Santa Claus Smith Hills – A Family Folktale
This is a wonderful example of a group folktale that allows for each contributor to share his or her personal experience of the same event.
My dear friend Michael (Mike) Hills, a top notch balladeer, recently died. In the wake of his death there are many wonderful memories of him. There is one in particular that stands out as special to me and to his five siblings. It is of Michael as Santa Claus, that festive Christmas folk hero who brings joy (and presents) to children.
To preserve this benevolent holiday spirit motif as it appeared in my friend's life, I asked his brothers and sisters, Greg Smith, Patricia Stelt, Tim Smith, Christine Pedeaux and Tom Smith to share what they remembered about the years that Michael, their oldest brother, played Santa Claus.
The making of this group folktale wove together their individual experiences of the family Christmas ritual that Michael began when he was 14 (1962).
The tradition which began in Fullerton, California started when Michael’s parents asked Michael to dress up as Santa for the younger children. “They also asked me to help,” recalled brother Greg who was only two years younger than Michael.
“Every Christmas Eve I would help Mike into his red velvet Santa suit and I would guard our bedroom door so that none of the younger ones would come into our bedroom." He added that Michael made a great Santa. Large and husky for his age, his build was perfect for the job. “He wasn’t fat,” said Greg who described himself as ‘too skinny’ for such a task.
Greg continues: “I felt privileged to help him because: 1) I always enjoyed a fun adventure 2) Mike made a GREAT Santa ... mom & dad got him a GREAT-looking outfit 3) I enjoyed seeing the reactions of my little brothers and sisters.”
Michael, who later in life became an actor at places like Knotts Berry Farm, was so good in the role that a couple neighbors sometimes asked him to be Santa at their nearby homes, too, since he was already dressed up. Michael's alibi to his brothers and sisters was that he went to visit the neighbors and "just missed" Santa's early visit which was touted as a pre-visit just to say hi to the siblings while they were still awake. Before and after "Santa's" visit, he would throw some large rocks up onto the roof to sound like reindeer.
His sister Patricia (Patti) was also in on the secret. At 8 she knew what was going on and relished the joy Michael brought to them all. “Tim, Tom and Christine had no clue that Santa could possibly be anyone other than Santa. Especially because he was the same size, had a wonderful deep "Ho Ho Ho" and had a sack thrown over his back of gifts!"
The children gave him Christmas cookies for a snack, and he took turns sitting each of them on his knee, asking them what they wanted for Christmas, and always gave them a gift from his sack of toys.
Christine noted that she “loved the work gloves” he wore as Santa. “I do remember him telling us that he had to go over to the Scotts’ home for a while and Santa always came when Mike was gone.” Christine’s memory includes the jingling of bells outside the house just before he came in.
In time his brother Tim noticed that Santa Claus’s legs were hairy, much like Michael’s. The youngest child, Tom became suspicious of Santa Claus’ visits when he jumped onto Santa's knee and Santa said "Ouch, could you sit on the other knee?" At the time Tom made a connection between Santa's sore knee and the knee Michael had injured in an accident.
Patricia said that one year Michael “really blew his cover” with Tom. “Mike had an affectionate name for Tom: ‘Monkey’ and he said to Tom, “OK, Monkey, climb on up here....its your turn!"
Patricia remembered that Michael, a consummate musician even at that age ALWAYS gave the gift of music. "He pulled his gifts out of his "Turntable" labeled bag." Turntable was the downtown record shop.
She wondered why it took the younger ones so long to discover who Santa was.
Maybe they didn’t care. As Patricia herself explained, “It was an amazing, sweet thing for Mike to do each year, and he was a GREAT Santa Claus. His deep voice would resound through the neighborhood, and he was very convincing! Just one example of how he loved, even at a young age, to bring joy to others.”
By the way, until his death, the gift of music was one of Michael's legacies. My daughter Kiana, his god daughter, received countless CDs and inherited his 12 string Martin guitar and his faithful auto harp. But this is the material of another folktale!