It was Santa’s demise – almost! The near-tragedy occurred before the Internet was invented; if it had existed, the news of this accident would no doubt have gone viral.
I remember the event well. It was the night before Christmas. It was bitingly cold. A thick white coating of frost lay on both the roofs and the grass, not unusual this time of year in Ireland. I was a little over 4 years of age at the time. My brother and I looked forward excitedly to Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve. We were unaware of Santa’s reindeer. In our little world, they did not exist until the release in 1950 of Bing Crosby’s recording of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
It was customary for Santa to come on foot to our back door all dressed up in a white cloak and what we referred to as a “face and eyes mask” together with a long, flowing white beard. For us he was magical – toys and candies galore.
Séan-Óg Murphy, a red-faced, weather-beaten sheep farmer, probably in his late 40s, visited our home that Christmas week. He was from the quaint rural hamlet of Kilcree adjacent to my mother’s childhood parish. He stayed with us for a night or two every winter while making arrangements for his sale of the upcoming season’s wool to a dealer in Cork City. Séan-Óg, his half-brother, Séamus, and their second-cousin-once-removed Gubnet Magee arranged and oversaw the shearing and marketing of wool from the vast herds of sheep grazed throughout the mountainous Townland of Lyre in West County Cork.
For my brother and me, sitting home at night around the turf-fueled open fire listening to Séan-Óg was akin to hearing a vast vocal distillation of sagas from today’s Wikipedia. He had a multitude of yarns about his sheep, many of whom he claimed to know individually, remembering their mothers and in some cases their grandmothers. He frightened us with his gruesome descriptions of foxes making off with some of his lambs; he terrified us with tales of hares who mysteriously transformed themselves into ghosts carrying away “naughty” children, never to be seen or heard from again.
In harmony with the cold weather, we were exposed to the ongoing news about the Cold War. Stories abounded about drills whereby children in America squatted beneath their school desks and many Yanks (we labeled all Americans Yanks) were building bomb shelters.
These rumors were not lost on our immature minds. My brother and I decided to build an underground shelter in our backyard. Having dug a few feet into the black alluvial earth, we were proud of our edifice and camouflaged our creation with branches and a light covering of soil.
It was unfortunate that on that particular night, Christmas Eve, poor old Santa, approaching our back door, stumbled into our muddy structure. Séan-Óg was quick to come to his rescue. Disheveled though Santa was, he still delivered his bag of goodies. I well remember tearfully telling him, in my then native language, how brónach (Gaelic for sad) I was for what had happened.
Coincidentally, my mother complained of a very painful knee that Christmas week. Sadly, she’s passed away now, as has my father.
Seemingly immortal, Santa is still around. I check on him frequently as he visits nearby stores. In particular I examine his gait – it seems just fine.