Jim Heffernan column: A long, cold ride on an airborne sleigh

Complications arise, as they do in most families, when spouses are obligated to honor each other’s family Christmas traditions.

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Jim Heffernan (News Tribune)

We are Santa Claus people. Our family has been loyal to the Jolly Old Elf though thick and thin — especially thick. He has a broad face and a round belly, we all know, and it shakes when he laughs like a bowlful of jelly, we also are told over and over again this time of year.

Fine with me. Our family has a tradition all our own going back many decades regarding Santa Claus. Many families welcome him overnight while they are asleep, waking up Christmas morning to piles of gifts left under the Christmas tree and gift-filled stockings left by a white-bearded, red-clad trespasser who climbed down the chimney. Fine, if you’ve got a fireplace.

The trouble in my own early growing-up years was we didn’t have a fireplace in our home. So how’s he supposed to come down the chimney? This can be troubling to a child, and a challenge for parents intent on providing as merry a Christmas as possible for their children.

The challenge was met by adults in the extended family by arranging for Santa to actually show up at our door on Christmas Eve, after a feast of turkey and trimmings. It was amazing how he seemed to know right when to come to our house.


My mother, a fine pianist, would sit down at the piano and start playing “Jingle Bells” as we children excitedly listened for footsteps on the porch and sleigh bells on the reindeer. They never failed to show up as the tempo and volume of “Jingle Bells” heightened.

Stomp, stomp on the porch. An adult would go to the door to see what was the matter. When the door was opened, the jingle of sleigh bells grew louder, along with a “ho, ho” or two as colorfully wrapped gifts poured in the doorway. Small children had to be restrained from running for a peek. No child ever actually saw Santa. Only heard him.

And in the blink of an eye, Santa was gone, making his jolly way down the block, we believed, most of his night’s work ahead of him. He had to make the rounds of every home, often landing his sleigh on slanted roofs and climbing down chimneys, tarnishing his clothing with ashes and soot. You know all that.

As time passed and the children grew wiser and wiser, it began to be noticed that one adult male was always missing when Santa arrived on the porch. Hmmm. When the absent adult showed up again, he expressed wide-eyed surprise that Santa had already come and gone.

That tradition lasted through my childhood and that of cousins close in age but eventually, of course, the day came when, well, the Christmas Eve ritual was no longer widely believed.

But right around then, a new generation of young children arrived on the scene as older cousins started families of their own and the whole drama was revived — the stomping on the porch, the sleigh bells, the ho-hos, the gifts pouring through the door.

In due course, it was my turn, and that of other family members of my generation, to provide children for the celebration, which worked out just fine. Same routine, never varying. But of course the generation that started all this was inevitably replaced by my own, all of us sadly missing those who had gone before us. Eventually we lost our pianist and had to resort to recordings of “Jingle Bells,” but Santa himself didn’t seem to mind at all. As soon as the music hit its first crescendo, there he’d be.

And so it went, down through the decades, somehow with each succeeding generation of children arriving just in the (Saint) Nick of time to keep it going year in, year out, in different venues, pretty much unchanged.


Until it had to change. Another generation of parents with small children had to be absorbed, but complications arose, as it does in most families, when spouses are obligated to honor each other’s family Christmas traditions, often splitting between parents and in-laws.

In our immediate family, this has meant gathering not on Christmas Eve when St. Nick is making his rounds, but on Christmas Day when everybody thinks he is back at the North Pole resting from his big night.

But hold it. How could he possibly cover half the earth’s homes in just one night, I have told my grandchildren, who now celebrate with us on Christmas Day.

I explain: After visiting all of the houses up north on Christmas Eve he has to head down to South America and fill all of the stockings of children down there. It takes hours and hours. Finally, when he’s finished with South America he makes his way back up north to go home to the Pole.

At nightfall, after our Christmas Day feast (turkeys have been spared in recent years), right when a recording of “Jingle Bells” resounds in the room, he’s passing over Duluth and stops by our house to deliver presents, sleigh bells jingling as prancing and pawing reindeer await their final dash away back to the North Pole. The gifts still pour through the door into the arms of an adult. We now have a fireplace but it’s gas so it has no climbable chimney.

Before I sign off, it should be noted that in our family questioning the existence of Santa Claus is never, absolutely never, countenanced, even among adults. To this day. But we wink a lot.

That’s our holiday tradition, which, I notice by the rapid growth of the grandchildren, will soon have to await still another generation of our family to arrive, even as my own eventually fades from the scene.

Oh, and finally, I should point out that while we hear the din of St. Nicholas’ visit, upon riding away in his sleigh he never exclaims “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.”


But I will.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at and can be reached by e-mail at

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at and can be reached by email at
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