Originally published December 24, 2012
It was the morning of Christmas Eve and once again it didn’t feel like Christmas.
It had been years since I last celebrated Christmas – but I remember it well. It was in 1983 at my Mom & Dad’s place in Midland, Ontario. My family always got together to celebrate Christmas at my parent’s place – but I had missed the last couple of Christmases because I was living in Vancouver. My Dad came to the Toronto airport to pick me up – I had yet to see their new home in Midland – but I was more excited about seeing my Mom and brothers and sisters and my niece and nephew. That’s what Christmas was all about to the St. Andrews family – being together and enjoying our own special traditions. Some of those traditions included arriving on Christmas Eve and spending the night – so we could all get up together – just like when we were all growing up at our home in Oshawa and then later in Georgetown.
At my parents home in Georgetown, my Dad had built a wonderful bar in the rec room and he would wear a Christmas hat while he served drinks from his perch on a stool – behind the bar – which he considered “sacred” ground. You NEVER went behind the bar when Dad was on duty – the words “self-serve” did not exist in his bar. So as we arrived on Christmas Eve, the first thing you heard when you entered their house was the laughter and shouting from downstairs. A few hugs and kisses with Mom and then you would head downstairs to reunite with the clan.
Early on Christmas morning – probably no later than 6:00AM, my Dad would be the first one to awake and ready to act as Santa. We would all gather around the Christmas Tree in the family room and my Dad would give each person one gift to open – beginning with my Mom. Everyone would watch quietly as each person opened their gift – and then there would be loud outbursts of “oooo’s and ahhhhhh’s”. My brothers, sisters and I would then prepare a large breakfast for everyone – and let Mom have the day off from the kitchen. Immediately after breakfast we would all gather at the Christmas Tree and continue to open all the gifts. About mid-morning, Dad would announce that the bar was open. Later, Mom would bring a platter of Scotch Eggs for us to snack on. And then about mid-afternoon we would all gather in the dining room for a sumptuous turkey dinner. Later, my brother-in-law Brian – a professional photographer, would get everyone together for a family portrait – which we would all receive framed copies. Then some of us would start to leave to go to our respective homes – which always made my Mom cry. She was happiest when she had everyone of us together – as a family – and always pleaded with us – “Do you have to go so soon?”
So, on this morning of Christmas Eve, I was having a coffee and looking at one of those family portraits – and I got homesick. Homesick because I missed my Mom and Dad – and family – and those magical Christmases we shared together. And I missed not having that special feeling that I used to get every year – at Christmas. Two years ago, I went to Costco and bought a ton of outdoor Christmas lights – and decorated all of the hedges, evergreens and fence – I had just finished my cancer treatments and didn’t know how many more Christmases I would be around for – and desperately hoping that the lights would bring back that special Christmas feeling. But it didn’t.
Last week I wrote a blog about buying a complete Santa Claus outfit – so I could visit all of the patients at the Fraser Valley Cancer Centre – where I was treated – and where I have been volunteering every week for the past 16 months. And as I made my way through the various clinics – almost all of the patients eyes would light up with excitement. I was hearing voices from all sides – things like: “Hi Santa!” and “Merry Christmas Santa” and “Hey Santa, can we get a picture of you with us?” Within five minutes that special feeling returned – and I was a kid again. I didn’t rush home and decorate the house with lights though; in fact, within hours of leaving the Cancer Centre I lost the feeling – which made me really sad.
So on the morning of Christmas Eve, I decided to get dressed as Santa Claus, again – and go to the Cancer Centre and to Surrey Memorial Hospital. As soon as I walked into the hospital lobby a woman ran up to me, pleading, “Oh Santa, could I get a picture with you and my Mom?” I said “Sure – Ho, Ho Ho!” The mother slowly walked up to me – she was in her patient gown and was wearing a Christmas hat. I gave her a hug and was posing with her for the picture – when her daughter suddenly said “Mom, why are you crying?” Before the mother could answer, I squeezed her closer to me and asked her why she was crying. She stared up at me and with tears rolling down her cheek, she cried, “Because I never thought I would ever meet Santa Claus!” I kissed her on the cheek and whispered into her ear “I will always be with you”.
I toured the Cancer Centre and then walked down the hall to the adjoining Surrey Memorial Hospital and took the elevator up to 51 North – the Oncology Floor. I had been a patient there several times during my cancer treatments – when I was at my lowest point. I walked into each of the patients’ room and wished them all a Happy Holiday. On my way back to the elevator, I noticed a Palliative Care sign over the entrance to another wing of the floor. “This is where the very sick and/or terminally ill patients are”, I thought to myself. I walked into the ward and all of the medical staff were surprised to see Santa. After posing for several photos I asked if it would be okay to say hello to the patients. They replied in unison “Of course you can – you’re Santa Claus!”
I made my way around the ward; entering each of the rooms and then holding the hand of each of the patients. I didn’t know what to say but what suddenly burst out of my mouth was “I know that you’ve always believed in me, and I just wanted to drop by to say hello”. One patient – an older man – was wearing a Christmas hat and said that he had awoke that morning excited with the hope that maybe a friend or family member might drop by for a visit. But none had – until Santa Claus. He held my hand for the longest time and just stared at me and then muttered “Thank you Santa – Merry Christmas”. I turned to leave his room – my eyes were filling with tears and I didn’t want him to see me cry. After all, he believed in Santa Claus.
And now so do I.
Tune selection: Please Come Home For Christmas ~ The Eagles