My Grampa Saved Santa's Life

People get older, and people get tired, but tradition stays with us.

People get older, and people get tired, but tradition stays with us.

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Growing up I thought I was special because on Christmas Eve every year Santa Claus would visit my grandparents house in East L.A. The evening would go something like this. I'd open the screechy white metal door to my grandparents house that protected the actual wooden door-- and the delicious familiar smells of pozole and frijoles de la olla would give me a great big olfactory hug. Then my abuela and abuelo and all my aunts and uncles and cousins would individually give me a great big hug. Then I'd make a big paper plate of cookies and see how many I could eat without getting trouble. After a few hours, the phone would ring. Only one person would ever call my abuelos' house on Christmas Eve, and that's Santa Claus.

"Hello, SANTA!?" Whoever answered the phone would say-- loud enough to get the kids to stop chasing each other or showing off any early presents they'd negotiated opening. "Where ARE you!? How DID you find time to CALL!?" My entire family has a penchant for the dramatic. The phone would then be passed around to all the children who were old enough to hold a phone. Santa would have the same conversation with all of them, "How are you? Have you been good?" "I'm flying over China!" That was Santa for you, always flying over China. However formulaic, this conversation made me feel the most special I'd felt all year. We'd chat a little more about the health of his reindeer and how I was doing in school, and then he'd always end the conversation by telling us to go to sleep and that he'd see us soon.

Then we'd all run into my Mom's old bedroom, piling one on top of one the other on the bed, and pretend to be asleep for about 30 minutes until Santa came. As kids we never cared that this part made no logical sense. This is how it had always been and this was how it always would be.


No one ever slept. Instead, in between excited squeals and the shushing of said squeals, one of the older kids would retell the legend of how grampa saved Santa's life. The story was different every time. Most of the time the narrative involved wars and trenches but the point of the story was to explain that because abuelo saved Santa's life, as a token of immense gratitude, Santa came to my grandparents house in East L.A. every year on Christmas Eve. The story was full of plot holes, of course, but before any kid could ask something like, "When was grampa in a war? I thought he was a barber?" Santa's actual arrival would interrupt the story.

When Santa arrived, he often smelled like my Grampa's pomade. He was short, about 5'4", just like my grampa. His white beard contrasted with his brown skin-- and when you sat on his lap, his breath didn't smell like milk or cookies, but Folger's, my grampa's brand of coffee. But we suspended our disbelief. Even one year when Santa's red furry trousers fell down and my abuela shrieked, "Ramon! Your pants!" My cousin rushed to Santa's aid, holding the back of his pants as one would a bridal train, and Santa merrily waved goodbye out the screechy white metal gate of my grandparents house. No kid suspected a thing.

The toys Santa gave were often unimpressive (one time I got batteries). But it didn't matter because actually seeing Santa Claus was the best present any kid could get for Christmas. There was something about that fact growing up that comforted me and led me to believe my life was charmed. Going back to school after the holiday break, maybe other kids got the Power Wheels Barbie Jammin' Jeep I wanted but never got, maybe they got to fly somewhere far away that had snow like Nevada, maybe they got to see Santa at the mall, but no one got to see Santa in their house. Except me. I'd even talked to the real Santa while he flew over China. So by the associative property, I kinda flew over China, too. I always thought I had better Christmases than any of my friends. Until last year.

Two Novembers ago my grampa, now 84, had to have heart surgery. I got so scared that I didn't visit him in the hospital. When I was little, I thought my grampa was beyond magical -- after all, he saved Santa's life. But when I got a got a picture text from my Mom of a half-conscious old man, thinner than I remember, with tubes coming out of him every which way, I panicked. I didn't want it to be real. Couldn't Santa return the favor now? Didn't he remember the trenches?

It's funny. Sometimes crisis can turn us back into children.

The surgery was fortunately a success. And I later apologized to my abuelo for not being there for him. He forgave me, saying, "Don't worry hita, I'm still around, causing trouble." I cried. It was at my Mom's birthday dinner. The waitress asked, "How's the steak?" I couldn't taste it.

meritbadgeman.jpgMy mother and maternal grandparents in East L.A. in the 1950s. My grandfather is on the far left.

Santa didn't come last year. There was no phone call, no cramming into my Mom's old bedroom. No story of how Santa saved my abuelo's life. Instead my grama passed out bars of chocolate shaped like Santa, his cartoon image printed on foil covering the hollow chocolate. I MAY have been disproportionately upset about the whole thing. "How could this happen?" I asked my grama. "Santa can't not come!" But the answer of course was obvious. People get older; people get tired. People have heart surgery. People pass on their traditions, and traditions make us feel like were special. Now it's more up to me than it is to them to keep those traditions alive. Only for a variety of reasons, I'll never be able to be my 5'4" Santa with the Folger's breath.

I'll be in Pittsburgh with my boyfriend's family this Christmas Eve, trying to balance tradition with change. I'm trying to figure out if I should go through the trouble of making tamales, if frijoles de la olla and pozole would have crossover appeal to Pittsburg German-Italians. I'm trying to figure out where to put my Santa. Until I can figure out how to bring him around again for Christmas Eve, I will have a story, because stories are as much part of tradition as anything else. It begins, "My grandfather's not just a barber, he's also a a great Christmas hero."