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When Santa Claus Came in a Jeep

Kids in this European town hadn’t celebrated Christmas in years because of the war.

Richard Brookins as St. Nicholas arrives in a jeep accompanied by two angels

We were minutes away from the house when my mother-in-law called my cell. I gave my husband, Chad, the bad news. “Your father has to bow out on playing Santa,” I said. “Your mom says he’s just too sick.”

We had driven all the way out to Sandpoint, Idaho, to stage our Christmas photos. A Santa Claus with a real belly and beard. A neighboring Christmas-tree farm for the perfect background. I paid attention to every detail, having documented our holidays since the kids were born.

I glanced at them in the rearview mirror. Big brother Ryan and my toddler, Raven, were both napping. Ryder, my middle child, was looking idly out the window. He was the one I worried about most. I reached over and patted his knee. Did I really think the perfect photograph would fix everything? How could Christmas ever seem magical again?

Our last Christmas had been tragic. My ex-husband, the children’s father, passed away from a genetic heart condition just a week before. He’d been ill for so long, but he always dressed up for the kids, donning red pants, a red jacket, and a beard and hat. The elastic on his fake beard showed and he made for a skinny Santa, but the children appreciated it. Even though Ryder considered himself too old for make-believe, he still loved to sit on his father’s lap and tell him what he wanted for Christmas. Was I wrong to try to continue the tradition, even in their father’s memory?

I sunk deeper into the passenger seat. Chad reached over and squeezed my hand. “It’s okay,” he assured me. “I can play Santa if you want me to.” He had been so good to all of us, patient and understanding while the kids and I settled into our new life. It was Chad’s idea to come to the Christmas-tree farm in the first place. He volunteered my father-in-law to step into the Santa role because he had a real beard. Maybe I was trying too hard to make things seem real for our pictures. What was the use?

We stopped at a lonely red light, and the back seat seemed to come alive. “Look, Mom!” Ryder said, pointing out the window. “Quick! Ryan, Raven, wake up!” I turned my head toward the sound of an engine. We hadn’t seen a soul on the road for over an hour. But now, right outside my window, was a man on an ATV four-wheeler. I nudged Chad, and he laughed out loud when he saw him. The big man had a full white beard. A dog sat on his lap. If he had been wearing red and had a sack of toys on his shoulder…

The light changed and Santa sped off, kicking up a cloud of dust behind him. Then he was gone. “Like magic,” Ryder said. The car was full of excitement, and the kids were still chattering about it when we got to my in-laws. “We just saw Santa Claus,” I explained to Chad’s mom. “On an ATV.”

“I know him,” she said. “He works on the farm. He lives there and tends to the trees all year long. He seems to have a magic touch.” What were the chances? I took the Santa suit out of the trunk and handed it to her. “Do you think he would?” I asked.

“There’s only one way to find out,” she said.

Twenty minutes later, we were on our way to the farm. My mother-in-law drove ahead with the outfit. We followed with the kids and my camera equipment. The man’s house was more perfect than I had imagined. He lived in a small shack surrounded by the Christmas trees he tended. Smoke billowed from his chimney, and his dog ran happily around the yard. “I’d be much obliged,” he said when my mother-in-law made our proposal.

Chad helped me set up my equipment. Our Santa kept on his blue hoodie and burgundy vest and wore the red pants and hat we’d brought. He didn’t need the full getup to look like the real thing. He had a twinkle in his eyes and a natural smile. He sat on a stump so the children could sit on his lap. Raven fed him a cookie, and Ryan and Ryder took turns telling him what they wanted for Christmas. Ryder sat for his picture, but I figured he was just playing along to be nice. I was grateful for that.

Looking through the camera lens, I thanked God for pulling this off. How else could I explain it? Our ATV Santa was a good sport while I styled several setups. At least we had our photos. We piled back into the car when I had taken more than enough shots. Ryder leaned forward in his seat while we all waved goodbye. “Mom, that could have been the real Santa,” he said. He sat back and laughed with his brother and sister. Christmas wasn’t about to give up on us until we all felt its magic.

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