The Year Santa Became Real

In this very special edition of Retro Ramblings, I’m sharing a story from my childhood about a Christmas unlike any other I had known before it. It was a Christmas that changed my outlook on the holiday, and as you’ll read, recent events made that particular season all the more special.


19835 years old…I have no real memories of Christmas that year other than my Grandfather passing away in the first week of December.

19846 years old…Show and Tell on the first day back to school after Christmas break. I took a little plastic trumpet, silver in color, to school…..and I was so proud of it. Several other kids teased me wondering if that was the best thing I had gotten for Christmas.

19857 years old…I had gotten a set of 12 toy cars for Christmas. Not Hot Wheels or Matchbox, but a generic version of them. There was a police car, a wrecker, some race cars, and various other cars and trucks. I wore them out that winter and spring I played with them so much.


By the fall of 1986, my thoughts were starting to turn to the coming Christmas season, and anticipation was starting to build for the holiday. The hope of children isn’t easily pushed to the side, but back in those days, I would be lying if I said that Christmas didn’t feel a little lacking.

Admittedly, I personally never felt slighted on Christmas morning. Whatever was under the tree from Santa Claus always left a lasting impression on me, even if I sometimes felt the little internal tug of wanting a little bit more. But when I would return to school, and see and hear about all the cool things my friends and others had gotten for Christmas, I would get a little jealous.

I was a good kid. I never caused trouble at school, and I definitely knew better than to cause trouble at home. I did my chores and I ate my vegetables, so why did I seem to be farther down Santa’s Nice list than some of the other kids? “Jonathon pushed Samantha down and hurt her arm”, “why did he get a huge Lego set and I only got a trumpet?”. “Zach punched me in the arm all year…hard.” “Why did he get a cool G.I. Joe HISS Tank and all the Dreadnoks figures and I ended up with a set of cars?” Such are the worrisome ponderings and questions of a kid who is not aware of all the comings and goings of adulthood.

What I didn’t know or understand back then, and actually I’m still learning and gaining a greater perspective on now, is that times were very tough for my family in the early eighties. My Dad was a self-employed businessman. He bought and sold new and used conveyor belts to coal mines, and as the coal business went, so did my family’s financial well-being.

1983 was a very tough year. My Grandfather’s alcohol addiction was in the last stages of consuming his life, and my Dad spent more time helping my Grandmother, both emotionally AND financially, than he did with the business. The first week of December, my Grandfather passed away. Christmas was lean due to dealing with the emotional struggles of losing someone close, and the fact that so much time had been spent away from the business.

1984 came along, and so did the large-scale United Mine Workers of America strike in West Virginia…..primarily against the A.T. Massey Coal Companies and subsidiaries. West Virginia was always the breadbasket of my Dad’s business. When strikes occurred, it crippled his business and our financial well-being for quite some time, and unfortunately, this strike would not be over quickly.

1985 came, and the strike was still on. It wasn’t resolved until late in the year. Too late for lost income to be made up. Several straight years of lean and underwhelming visits from Santa Claus were wearing on my faith in the man.

But then came 1986. The strike had been resolved, and with the mines back in full-time operation, orders poured in from all sides. It was a VERY good year. Not so coincidentally, Santa seemed to fill his sleigh completely just for my family. I guess he was making up for lost time.

That year, I can vividly remember more cakes and candies and goodies being around than any other. While I was pleased by gifts from previous Christmas days, I was totally blown away on that Christmas morning in 1986! The Cobra Terror Drome! The G.I. Joe Tomahawk Helicopter! Tomax & Zamot 2 pack! Grizzlor figure! The Hot Wheels Snake Mountain Challenge Race Track Set! Tonka Steel Monsters Truck! A huge Construx set! A G.I. Joe VHS Tape! Holy Cow!!!

It was like Santa Claus was issuing a huge “I’m sorry” for the previous couple of years, and making it up all in one day. And it wasn’t just me. My brother got a see-thru V8 engine kit, and some other cool stuff. My Mom got our family’s first microwave, a new bed coat, new shoes, a new Aigner purse, and a new Aigner leather coat.

I had always believed in Santa Claus, but 1986 was the year I fully got behind the larger-than-life man. He had come through in a big way and left memories of what was my favorite Christmas season for years….pretty much up until I had kids of my own. I went to school strutting with excitement in anticipation of telling all of my friends what I had gotten for Christmas. I was simply overjoyed.

The years rolled by, and one Christmas after another was really good, but none reached the heights of triumph that 1986 had. It really wasn’t until my later teen years that I learned and thought I finally understood why 1986 had been so magical. The stories I recounted at the beginning of this article came up in conversation every so often. How the early eighties were a really tight time for my family with the business swings and family issues and all. In 1986, my Dad’s business hit its zenith, and he was finally able to give his family the Christmas he had wanted to through those prior years.

Well, that’s it. I was 19 years old, and I had heard the tales and understood why those early Christmas mornings were less than stellar. End of story, have a Merry Christmas.

See, this is how the story has been left and told for the last 16 years of my life. I learned the truth, thought it was cool that when my Dad finally had the chance, he went overboard on us for Christmas, but for all these years, there are other details that he had left out that I didn’t learn until just 3 months ago. Bear with me while I finish this tale.

Where I currently work, there are several people from throughout the community that also ply their trade here. One of the fellows whom I’ll call James so as to keep his identity private, served with my Dad in those early 80’s years in the local Volunteer Fire Department. James and I would sit around during break periods and talk about those old days. Somehow one evening, the conversation turned to Christmas and other holidays. I recounted an abbreviated version of the events above and explained to James how my Dad had finally had a good year and turned into Santa Claus overnight and threw a big Christmas in ’86. James then proceeded to enlighten me to some details I had never been privy to before.

He said that “Santa” was a heck of a man, and just because I may not have gotten a lot of toys and such those years, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t much to go around, it just meant that there were more gifts being given to some folks who maybe needed it a little more than I did.

He piqued my interest and we continued talking and he opened my eyes to so much about those years. He reminded me of the Christmas parties that the Fire Department would host every year. He reminded me that every kid there got a new toy. He said that in those years when the fundraising for the party came in below what was needed, it was my Dad who donated the rest to make sure that every needy child in town got something there and went home happy.

He told me that when the town’s Christmas decorations that were hung from the light poles in town fell apart and needed to be replaced before the holiday season, it was my Dad who went and got a loan against his business to buy them so the town would still have decorations up for the Christmas season, not just that year, but for years to come.

And without any hesitation or embarrassment whatsoever, he told me that there was a year in there that he (James) had had a very rough year financially, and was in a real bind coming up on the holidays. My Dad could sense it, and went to James and asked him if he had the money to give his kids a nice Christmas. James told him that, no, probably not. He said my Dad gave him money to buy his three kids presents. He also bought him a ham and some other food for a Christmas dinner, and that my Dad and my uncle cut and delivered him two loads of firewood to see that he got through the season with heat for his family. He told a few other stories in the same vein of my Dad helping people through the holidays.

I need to tell you right now, I shed a tear listening to James tell me all of these things. For those years as a kid, I may have been selfish and wished for more than I had gotten. As I grew older, I thought I learned the truth and thought my Dad was really cool for making that year of ’86 extra special. But now, all these years later, I learned the rest of the story. I learned that even though I doubted the validity of Santa Claus being real, he IS most definitely alive and well. I learned that the real Santa is a hard-working man who wants the best for his family, but he is also a caring and kind man to everyone else too. He is a humble man, as he never felt the need to talk about all these things he did for people.  And I’m sure that the spirit of Santa Claus lives in many more men than just my own Dad.  

Through these experiences, he has taught me to care for others, and he has taught me love. Heck, all the things I mentioned in the article I wrote last Christmas about all the great things my Dad gave us each year were inspired by the Christmas of ’86, and at the time of writing, I had no idea just how far-reaching his Christmas spirit carried.  

It may have taken 37 years now to learn the lesson to this degree, but I go into this coming Christmas season with a newfound outlook and a new attitude. I hope you get something from this story to take with you, and I hope THIS is the most wonderful and magical Christmas of your years.

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