The happiest season of the year was Christmas for the Chicago-based Henrikson family. I was the only kid among my friends who could say that I actually saw Santa Claus deliver presents.
Santa made regular appearances decades earlier to another generation of Henrikson and Dixon kids. My dad, Art Henrikson, wrote about these Christmas Eve visits to his Scandinavian grandparents’ home in the 1920’s as follows: “Each year someone would have to go to the store and leave through the front door…minutes later, conversation would lower. I’d hear a tinkle of bells and then a knock on the back door…there was Santa!” In the 1930’s, his younger cousin, Vince Bates, saw Santa at Big Grandma and Big Grandpa’s house a couple of days after Christmas and was amazed: “Of course, he had gifts for all of us, and of course he knew all of us by name, including me!”
The tradition was suspended for a few years until I came along in July 1952. Sure enough, at GreGra’s house on Christmas Day 1953, a jovial, bearded and red-suited man laughed right in my face and I promptly started crying, as home movies recorded. He mysteriously appeared each Christmas Day at GreGra’s house with colorful gifts galore shortly after Dad disappeared to buy 7-Up. I started looking forward to his visits along with my younger cousin, Craig.
Santa was not in a hurry to go down any chimneys by the time we saw him. He had enough time to listen to both of us sing a few Christmas carols, and then he would give us coveted presents to hand out to our parents and grandmothers.
When I was four, I eyed Santa Claus very closely and determined that he looked suspiciously like Dad. (I did not link Dad’s disappearance with Santa’s appearance… yet.) I excitedly told my parents about my discovery. They listened to my concerns intently, and the following year, Santa no longer looked like Dad. Some years Dad’s brother, Vern, would go to the store to get ice cream or soft drinks, and Dad would remain with us at GreGra’s house. Santa arrived like clockwork a few minutes later, eager to hear the latest Christmas carols and give us brightly wrapped presents to hand out.
My 10-year-old next-door neighbor pulled me aside in 1960 and whispered that there was no Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe her since I had seen him with my own eyes my entire life. I quickly ran home and questioned Mom. She must have thought I was ready for the truth at age eight because she confirmed that my neighbor was right. I was crushed, but I wondered how I could keep this secret from Craig and my baby sister Jan, just a year old. On the other hand, it was fun to be “in on it” with Dad. We conspired to plan elaborate ways to continue keeping Santa’s magical visit alive.
GreGra had two more grandchildren, so there were five of us singing for Santa and delivering gifts. One by one, they whispered to me when they found out the truth from others. Eventually, most of us were “in on it” and played along with Santa’s appearances until my sister, Michele, stopped believing.
When Dad learned the truth from classmates in the 1930’s, his dad said that the spirit of Santa could be kept alive in people’s hearts. Dad was a professional cartoonist, so he used his talent to paint Santa’s jovial and colorful image on the glass front door of our ranch-style home in Des Plaines, Illinois. We only had to look at our front door to remind ourselves that Santa would always exist.
It became an annual tradition for family and friends to look forward to Dad’s latest Santa creation on the door. After Dad’s two granddaughters were born, he painted Santa’s image on their windows and glass doors.
Dad finally stopped painting Santa Claus on the door when he was in his 80’s. Instead, he drew a colorful Santa Claus drawing that we can display in our own homes.
We remember fondly the magic of Santa Claus and Dad to this day. Thanks for instilling the spirit of Santa Claus in all of us, Dad.
Diane joined OLLI in 2014 has taken over 70 OLLI courses on literature, writing, history, health and wellness, art, music, language, sociology, technology, theater and genealogy. She proofreads for each new OLLI Course Catalog.