Yes, there is a Santa Claus, and he’s at Kaufmann’s Department Store in downtown Pittsburgh. He is the real Santa Claus. The others you see are just helping him. This was my firm belief that I passed on to my brothers, Dave (6) and Bill (3).
It’s December 1941, and although the United States is at war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, my brothers and I were looking forward to Christmas and our annual trip to see Santa. I was staunch in my belief and had convinced Dave and Bill that we were going to see the real Santa, who held sway on the 8th floor of Kaufmann’s downtown store. The experience and wisdom of my 8 years gave me the assurance of making such a bold statement.
Grandma and Mom gathered the three of us as we walked to the 87 Ardmore trolley, which stopped right in front of our house on Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg. Half an hour or so later we were on Fifth Avenue and heading for Kaufmann’s, guided by the view of the famous clock on the corner of the store. Walking into the store, we were dazed by the sights, sounds and aromas of the various counters welcoming us into a lively fairyland of Christmas music, the buzz of shoppers’ voices, the smell of fresh-baked cookies, and people moving quickly through the aisles as they approached their next destinations.
Although the first floor was fantastic in its own way, it revealed no interest for us. We had a more important goal—going to visit Santa Claus and whispering our Christmas wishes into his ear. As we approached the bank of elevators, I began feeling excited and a bit tense and edgy. Would we need to stand in a long line? Should I stand when I talked to Santa, or sit on his lap? Part of me felt “too old” to sit on Santa’s lap, although I still sat on Grandma’s lap. Walking onto the elevator, we were greeted by the uniformed elevator operator who made sure the adults on the elevator did not crowd us.
When we arrived at our destination floor, the operator told us to be sure to behave for Santa. I responded with a bashful smile. Walking off the elevator we entered a wonderland at least ten times more delightful than the glory of the first floor. Subdued lighting, oodles of decorated Christmas trees, elves in red and green elf garb, and toys galore—an overwhelming feast for all my senses. Mom took us to the back of the line, and told me to watch Dave and Bill as we waited our turns. She then joined Grandma behind the rope where other adults were standing. As we stood in line awaiting our turn to talk to Santa, I whispered to Dave and Bill that they could go ahead of me. I probably told them that, as the youngest, Bill should go first and I would go last. Even then I was bossy with them.
After Dave and Bill talked to Santa, my turn finally arrived and I was standing in front of Santa and voicing my requests for Christmas gifts. The toy I remember asking for—and receiving—that Christmas was a “doll that walks.” Mom was somewhat surprised as I had never expressed any interest in playing with dolls. I did play with that doll, which I named Nanette.
After the “stomach-dropping” descent of the elevator to the main floor, we walked around the outside of the store to see the Christmas windows. That was a favorite part of our Christmas tradition of going to Kaufmann’s to see Santa. The windows held animated scenes of people and animals, toys, ice skating, Santa’s workshop. Every year it was something different and always exciting to children and adults alike. Traveling home on the trolley, I replayed in my mind all that had happened that December day, storing up the memories for later recall.
Two Christmases later, I learned who the “real” Santa is. Mom and Dad sort of led me to “discover” that truth for myself. Part of the allure of that truth was that I became a Santa’s helper to assist with Christmas Eve preparations after Dave and Bill had gone to bed. Since I was a very responsible child from an early age, Mom played into my strengths at the same time she was helping me appreciate being part of the “real” Santa.
As a parent, I approached Christmas and Santa traditions as I had experienced them. I also recognized the love and wisdom my mother had used in helping me learn truths in a way appropriate for my age and personality.