This holiday season, I thought I’d do something a little different from the weekly myth bashing (unfortunately, myth busting is copyrighted) and recount a true Christmas story in which the scientific method served me well.
As a junior amateur scientist, I never bought into the whole Santa Claus thing. It seemed odd that any other man caught rummaging through our house, eating our cookies, and leaving unsolicited gifts in our living room would qualify as a suspected sex offender, but for some reason, a bearded gentleman from the Arctic Circle would be given carte blanche. My parents gave up trying to convince me after I rummaged under their bed the week before Christmas, bundled all my presents together in a burlap sack, and stapled a note to it reading “I know“.
I realize now that any other parents would have been rightly creeped out by such behavior, but my mom and dad always seemed to understand me. After that year, we would go shopping for gifts as a family. Since he wasn’t hip to reality, we dropped off my little brother at the grandparents’ house on the way to the mall. But even though I knew where they came from, I could still feel a twinge of excitement over every chemistry set, Nerf rocket, or Lego spaceship that I knew I wouldn’t be able to tear into until the big day.
My mother died the summer I turned twelve, and I honestly didn’t even want a Christmas that year. But when my dad came into my bedroom covering my little brother’s ears and asked if I wanted to take a trip downtown, I perked up for the first time in months.
It wasn’t the same. When mom was alive, we’d spend all day browsing through the stores. It didn’t matter how expensive something was or whether we even really wanted it. If it caught our eye, it ended up carried in a plastic bag over my dad’s shoulder. But this year, there just wasn’t the same kind of carefree atmosphere. And it wasn’t just the absence of my mother, though we definitely felt that every time we saw something she might have liked. No, it was the hesitancy I noticed in my dad every time he pulled his wallet out to pay for another present. It was my amateur scientist’s observational skill and rational mind that put the final nail in the Santa myth, and those same virtues told me something here was very wrong. As I watched my dad wince upon signing another credit card receipt, I asked him how much money mom had made at her job. He tried to shrug me off-to pretend he didn’t know what I was talking about-but I wouldn’t let up. I told him I understood if he couldn’t afford presents this year. I asked him to take everything back. He forced a chuckle and told me I was being silly. But we didn’t buy anything else that day. We went home carrying only two nearly empty bags.
I didn’t expect to be woken up so early on Christmas day. After all, what was there for my tired eyes to see under the tree downstairs? Who would want to take a picture of my little brother’s disappointed face? But there was my dad standing over the bed, smiling. He told me to come downstairs quick. He had a surprise. I nearly ran over my little brother as we both scurried down in our pajamas. And there at the foot of the stairs was a stack of luggage. “It’s a special Christmas this year, pals,” my dad said. “We’re going on a trip!”
He wouldn’t let us guess where we were going, though my little brother was sure we’d end up at Disney World. But I could tell we didn’t have enough luggage for such a long stay. It seemed like only enough for a weekend, but I couldn’t think of anywhere within a day’s driving distance that seemed particularly magical. But as we bounced in the back seat of our station wagon, my excitement began to match my brother’s. We left the city limits, and I could no longer recognize the roads. This might be something special after all.
Eventually the only things we saw out the window were power lines and trees-a kind of rural desolation. I might have dosed off if my dad hadn’t turned suddenly onto a dirt road. The grass and fields gave way to gravel and mud. We lurched as my dad drove over steel tracks and watched rusty boxcars pass us by.
“This is it!” my dad said after lurching to a stop. We were in a train yard. I couldn’t make any Christmas connection. But I trusted my dad, especially when he was this excited. This was going to be the best Christmas ever. I just felt it deep inside. My dad took our luggage from the car and led us to a boxcar just like all the others-only this one’s door was closed. He grabbed the latch, glanced at my brother and me with a twinkle in his eye, and pulled it open. Inside sat two nearly toothless drifters around a makeshift campfire. “We’re having a hobo Christmas this year!” my dad squealed.
I’ll admit it took me a while, but after old Jeb taught me how to cook baked beans straight from the can, I was hooked. We sang hobo songs and danced hobo dances well into the night. When my little brother had finally fallen asleep with a tummy full of chili and a head full of hobo legends, I sidled up to my father and told him how much I loved this Christmas. I told him we never had to buy any presents again.
“It’s true I’ve been having money problems,” my dad admitted. “Ever since your mom died, I just haven’t been able to make ends meet. Which is why I’ve sold you and your brother to these hobos.” He sighed deeply and hopped out of the boxcar. He put a hand to the latch. “I don’t know if they want you for meat or pleasure,” he said, “but for your sake, I hope it’s meat.” And with that, he slammed the door behind him.
Just kidding. Merry Christmas everyone.
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