I was on my way to the kitchen when my sister’s voice stopped me.
“Santa Claus will never find us,” Catherine said. Her back was to me, but I knew she was pouting from her tone. “He can’t get into our house even if he did either.”
I half-hid against the wall and peeked into the room. My mother kept washing the breakfast dishes. Cat stood behind her, head down, arms around her middle like she was holding in tears. Even at five years old, she was a master of drama. I think it came from the year before when she spent Christmas in the hospital with pneumonia. We almost lost her then, so now we treated her like a precious jewel.
My mother finally turned her head without stopping her scrubbing and asked, “Why do you think so, m’ija?”
“No lights outside,” she pointed out. “And no chimney. He comes in through people’s fireplaces. We don’t have a fireplace.”
“Santo Clos is like the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. He can come and go like they do without us seeing him. He’ll find our house. You’ll see.”
Cat moved closer to the back door, so I could see her now. From the pensive look on her face, I could tell the explanation gave her pause. Since the aunts and uncles would deliver their presents for us a few days before Christmas, I knew where those came from. I figured my parents took care of the ones which proclaimed on bright-colored labels they were from “Santa Claus.” I never stopped to think what Cat thought. How does a younger mind operate anyway? She probably didn’t have memories of the Christmases before last year either. I was twelve; I didn’t remember how I thought at her age. I don’t remember when I stopped believing in Santa or the others. I just knew I believed and then I didn’t. Except for Santa, that is, in a different way. And only because he was Santo Nicolas, a saint. I associated him with the angels and saints of my religion; he was capable of entering our hearts spiritually. I accepted this because of my faith. I didn’t need to know the whys and the hows.
Cat didn’t let up on her quest for answers. “How does he get in?”
“How does the tooth fairy get in?” my mother countered.
Cat knew better than to keep asking, but that didn’t stop her. When Mamá answered questions with questions, it evolved into a cycle none of us had ever broken.
Cat huffed and crossed her arms. “That still doesn’t explain how he’ll find…”
I backed away. The inquisition would continue until my mother’s exasperation wore down, and I didn’t want to be around since that usually meant I had to take Cat to the park or play dolls with her or something I didn’t want to do. I tiptoed to my room and grabbed my jacket and gloves. I put them on first and took care to make no noise getting out the front door. I stood on the porch and found my hat in my pocket. After I jammed it down over my ears, I grabbed the snow shovel leaning against the railing. It was winter break, and I had the whole day in front of me. I figured I’d see if I could make some Christmas money. On my walk down the block in search of any sidewalks needing shoveling, the niggling thought that I should do something to keep my sister believing in Santa Claus and assuring her he’d find our house wouldn’t leave my mind. She was right, after all. We had no outside lights and no chimney.
The day was sunny but cold, blue skies with no clouds over the town though there was a tapanco, a front of slow-moving moisture-filled clouds over the distant mountains. We were supposed to get more snow up until Christmas Eve. I could see to the left of me the houses which were my destination. I learned early on that we were different than those people who lived in them. They were more like the ones I saw on TV. Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, and so many other shows took place in the kinds of houses on the rich side of town, not where we lived. Those houses had brick chimneys, the better to accommodate the portly Saint Nick. Ours had chiflones connected to our wood stoves and heaters. The black pipes jutting from our roofs were too narrow for him.
I never thought to question why books, magazines, or movies showed him entering only through fireplace chimneys or leaving gifts in living rooms that looked nothing like any on my block. No wonder Cat had her doubts. Christmas was a few days away, and I needed a plan. My friend Willie was just leaving his house when I passed.
“Hey,” I held up the shovel. “Wanna see if we can make some money?”
“Good idea,” he said. I followed him around back to the catch-all shed, and we cut through the alley to those houses that had chimneys. We shoveled snow for free on our block since we knew no one there could pay. On those jobs, we did get plenty of bizcochitos and empanaditas to share with our families though. Those were more special than dinero. But the cookies and sweetmeat pastries didn’t last longer than it took to hand them out after dinner.
Our shoulders hunched against the cold, we stomped through about five inches of snow that had fallen the night before until we got to the first of the brick and stone houses. The block where Willie and I lived consisted of modest adobe casas of one story, rooms connected directly with no hallways since it was more cost-effective to simply attach a room as the family grew. These blocks had huge houses of two to four stories. I couldn’t begin to imagine the types of rooms they had, much less why one family would need so many.
We cleared several walkways for people who looked down from the tops of their porch stairs or stepped just outside their elaborate front doors to drop nickels and dimes into our hands. Both Willie and I grinned and told them “Merry Christmas” as we left their yards, grateful for good people who had the means to help us with our holiday shopping. We were getting closer to the town center where the stores were located when I figured I’d share my problem with Willie. My little sister and his were best friends. He’d help me figure how to get Santa to find our houses for both of them.
Between shoveling where our customers asked and drinking from hot cocoas a few of them set out with cookies or candy canes for us, we cleared another driveway and a front walkway before I thought of a plan. After I told Willie, I finished, “You think it’ll work?”
“Why wouldn’t it?” he asked. He stood the shovel in the nearest snowbank and went for a drink. His answer with a question reminded me of my mother’s roundabout reasoning. He clarified, “It’ll attract his attention, and he’ll know kids are waiting.”
I blinked and joined him. We had set our cups on a brick wall for easy access to keep warm between shovelfuls. “I can’t believe you’re talking about Santa like he’s real.”
“You gotta keep him real, Rafe—at all times,” Willie said, surprising me some more. “You keep Santa and the elves and everything else she believes in real for Cat as long as you can. That’s what I do with Jojo. You make her remember. I’ll bet you don’t remember when you stopped believing.”
I blinked again. I had just reminded myself of the fact a little while ago. Keeping up the pretense would keep my belief alive. Willie, only two years older than I, sometimes amazed me with his insight. I said, “If that’s the case, no wonder all these folks around here spend money on lights and decorations. They figured out before we did how to get Santa to find them. It’s our turn.”
Willie finished off his cocoa and added, “Uh huh. We need a team though. We can use the party line and get the word out. It’ll be up to the guys to buy in or not.”
That was how our little gang from First Street operated. An idea from one sparked a project for all of us, usually with positive results. But this time, it was all for Catherine and for the other little kids from the neighborhood. Every afternoon after shoveling, we got together to pool our money and walked the few blocks to Newberry’s or Woolworth’s to buy what we needed. Word spread, and the girls joined in. After all, most had little siblings, too. Baking bizcochitos and selling them at store fronts with vendors’ permission, they contributed to the pot. Two days before Christmas, we were ready.
We waited until that day to carry out our enterprise. My buddy, Georgie, had asked his uncle if we could use some sand from a pile in his yard. He had added a bathroom to keep his wife happy and had a good mound covered with a tarp left over. In exchange for chopping the outhouse into firewood and covering the hole, we got all the sand we wanted. We commandeered shovels from our fathers and spent the day filling small brown paper bags half full of sand. The girls were in charge of inserting a small candle in each sand pile. The sacks numbered a few hundred at least by the time dusk fell. Little brothers’ Radio Flyer wagons and fathers’ wheelbarrows were borrowed for the cargo even though moving through snow required a couple of shovelers clearing paths for the pullers and pushers. Kids whose dads had outdoor sheds or garages took everything home for the night.
Christmas Eve dawned overcast and even colder than the days before. Around noon, all us kids gathered in the middle of the block, some going up and others down with arms full of paper lanterns until our comings and goings attracted the attention of the adults. Most had already heard about our plan. Despite the bitter cold that reddened cheeks and numbed fingertips and toes through layers of clothing, many came out to watch or to help with the placement of those little sacks in front of their houses. Before long, we had farolitos set and ready to illuminate the entire block after supper for Santa to see from his sleigh. There would be no way for him to miss seeing our block. A few of us created luminarias in front of our houses for good measure. The stacks of wood, towering about four feet high, would burn for a long time before they went out.
The “brrr, let’s go homes” and the “see ya laters” shouted through vapor trails from the crisp winter air preceded our departure. We crunched through the now frozen snow to our homes where wood stoves and heaters blasted the warmth we all needed by then to defrost. I had barely gotten my toes toasty when I glanced outside and saw the first of the large flakes falling like globs of cotton candy.
“Oh, no!” I went to the front window and groaned. “Oh, Mamá, Santo Clos won’t find us now.” As if there was something she could do. Wait—there might be. “Mamá, quick. Can’t you do cortando las nubes?”
I had seen on several occasions how my mother stopped bad storms by performing a traditional ritual called cutting the clouds. With faith, surely she could do it again.
“It doesn’t work that way, Raphael,” she told me. She didn’t even look up from her crocheting. “This storm is not a threat, it’s a blessing. You don’t ward off a bendición.”
I spent the next hour pacing between the fogón with the blazing flames and the window with the frosty edging that looked like snowflake doilies. Going from warm to chilly in an oval path, I was too preoccupied with potential failure to notice when the snow stopped falling. I cheered when it did though, earning my mother’s exasperated look for exciting Cat. So far, we had kept her from the windows by making God’s eye ornaments with her. I would’ve rushed outside to scrape the snow out of the bags, but dinner was ready. My father, set in his daily routine even on special occasions, needed his supper at six. Close to seven, I made my escape through the back door. Turning on a flashlight, I found Ray, Emily, and Rosabel standing with a wagon filled with candles.
“We were afraid snow would ruin the plan,” Emily explained, transferring two mitten-covered hands full of candles into my gloved hands. “Here’s enough for you.” When we finish, my dad will flash his truck lights from our house. That’s the signal for everyone to light their farolitos, ’kay?”
“You guys are the best,” I said, feeling awkward that I didn’t know yet how to respond to girls without embarrassing myself. My grateful heart filled with some other emotion I didn’t quite understand. A sudden watering in my eyes took me by surprise. Was I about to cry? I blinked, cleared my throat, and took a step toward the front yard. “C’mon,” I prompted, and they fell in line with me. They moved on to the next house as I stuck the candles into my pockets. I scooped out the fresh snow from inside the bags before placing a candle in each. Since it was freezing, I helped vecinos and amigos get their lanterns ready. I took a moment to look around.
Flashlights bobbed up and down that street, accompanied by excited shouts and laughter from one end to the other. So many neighbors and friends braved the cold to keep Santa alive for Cat and the other kids that my heart filled again. Watching them made me realize those people in the big houses might not be as rich as we were in so many other ways.
It was pretty dark when the flashing lights in front of Emily’s started more parked vehicles blinking their headlights. Honking supplied an audible signal to the visual until the street turned into a crescendo of whoops and yells from the front of every house. Those still inside rushed outside to see the parallel lines of farolitos lighting the way for Santa.
Behind me, I heard Cat’s squeal and my mother’s explanation that Santo Clos would surely find us all. Happy tears came back into my eyes, pooled over, and ran down my already frozen cheeks as I watched my baby sister rush into the street and whirl in a wide circle, arms spread wide, shouting her joy in acknowledgment of the wondrous moment. It was like one of those Hollywood movies, and for a moment I expected the entire block of people I’d known all my life to break into song and dance in the street.
But the bitter cold drove us back into our living rooms and our fogones. Shouts of “Felíz Navidad” and “Merry Christmas” rang out, uniting us all in our effort to ensure little Catherine and all the children up and down that block would believe Santa Claus would find them after all.
DECEMBER 2021 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Carmen Baca retired in 2014 from teaching high school and college English for thirty-six years. Her command of English and use of her regional Spanish dialect contribute to her story-telling style. Her debut novel El Hermano published in April of 2017 and became a finalist in the NM-AZ book awards program in 2018. Her third book, Cuentos del Cañón, received first place for short story fiction anthology in 2020 from the same program. To date, she has published 6 books and over 60 short works in literary journals, ezines, and anthologies.