A tale of three Christmases

J. H. Osborne • Dec 27, 2017 at 2:30 PM

Have you been admonished by a 4-year-old for opening your eyes during prayer? Or been in jail with Santa? Or been caught, literally, with your pants down? I can answer “yes” to all three. If you’re wondering how I can weave these three seemingly disparate things into a single story, read on.

Christmas Day 2016, Raleigh, N.C.

Since Dad died in September 2013, Mom and I have played round-robin with which of my two siblings we visit for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last year was my brother Keith’s family’s turn to host us for Christmas. Keith, his wife, Kim; and middle daughter, Deidre; share a beautiful home in “Stonehenge,” a quiet neighborhood on the northwest side of Raleigh. At Christmas it is festooned inside and (in the backyard) out with both new and vintage decorations. Their other two daughters, Kendra and Anne Catherine, are married and live with their husbands and children in homes not far apart in a neighborhood on the northeast side of the city.

Anne Catherine has Taylor, 10, and Emma Catherine, 21 months. Kendra has Everett, 5 — and the first boy born into my immediate family since I came along in 1962. As we all gathered for a sumptuous Christmas dinner last year, Everett was eager to say the blessing. We all bowed our heads and closed our eyes and he began a beautiful prayer of thanks. It crossed my mind that I had the perfect vantage point from my seat at one end of the table to snap a quick picture of Everett, sitting near the other end, as he said grace with the others’ heads bowed in prayer. It would be just like a Norman Rockwell painting on a vintage Saturday Evening Post.

So, I raised my head slightly, readied my camera in my right hand, eased open my left eye ... and was meet by Everett’s glare of contempt.

“He opened his eyes!,” he bellowed in exasperation, followed by a heavy sigh. “Now I have to start over.” He did (among stifled laughing from all ’round the table). I did not get that picture. I dared not open my eyes or raise my head again until we’d all said “Amen.”

December 23, 2017, Blountville

This past Friday I had an unexpected blessing. I went to jail. With Santa.

Each year since 2001, Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson has dressed up as Santa and distributed gifts to inmates. Media members had been invited to join him and two chaplains in making the rounds and to get there a few minutes early if we wanted to interview Santa/Sheriff Anderson beforehand.

As two television crews sat their cameras up to film the interview, Sheriff Anderson looked at me, my white beard and belly, and asked if I’d ever considered being a Santa. I told him believe it or not, I did play Santa way back when I was so young and slim I had to have a pillow belted around me to look the part. And I told him to remind me later and I’d tell him a funny story about that.

The gifts for inmates are toiletries and snacks donated by local churches. This year Anderson was accompanied by two chaplains, Kent Pugh and Elmo Owens, who spent time in each cell talking about the meaning of Christmas and the wishes church members have that the small gifts would help each inmate know they aren’t alone or forgotten. And in each cell they prayed.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Anderson said during the interview with reporters. “It’s the Christian thing to do.”

The inmates, for the most part, were respectful, most bowing their heads during prayer. Several nodded as the chaplains recounted the meaning of Christmas and prayed. Some teared up a bit. When handed their gift bags, most said “Thank you” or Merry Christmas,” and a few added “God bless.” Again, I wanted to get a photo of heads bowed in prayer. So I opened my eyes and looked up. It hadn’t occurred to me until I did that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to open cell doors and have everyone close their eyes, even in prayer. I saw that the guards who preceded the sheriff, chaplains, other jail staff and me into each cell had slightly bowed heads — but all eyes were open and the guards were fanned out strategically around the room. And I was thankful Everett wasn’t there to call them out.

Twenty-five to 30 minutes into making the rounds, the other media folks had enough and asked to be led back to the exit. I said I wanted to stay. I wanted to witness more. I, too, wanted the inmates to know they are not alone. Or forgotten. I felt honored to be present as they joined in prayer and got what would be their Christmas gifts. I was humbled by their gratitude for items I take for granted.

There were 701 inmates in the jail on Friday — split about 500/200 between the main jail and a nearby, but separate, annex. It took about an hour and 15 minutes for Santa to complete his rounds in the main jail, and I had another assignment, so I didn’t go along to the annex. And I didn’t get to tell Sheriff Anderson about the time I played Santa.

Christmas Eve, 1982, Kingsport

In the early 1980s, my family owned and operated a balloon delivery service. Our staple characters were “Gorilla,” “Balloon Vendor,” “Dr. Feelgood” and “Tuxedo Man.” But at Christmas, my sister Pam came up with some new marketing ideas. We’d offer “Jingle Balloons” (a jingle bell tied to the bottom of each balloon’s ribbon) and “Singing Santa.” And so, my career as a seasonal Santa began.

My sister fashioned a “belly” for me from an oversized pillow and a large belt — the kind with two rows of holes and two hooks. She invested in a store-bought beard, hat and Santa suit with drawstring pants and a faux-fur-trimmed jacket with Velcro closures. For boots? Into the attic for Dad’s 1960s rubber, metal-latched galoshes. They were way loose on me (I think they were intended to be worn over shoes and I wore them alone).

We did not accept orders for delivery on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. But in 1982, a friend of mine and her sister pleaded with me to deliver “Jingle Balloons” to their grandmother’s house for the family get-together. They wanted Santa to bring a balloon for each child expected to be at the party and to ask for Grandma when I got to the front door. They were sure Grandma would be surprised and thrilled and so, too, would the children. They promised a huge tip.

Before our own family Christmas Eve gatherings got into full swing that day, my sister and I prepared the massive balloon bouquet (with extras thrown in should any pops occur en route). She helped me get them into my 1978 LeBaron. At the appointed time, I dressed myself. All my family were off doing things at either my sister’s or my brother’s or our own grandmother’s. I strapped that big pillow on. I put on my pants and jacket. I fixed the beard and hat-with-hair into position. And I put on those ill-fitting galoshes. I drove to a mid-century home in Sevier Terrace — you know, one of those with a giant “picture window.” I could see a huge crowd inside. Some faces looked out in anticipation of Santa's expected arrival.

I got out of the car. I was struck by how the temperature had dropped and was afraid the change might make the balloons begin to pop. I hurriedly got the whole bouquet out of the car and began the trek to the front stoop. It was uphill and across a lawn. I was having a particularly hard time walking in the galoshes. I barely made it up the one step onto the stoop, and as I was about to ring the doorbell, I saw the unmistakable light of an over-the-shoulder VHS video camera come on.

I rang the bell. I heard a commotion inside and multiple voices tellling Grandma it was for her, to open the door for a big surprise. And she did. The light blinded me. But not so badly that I couldn’t tell Grandma was aghast. She covered her mouth. What had seemed like a loud party from outside suddenly seemed quite quiet. For a moment. Then the air was filled with shreiks of laughter (mostly) and fingers began to point in my direction. Children’s eyes were covered by adult hands. The video camera continued to blind. And I noticed all those pointing fingers seemed aimed rather low.

That’s when I looked down, bending a bit to see past my “belly,” and saw my drawstring Santa pants gathered around my ankles. My legs were still cold, but my cheeks became hot as the blood drained from my brain and into my face. In a single move, I shoved the balloons into Grandma’s hands and pulled up my pants, shouting “Merry Christmas” before I ran down off the stoop.

I got to my car and was about to drive off, when my friend and her sister came dashing down the drive. They were laughing, tears rolling down their cheeks. Most of the family thought it was part of the schtick. My huge tip had grown twofold thanks to the mishap.

You know, I’m thinking I’m glad I didn’t have time to tell the sheriff that story. So let’s just keep it between us, OK?

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at josborne@timesnews.net.