my mother and brother, but I didn’t know that then. It was the Christmas season, but I didn’t know that either. I remember the snow piled high against the house and the lacy patterns Jack Frost painted over the windows. I remember walking into the bush nearby to check the rabbit snares and the crackle sound as I stepped into boots lined with newspaper to slow down the wet that leaked through the worn soles. I’m sure I had heard about Christmas, but we never celebrated, and I don’t remember ever feeling bereft from missing the holiday. I had heard about Santa Claus, but he didn’t come to our house and I wasn’t happy with the thought of a chubby old man wandering around the place when I was sleeping anyway.

I remember waking up on a cold December morning and finding a freshly cut spruce tree propped against the wall in the front room of the house. It didn’t have any decorations, but I don’t recall ever seeing a decorated tree or, for that matter, any tree inside a house. However, for some inexplicable reason, someone had cut down this tree and dragged it into our front room. It was a bewildering sight and the image stays with me to this day. Under that tree sat a little blue canvas stroller. A rubber doll dressed in a blue corduroy one-piece suit was propped in the stroller. He had a round hole between his lips and another in his bottom. I could feed him from the tiny baby bottle clutched in his hand and the water would come out in his diaper. My mother told me that this was my present from Santa. He had also left a little tin wagon filled with wooden blocks for my brother. My brother was not even one yet. He just sat in the middle of the room; his big brown eyes were riveted on the tree. My mother explained that Santa Claus had come in the night bringing the gifts.

Then she directed me to the cot in the corner of the room, which was spread with an array of candy and a plump orange. A brown lisle stocking that I recognized as my own lay in a heap on the cot. Beside the stocking was a note printed in large block letters so that I could read it.

Dear Evelyn,

I tried to fill your stocking, but it had a hole in the toe and candies kept falling out, so I have put your treats on the cot.

Love Santa

Santa had written to me – “Dear Evelyn.” I was thrilled. He knew me! I kept rereading those words all day and placed the paper scrap on the floor beside my cot when I went to bed Christmas night. I kept that note until it got lost in our tumultuous lifestyle, but the words on the torn piece of paper I still hold in my memory. Years later, when I began to unravel the mystery of Santa Claus, my heart warmed for the woman who tried, however briefly, to love me. I know now that our Christmas presents came from a church or whatever agency passed for welfare in those years, but on that morning in 1950, my heart was simply filled with excitement. My mother could have taken a couple of minutes to repair that tattered stocking before filling it, but then that note from Santa may not have been written - and that’s what really stood out in my first celebration of Christmas. That note from Santa gave me a gift far richer than a few candies and toys under a tree. It sparked a belief in the magic of the season that stays with me still.

My mother didn’t keep me with her much longer. She had had several children before me, who had passed into foster care one by one. Now it was my turn. It appears she was not cut out for long-term motherhood and, looking back, I realize that she lacked the resources to care for children. I have been told that she kept me the longest, but she was neglectful at best and abusive when provoked. However, on that one Christmas Eve she must have held in her heart enough warmth and imagination to make her little girl a believer in magic.

Holly Kritsch lives in Ottawa.

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