I passed Santa on the sidewalk last Saturday and I’m pretty sure he was the real Santa. He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot (!) and had a flowing beard as white as the snow (!). I behaved the way anyone would; I screamed “Santa!” He smiled and winked and then, as we passed “this” close to each other, he gave me a high-five.
I was so stunned it almost didn’t register that Santa was wearing black flip-flops. Christmas in Key West takes on a different twist from Christmas on Shelter Island.
There may never be snow during the holiday season (or ever!) but the people here make up for the lack of white stuff, with wild enthusiasm in the way they light their homes, businesses, vehicles, palm trees, dogs and selves. And no matter that generations of Conchs (the Key West equivalent to Hareleggers) have never seen snow, the children still sing about Frosty and Jingle Bells, just like their northern counterparts.
On Saturday, right after my flip-flopped Santa encounter, I came upon some young teens caroling and as soon as I heard the first strains of “Silent Night” I was swept back home to Shelter Island and an ice-chilled December night about 25 years ago.
I have many treasured Christmas memories. I can still picture my Dad pouring tea from a tiny new teapot for my sister and me one Christmas morning 60 years ago and I can hear Aunt Angie playing Christmas ragtime on our piano on Christmas Eve while we tried to stay awake for Midnight Mass. I remember special moments from Christmases past with my husband and our kids and our grandkids. And I remember chaperoning Island ‘tweens and teens who went Christmas caroling.
Our last stop that cold night was to the Hay Beach home of a retired doctor whose wife had recently had a stroke. Their home was at the top of a hill and we couldn’t get our van up the steep, ice-covered driveway so we left it on the road and tried to make it on foot. We kept falling and sliding back down the slick driveway. The only way we could get up the hill was by breaking through the crust of knee-deep snow covering the lawn and crawling. Several of us discussed skipping that final house but the man had been called that afternoon and told that we were coming. All the outside lights were on; obviously he was expecting us. It took a long time before our snow-covered and slightly bruised group made it.
At the other homes, we stood outside to sing. But the retired doctor, who was standing at the open door when one of us reached for the doorbell, insisted that we come inside. He ushered us through the house to the living room where his wife was waiting in a wheelchair.
I was concerned about clumps of snow on expensive silk carpets and water stains on polished wood floors but the man didn’t care about the carpets or the floors; he wanted us to stand where his wife could see us. So we gathered in the corner of his living room, which was beautifully decorated for the holiday, while he stood across from us, next to his wife. There was a small red bow in her white hair and she wore a Christmas corsage. As soon as we started to sing, the man moved his right hand in the air as though he was holding a baton, conducting us, and he sang right along with us, too.
At other homes, our frozen group had zipped through a couple of songs, first verse only, then bolted for the van. But for this audience, we sang every Christmas song we knew and several that we didn’t. Our last song was “Silent Night” and, midway through it, the man stepped closer to his wife and placed his left hand on her shoulder. Though the woman never moved or changed expression, tears began to run down her cheeks. Her husband had tears in his eyes, too, but he continued to smile at us and sing and wave his imaginary baton.
In order to keep singing, I had to look away from the tender scene at some water spot on the ceiling but I was aware of the sudden sniffles around me. From the corner of my eye, I could see the motions of snowy mittens brushing away tears and heard the breaks in the voices of the dozen young carolers who struggled to keep singing through throats that had lumps in them.
As the man lead us back to the door, he tried to give the kids money, which they refused. He said he wanted to give them something for all their trouble but one of the teens said that our visit was a gift to him and his wife.
“It is a most wonderful gift,” the man said, taking each of us by the hand as we left. “God Bless you and Merry Christmas.”
Back in the van, our formerly rowdy group was quiet except for a couple of kids talking about how glad they were that we hadn’t skipped that last house, and about how nice the man was, and that they were sure that his wife could hear us. Some made plans to go back the next day to clear the snow and ice from the couple’s driveway.
Such a long time ago. Those kids are grown now with ’tweens and teens of their own and many still live on the Island and work on the ferries and at the school and for the police department. They’re volunteer firemen and EMTs, nurses and soldiers, but I picture them the way they were then, standing and sniffling in the corner of that Hay Beach living room.
They will always be a part of what makes Christmas special for me … that and getting a high-five from a Santa wearing black flip flops.