Tom Carlin’s Christmas Miracle
By Tom Carlin
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My Christmas miracle happened many years ago in Richmond, Virginia, where I had played Santa Claus for about eight years. In fact, the particular year of my miracle I was awarded first prize as one of the ten best Santa Clauses in the United States.
In the department store where I sat on Santa’s throne, the children filed up and were automatically photographed. As they left, their names and addresses were taken, whether they bought the picture or not.
One particular snowy afternoon about a week before Christmas, business was light due to a near-blizzard outside. Suddenly a young, dirty-faced boy appeared in front of me, wearing shamefully ragged clothes and sneakers with the toes out. In a low, urgent voice he said: “Listen, Santy Claus, I’m bringin’ my little sister up to see you, and I don’t want you to promise her anything, because she’s not gonna get it. There’s no money at our house.”
He left and in a few minutes came back with his little sister. Except for her dirty face and deplorable clothes, she would have looked like a beautiful blonde angel. I picked her up and set her on my lap. The photographer snapped the picture. In my kindest tone I asked, “And what would you like?”
Well, she spieled off a list which included almost everything. You know, when you don’t have anything, you want everything. Coincidentally, one of the store supervisors had come up behind Santa’s throne and stood there listening.
As the little girl slipped from my lap, the attendant wrote down her name and address as usual. She took her brother’s hand, and they hurried out of the store into the blowing snow.
The eavesdropping supervisor was practically in tears because of their pathetic condition. Immediately he spread the word all through the department store. Everyone caught the spirit, and by Christmas Eve every item on that little girl’s wish list was collected—all donations of the store employees.
I couldn’t believe my eyes as I loaded my pack. Of course, Santa had a Snow Princess, who wore an exquisite ball gown, a thin stole, and pink ballet shoes. She wanted to accompany me on this very special delivery of toys and clothes. The store closed at 5:30. Outside it was snowing and was getting dark. We hailed a taxicab. I gave the driver the address, which we had obtained from the record of photos taken.
When we arrived at the address, we discovered that we were in the poorest section of Richmond—worse than a ghetto. We struggled out of the taxi with our load. Even the storm couldn’t eliminate the stench of rotting garbage and stale boiled cabbage.
Our taxi driver said: “Mista, ya’ll might be Santy Claus, but I wouldn’t dare stay in dis section o’ town, dis time o’ night fo’ nobody. I’m not waitin’ even fo’ Santy Claus. No suh!”
“Well,” I replied, “of course, I want to visit with this little girl.” I was feeling uneasy myself. “I imagine we can find a phone—somewhere.”
By this time it was totally dark and was snowing quite heavily. We walked up on the step of the rickety shanty and pounded on the door. Nothing happened. We pounded again—and again. The house was so old it was sort of tilted to one side. A couple of windows were broken. Again we pounded.
Finally the door opened. Inside, silhouetted against the dim light, was a wretched little woman with wild hair. She snarled, “Whatta you want?”
When Santa Claus and the Snow Princess arrive on a front porch on Christmas Eve, laden with brightly colored parcels, it’s an occasion, but she was unimpressed. (I can’t remember our little girl’s name, so I’ll call her Mary Lou Hill for expediency.) I asked, “Is this where the Hills live?”
“Naw! I threw’m out,” she said. “They didn’t pay their rent.” She griped on, then slammed the door in our faces.
By now the snow had developed into a good blizzard, and it was dark. What to do now? Ann, the poor Snow Princess, had soaking feet and was slowly freezing to death because she was still wearing only her light stole. I was dressed in my Santa suit and had no wrap to give her. After all, we hadn’t really planned to be out in the weather.
There wasn’t a street light anywhere in that part of town. I peered anxiously down the dark street. In the distance I could see a light. So we started trudging toward it, bending our bodies against the blowing snow. Suddenly a woman appeared out of the gloom. Instantly I asked her if she knew where the Hills lived.
“Why should I know?” she snapped back, and was swallowed up in the darkness. We kept moving toward the light. Suddenly I felt a tug on my arm. It was the same woman. She said, “I want to apologize. I do know the family. In fact, my name is Hill too, although they’re not related to my husband. The father drinks and—well, they’re not the happiest family in the world.”
We stood chatting for a moment in the cold. She said, “I live right here. Why don’t you come in and get warm, and I’ll call my husband. Perhaps he’ll have some information where they’ve moved to.”
We stepped inside the small house. Surprisingly, it was spotlessly clean. She called her husband. While we waited, grateful for the warmth, she made us a cup of hot chocolate. Finally her husband arrived, but he didn’t know of the whereabouts of Mary Lou’s family.
“What’s the light down the street?” I asked.
“It’s a café-bar,” he replied. “Somebody down there might have some information. You know, bartenders know everything.”
This couple joined us out in the snow and went down to the bar with us. The small place was quite full—probably eight or ten people. When the four of us entered, me in my Santa Claus suit and my pack filled with packages, Ann in her soaked Snow Princess dress (she had now turned blue), and the Hills, we created quite a stir. We inquired about the evicted Hill family.
The bartender said, “Oh yes, I know of the family, all right. I knew they were evicted, but I haven’t got the slightest idea where they moved to.”
I was puzzled and sick to know where to turn next.
A wizened old man made his way to my side and said, “I heard what you wuz talkin’ about. Last week I saw that man drivin’ a truck. Now lemme see. What wuz the name on that truck? I don’t remember too good anymore.” He racked his brain for long moments, sort of mumbling to himself. His eyes suddenly lighted. “Got it! Hart’s! That’s the name on the side of that truck. Hart’s!” (That is also a fictitious name.)
Hart’s happened to be way on the other side of Richmond, down by the river in the warehouse district. It was getting late, and I was feeling desperate.
“Come on. We’ll close the bar and help you find it,” the bartender offered. Everyone pushed outside to their vehicles. There was a rickety old Ford, a pickup truck, and a big car—an ancient Chrysler, I believe. Everyone piled into their cars, and we started off across town to the Hart Company.
The snow was piling up in the streets. If it kept up this way, I might be stranded. Now whoever heard of Santa being stranded in the snow? At last we reached Hart’s. We pounded on the gate of the high chain-link fence which surrounded the property. The night watchman appeared with his flashlight.
I explained our plight. He replied, “There’s not much I can do for you. We hire quite a few part-time people. They’ll work for a week—maybe two. I’m sure their records aren’t kept. But let’s go into the office and see what we can find.”
Everyone piled out and crowded into the office, where it was warmer than waiting in cold cars.
“Here’s the personnel file,” the night watchman said. He searched for a Hill card, but to no avail. “Let me call the man who owns this company. He’s a fine gentleman and lives in Petersburg. I don’t think he’d mind my disturbing him on Christmas Eve to help Santa Claus,” he grinned.
Petersburg is a good 20 or 25 miles from Richmond, but the owner said he’d be right up. We waited about 45 minutes. The roads were slick; traveling was hazardous. My time was running out. At last a sleek gray Cadillac drove up and the owner hurried into the crowded office. I explained our urgent situation.
“Let’s go through the file,” he suggested. After a thorough search, he shook his head. “Nothing here on any Hill.”
As he closed the drawer, it stuck. He pulled it back and found that a sheet of paper had kept it from closing. Believe it or not, that paper was the personnel file of Mary Lou Hill’s father, a file which should have been discarded, but somehow it had slipped under another card. The new address was on the paper.
By this time the owner had been caught up in our project and had telephoned his brother. He arrived with his wife and three children. Our entourage had increased. We all crowded into the waiting cars, five of them: the rickety old Ford, the pickup truck, the ancient Chrysler, the gray Cadillac, and a brand-new Plymouth which belonged to the executive’s brother. It was a strange caravan for Santa. The blizzard hadn’t abated. Precariously we wove our way to the address on the personnel file.
Above the storm and the sound of the motor, chimes rang out occasionally. Richmond is known as the city of bells, and the sonorous sound calmed my agitation. Would we make it on time?
At last we arrived at the address. The home was one of those horrible little grungy dwellings, leaning sideways. Instead of window glass, they simply had put oiled paper in the opening to keep out the cold.
The Snow Princess was in a state of utter collapse. She hung on my arm as we plodded through the deep snow up the path and onto the sagging porch. Everyone else piled out of the cars and huddled in a group. Their voices rose in unison in a spontaneous carol. At the precise moment Santa knocked on the door, it was Christmas morning—12:00 midnight. The tongue of every bell in Richmond was released in one glorious melodic clangor.
The hair on my neck stiffened and the Snow Princess shuddered, not from cold, but from the thrill of that moment. We waited, our misty eyes glued to the door. At last, it opened wide, revealing a beaming Mary Lou. Her smiling face didn’t register surprise—only confident expectation. She simply said, “Hi, Santa Claus, I knew you’d come!”
Unless that now-grown girl, whose name I don’t know, should happen to read this story, she’ll never know the series of miracles that brought the Snow Princess and Santa Claus with a bulging pack to her door many years ago.1
Published on Anchor November 2012. Read by Simon Gregg.
1 Tom Carlin is a popular radio host in Salt Lake City, Utah, and operates Theatre 138. Every year at Christmastime he relates this story on the radio.