The Great Christmas Caper

© JoAnn Reno Wray

The Christmas of 1959 I was ten. As the first born in our family, I was the instigator of the Great Christmas Caper. Just before Thanksgiving, I got the idea for the caper. I’d get my brothers to help so if things went wrong, I could surely spread the blame around. Of course, that wasn’t exactly how it worked out, but I still remember that adventure vividly.

My plan was to catch Santa in the act of delivering our gifts and make sure he got everyone what they really wanted. I recruited my brothers, seven-year-old Dale and Jackie, age 4, as my “assistants.” Jimmy was just a baby so of no use in this plan. We’d get out of bed in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve to catch Santa in the act and set him straight on each gift.

This would be difficult since the tree was always placed in Mom and Dad’s bedroom framed in the bay windows at the front of the house. We’d have to be extra quiet, maybe not breathe for a while to get in there safely.

Last year I’d received several gifts not on my list that I really didn’t like. I decided it was up to me to make sure Santa didn’t give the wrong gifts to our family.

For some strange reason, my brothers didn’t seem convinced I knew what I was doing. This reaction was probably based on past times when they followed me in other schemes. But by promising to do Dale’s chores for a week and playing Go Fish on demand with Jackie, they agreed.

I thought for hours about how to get from my room into Mom and Dad’s on Christmas Eve without waking them. I even practiced by myself before the big night. Finally, about a week before Christmas I revealed the details to Dale and Jackie, making them promise, or get painful bops from me, that they wouldn’t tell a soul.

That promised silence didn’t last long. A few days before Christmas Mom took us to visit Santa at Murphey’s 5¢ & 10¢ Store. The boys nearly spilled my plan to the world. Dale sat on one of Santa’s knees, Jackie on the other. I stood close and almost melted through the floor when I heard Dale say, “We’re gonna get up Christmas Eve and catch you! We wanna make sure you get the presents right!”

Jackie, wary of Santa’s white whiskers, leaned way back, but managed to add, “Yeah!” Then he promptly fell onto his noggin and, boy oh boy, did the screams start. He sounded like someone had thrown him to the bottom of a coal mine. I could have gladly done so myself. I leaned down to discover he didn’t even have a bump on his head. I tried to pick him up, but his mittened hands pummel my nose as he whined, “I want Mommy!”

Fortunately for my plan, Mom had been standing outside the red velvet ropes around Santa’s throne so the noise level of excited kids in line drowned out Dale’s confession. But when she heard Jackie’s squalls she gained super powers, jumping clean over the rope to get to him. Before Santa could whip out a consoling candy cane, she had Jackie in her arms, telling him, “You’re fine. Now be a good boy. Sh-h-h!” Jackie wiped his nose with the back of one mitten, sniffing loudly. Santa extended the candy canes to us. Jackie grabbed his, gave a grin, then promptly started hiccuping – something he did whenever he got excited.

As we left the store, I realized I didn’t get my turn to tell Santa what I wanted. I’d probably end up with nothing but a bag of underpants or socks! I pulled on the back of Mom’s coat. “Mom! I didn’t tell Santa what I want! Can I go back? Please?”

Mom was in no mood to stand in line again. “No, JoAnn. Write him a letter tonight. Daddy will mail it tomorrow. It’s getting late – almost time for bed. You and Dale have school tomorrow.”

I slumped, dragging my feet, and looked back over my shoulder at Santa. No wonder I want to try to catch him Christmas Eve, I thought. Someone has to make sure that we get good stuff.

Soon it was Christmas eve. We went to church and performed in our Sunday School’s play. The sanctuary was scented with pine and citrus wafting from the big tree on the platform and oranges stacked high in baskets to be given to the children. Candles glowed with holy light. When we sang Silent Night, the congregation joining in before dismissal, tears filled my eyes. I thought about baby Jesus in a cold barn laying in the hay. I thought about the wise men and the shepherds  –  how they came looking for God’s gift, His son. Hey, they were looking for a gift too, I realized.

Now I was really determined to get up extra early and catch Santa. After church, Mom gave us cookies and hot cocoa. We sat around the tree awed by the bubble lights that had been added. Dad sat with us, cross-legged, and read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Mom was curled up on the bed, baby Jimmy in her arms. Jackie plopped himself between the story book and Dad’s chest. Dale and I sprawled on our stomachs dressed in pajamas, heads resting on crossed arms. The story finished too quickly, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

“Time to go to bed! Santa won’t come if you’re awake!” Dad shooed Jackie from his lap then gave a grunt as he rose from the hardwood floor. “Time to brush your teeth! And you,” he swiped a finger at my nose, “have a chocolate mustache you better wash off!”

I giggled and ran ahead. Shortly we were all tucked in for the night. The moonlight shone through my window creating a glowing pool on my blanket. I struggled against sleep. This was the night we’d catch Santa! At one point, I crept to the folding door that separated my room from my brothers’ room. Opening it a crack, I peeked in to see if they were asleep, but it was too dark so I tiptoed in. “Dale!” I whispered close to his ear. “Wake up! You can’t sleep! We’ve gotta catch Santa tonight!” Jackie’s even breathing beside Dale told me he was asleep, too.

Dale opened one eye and gave me a sour look. “Whazzat,” he mumbled.

“Santa’s coming soon! We have to catch him putting the presents under the tree to make sure he got ours right!” I reminded in my best big sister voice.

“Okay. Wake me later,” then he promptly went back to sleep.

Back in bed I fumed at their lack of interest. Didn’t he realize how important this was or how exciting it would be to see Santa with his bag of goodies?

After a while I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I closed them, telling myself I just needed to rest a bit. Next thing I knew Mom’s 31-Day Clock was chiming the hour: Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Four o’clock in the morning. I decided to wait a little longer. Soon the clock chimed again, just once, announcing the half hour. Perfect! It was 4:30.

I slid my feet to the cold floor and immediately had second thoughts. I shivered then went to my window to check the sky. Nothing but stars against the clear dark night. Frost decorated the window pane. I drew a star in it with my fingernail. I heard one of the boys shift in bed. Time to go. We’ll catch Santa tonight!

I fished my slipper socks from under the bed and pulled them on. In slow motion I opened the folding door and slipped through to Dale’s bed. “Psst! Dale!” I whispered. “Wake up! It’s time!”

Dale sat up rubbing his eyes. “Did Santa come? What did I get?” he said.

I leaned across Dale and shook Jackie awake. He woke instantly and started jumping on the bed. “No! No jumping!” I hissed. “You’ll wake Mom and Dad! Shhh! Here I’ll help you with your slippers.”

Dale, now fully awake, pulled on his slippers . We stole to the folding door, sliding in soft whooshes across the oak floor.

“Now before I open the door to the kitchen,” I whispered two inches from their faces, “remember, no talking! Breathe soft. Don’t bump anything. Walk real quiet and slow!” The boys, eyes wide as plates reflecting my own, nodded solemnly. “Okay. Here we go!” I said.

My bedroom door always creaked when opened fast. That night I pulled the door so slowly a fresh coat of paint could have dried before it opened two feet. Finally, we stepped onto the kitchen’s linoleum floor. Our slippers with their plastic bottoms seemed as loud as a jet breaking the sound barrier. We took three steps, then stopped, leaning forward, straining to hear any telltale sounds that Mom and Dad were rousing or the sound of Santa’s jingle bells.

By the time we reached Mom and Dad’s open bedroom door off the living room, about twenty minutes passed. We stood pressed against the wall to one side of the door. I looked out the front window to see the streetlight shining off snow-covered ground. Barely breathing, we crouched low. I cupped my hands around Dale’s ear, whispering instructions then repeated them in Jackie’s ear. “I’ll crawl to the other side of the door. When I raise my hand, then drop it, we’ll all crawl to the tree very slowly.” Both boys nodded and got on all fours.

Just then Mom rolled over in bed and grunted. We froze, waiting to be caught. Soon we knew she was asleep again. “Puff! Puff! Puff!” She pushed little bursts of air out her lips instead of snoring. It always cracked us up. I pressed my lips together, pinching my arm to stop my laughter. Dale pressed his hand over his mouth and held his breath, cheeks puffing out.

Jackie snorted a giggle, but Dale quickly pinched his nose to stop him.

I peeked around the door jamb and spied the tree. Icicles glittered in the dim light. Dark mounds I couldn’t make out surrounded the tree. I nodded my head at Dale, then taking a deep breath, crawled to the other side of the door. My heart pounded so hard I thought everyone could hear it. Hands shaking, I peeked around the door again. Dad and Mom were sleeping soundly it seemed.

I waited a few minutes. Then raising my hand I looked at Dale and Jackie to make sure they were watching. I waited, listening hard for any sounds. Finally, I dropped my hand. All three of us began to crawl through the door, the tree in sight.

We’d only moved a foot into the room when Dad let out a loud growl, then shouted, “What do you three think you are doing? Why are you out of bed?”

I jumped, shrieking at the top of my lungs. Dale and Jackie yelled and hightailed it towards their bedroom. I scooted backwards on all fours out of the room, like a dyslexic crab. The bedside light clicked on and Dad sat up. Mom had her head under the covers and it sounded strangely like she was trying not to laugh.

“Boys! JoAnn! Get in here – now!” Dad ordered. My bottom hit the floor in defeat. I sighed, then rose and walked to the end of my parent’s bed, head hanging. Dale and Jackie shuffled up behind me. “You three look at me,” Dad ordered. So we stood still, mutely waiting punishment.

“It was her idea,” Dale blabbed. “She planned it so we’d catch Santa and make sure he gave us the right presents,” he confessed. I shot eyeball daggers at him.

Dad swiped a hand over his stubbled chin and looked at Mom. “Well, Momma, what should we do with children like this? Maybe they shouldn’t have Christmas at all.” He glowered at me for a long minute, then said, “I do believe Santa was already here so I guess you’re too late. Now what should we do about your plan and you being up so late?”

I shook my head, miserable over my failure. Surely there were no gifts under the tree for me. A tear ran down my cheek. Dale and Jackie started sobbing.

“I think that Santa will forgive them,” Mom said. “We’re all up now. Maybe we can take a peek at what he brought.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. We could see our presents? At this hour? Even if I’d done something wrong? Dad told us to wait right there with our backs to the tree and not look until he got Jimmy and the camera. Oh what agony! Five minutes seemed like five hours.

“Okay, on the count of three, you can turn around,” Dad announced. “One. Two. Three!”

We whipped around and gasped. Piles of unwrapped, tagged gifts surrounded the tree. I spied a Betsy McCall doll with her tiny clothing and let out a squeal of delight. There were games, balls, coloring books, crayons, Lincoln Logs, a red wagon, other toys, and new pajamas. After each gift was o-ohed and ah-hed over, Mom made breakfast. We kids soon wound down and were napping by 10:00 a.m. After Mom put Christmas dinner in the oven, she and Dad grabbed a few winks themselves.

As Christmas comes once more,  I still feel the anticipation of that night. Waiting, barely breathing, sitting just outside my parent’s door with my brothers. I creep towards the day, hoping, praying that I will find the best gift waiting for me.

And He always is – every Christmas and every day.

May your Christmas be entirely blessed and filled with God’s joy and peace!