WHERE WERE SANTA’S LITTLE HELPERS?

A treasure photograph of the writer and her mother

A treasure photograph of the writer and her mother

Everyone has a memorable Christmas tucked away in the treasure chest of life. For me it was Christmas 1956. My mother, who had been widowed three years earlier, was determined to make this a special Christmas for me, her only child. “It will be a Christmas we will both remember,” she said, “one that will herald a turning point in our lives.”

It certainly turned out to be a Christmas I would never forget, but for a very different reason to the one Mother imagined.

That year had begun with a tragic event that would change both our lives for ever. On a cold February evening, as my mother was sitting making me a pair ofbaby-doll pyjamas (all the rage that year) she was suddenly plunged into total darkness. She had suffered bilateral retinal detachments because of a genetic condition, which was not to be diagnosed until some 33 years later.

Mother spent most of that year in hospital, while I was fostered out to one family after another. It was hard for us both, but at the beginning of December she returned home. Nine operations had failed, and she had been told she would never see again, but as we adjusted to a new life together Mother was determined that I would have a normal Christmas.

The week before Christmas we shopped together, and under her instructions I made coloured paper chains and decorated the house and Christmas tree. Everything was perfect, and my mother even made a Christmas cake, which I helped to decorate. In the excitement of preparing for the big day, the sadness of the year was temporarily forgotten.

At just eight years old I still believed in Santa. I’d heard rumours of his non-existence, of course, but this was still the age of innocence, and the myth was kept alive by my mother’s enthusiasm and stories of conversations she’d had with an army of Santa’s little elfhelpers.

The day before Christmas Eve,

Mother greeted me on my return from school with the news that Annabel, one of Santas little elves, had visited her that morning and asked if I could leave my stocking on the knob of my bedroom door and not my bed. Apparently, Santa had fallen in his Grotto and had hurt his leg, and didn’t want to do too much walking around all the bedrooms. He had requested that all good children should help him by leaving their stockings as near to the door as possible.

On Christmas Eve we prepared a plate of goodies for Santa, a glass of milk and a few sugar lumps for his reindeer, and I went to bed wondering what Santa would bring me this year. I was excited, but those nagging rumours that Santa was not real kept me awake. Mother came up several times to see if I was awake, and each time I spoke she seemed a little more agitated. “He won’t come if you stay awake,” she pleaded, and begged me to close my eyes. I decided not to answer Mother on her next visit to my room, and heard her heave a sign of relief as she found her way across the landing to her room.

Minutes later she re-entered the room carrying an apple, an orange and a few nuts.The curtains hadn’t been closed fully, and from the light from the street lamp outside I had a perfect view. Mother knew exactly where to find my stocking, and gently placed an apple above the top of it. It slipped neady between stocking and door, and rolled round and round the polished floor for what seemed like an age before hitting the wardrobe in the corner of the room. Mother stood still, then tried to place the orange in the stocking, but that too slipped to the floor.Then I heard the nuts plop one by one to the floor and roll until they hit the skirting board at the far end of the room.

By now I wanted to jump out ofbed, tell Mother I knew there was no Santa Claus and help her find the items, but I was supposed to be asleep! Mother, on all fours, fumbled on the floor, but couldn’t find the obj ects. Undaunted, she left the room and returned with a fresh supply, a new penny and some chocolate money.

Eventually the stocking was filled.

A few minutes later, Mother returned with an armful of neatly-packed gifts, and slowly carried them to the foot of the bed. One of the walnuts was resting in her p^th, and as she placed her foot on it she began to rock backwards and forwards. As she desperately tried to keep her balance I froze in horror. Should I get up and help, or stay silent? While I agonised I watched the top parcel begin to slide and slowly tip to the floor. Mother turned her sightless eyes towards me, and lis-tened.Then each parcel glided to the floor until she was left holding just one. She released one hand from the remaining parcel and held the foot of the bed with the other, before sliding to the floor.

I wanted to get up and comfort her, then I heard her laugh, a tearful laugh at first, which quickly erupted into an uncontrollable chuckle. She put her hand to her mouth and tried to stifle the sounds. Finally she regained her composure, and on all fours began gathering up the presents, which she placed at the foot of the bed.

I said nothing on Christmas morning about the event, and Mother seemed genuinely pleased as I told her that Santa had not forgotten me after all, and had brought me just what I wanted.

The following year she insisted that I left my stocking downstairs on the settee, making the excuse that Santa’s little elf had been in touch again. Santa’s leg was no better, and this year he would find it impossible to climb the stairs. Although the myth of Santa had been shattered,

I still let her think that I believed.

It was many, many years later, when I had children of my own and complained about how long it took them to get to sleep on Christmas Eve, that she shared this story with me. I confessed to my wakefulness and anxiety to help.

She recalled her anger at not being able to fill the stocking because she wanted it to be a special Christmas I would remember.Then, as the parcels began to slide to the floor, she saw the funny side of the situation and began to laugh.

She revealed that secretly she had wished that Santa was real and that the little band of elves she had invented would come and help her find the spilled contents of the stocking. She then saw an image of herself on all fours with a little group of elves dressed in red and green weaving their way around the furniture looking for the nuts, and began to laugh. She also revealed that it wasn’t until the next summer, while giving the bedroom a thorough cleaning, that she finally found all the nuts!

It was a Christmas I certainly shall never forget!

Wendy Hughes.