Yes, Sevier County, There is a Santa Claus*

I am a middle-aged man, college educated, pretty darn savvy – if I say so myself – and… I believe in Santa Claus.

I have to. I’ve met him.

Newly divorced and struggling to make ends meet, I faced the most challenging Christmas ever in my mid 30’s.  The outlook for gifts under the tree was pretty dismal. Personally, it was no big deal. Santa had given up on me escaping the naughty list such that even the coal deliveries had stopped years ago. It was, however, a really big deal for the three pairs of eyes staring back at me every night across the dinner table.

Divorce is like a bomb going off in the midst of everyone you love. Even though you are willing to throw yourself on it and take the worst of the impact, the shrapnel spreads far and everyone around you is wounded. Sitting around the table that December, those six eyes reflected the pain of those wounds but also began to glow with the wonder of Christmas.

I grieved over yet another disappointment I felt powerless to prevent. You see, that table was one of the few pieces of furniture I owned. After the divorce, I circled the wagons. Going from two incomes to one made meeting the mortgage more than a little challenging. Eventually, in order to try and keep the house, I moved myself and my three kids in with my brother and sister-in-law (rent free at their invitation) in the hopes that no utilities would help me focus on keeping the home I had dreamed my children would grow up in. I hoped I could recover financially someday and move back in to hold together at least a piece of the dream I still clung to.  Try as I may, I did not succeed and sold the home, barely beating the bank to foreclosure.

Fast forward to that dinner table which, come to think of it, I did not own.  It was loaned to me by my sister-in-law’s mother.

A few months before, after more than a year with my brother and his wife, I had taken a leap of faith and gotten a place of my own. It was a tiny mobile home in Kodak in Leisure Acres. I rented it from Jim and Cheri Bruce, truly the best landlords on the planet. Its furnishings were sparse – yard sale finds and gifts from family and friends – but it was mine and, best of all, I could afford it. I had the table, a tiny couch, beds for the kids, and that was pretty much it. No internet or cable TV.  No bed of my own. I slept on the tiny couch with my feet propped on the arm rest, dangling off the end.

Did I mention the couch was tiny?

We had everything we needed, but disposable income was nonexistent and I had a dilemma in the form of a tiny tree with very little to put beneath it.

Enter, Santa, disguised as dear friends of my brother and sister-in-law. My brother brought the couple by unexpectedly one evening and I showed off my new digs, unaware of the real reason for the visit.  We talked small talk for a while until “Mr. Claus” explained that they had followed my struggles and successes related by my family and wondered if I would let them purchase gifts for my kids for Christmas. It took a moment to register, but I slowly realized they were asking to purchase everything – the entire Santa list for all three kids.

I was stunned. Immediately emotions of pride and joy began waging a battle of epic proportions within me, overcome with gratitude but resistant to the idea of “charity.”  Sure, my family had helped but that was different. That felt like circling the wagons, and I knew a day would come when I would stand guard at the outer ring over whoever was struggling within as they had done for me so frequently of late.

As I struggled to absorb such generosity, recent words of my pastor came to mind, reminding me to receive all blessings “with gratitude and a thankful heart.” I stood from my tiny couch, shook Santa’s hand, and expressed my gratitude with a deeply thankful heart.

Carefully coordinated to occur while the kids were visiting their aunt, Santa’s deliveries again overwhelmed me as a Playstation2 for my son and the long desired robotic stuffed animals for my daughters appeared, along with so many other delights to fulfill their trusting dreams, and more. My heart nearly burst with joy, knowing my children would experience a Christmas morning that I simply could not have provided. As I marveled at this beautiful gift, I was speechless when the queen size mattress, box springs and bed frame came marching through the door to be placed in my vacant bedroom. That night, with tears of joy trickling down my cheeks, I fell asleep in a bed for the first time in months.

What should have been otherwise turned out to be the best Christmas ever thanks to Santa & Mrs. Claus.

As I regained financial stability, I never attempted to pay them back.  It would only diminish such a gift and mar its beauty.  Instead, I pay it forward when given the opportunity and I am blessed with the reminder of that first night in my new bed and just how amazingly good it felt to have truly restful sleep for the first time in so long.

So, Santa is real, folks. He walks amongst you in this community.  Better watch out.

If you enjoyed this column and would like to see more, click here.

© Michael L. Collins

* Originally published under the same name in the December 17, 2014 edition of The Mountain Press.

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