Unlike anyone else in my culture I've ever talked to about it, my brother and sister and I were never brought up to believe in Santa Claus. Our parents' reason was that they wanted us to know who gave us our presents. Far from taking something away from the magic of Christmas, I've always thought this was a stroke of luck for me. I never had to "unlearn" Santa Claus, or have my faith shattered in everything my parents had ever said to believe...
I'm kidding. Sort of. But in my thirties, all this changed.
A little over three years ago I was on a flight from Toronto to Cleveland, for my Grandma Knowles's memorial service. Everyone who knew her seems to agree that Grandma was something like a saint on earth (the real kind of saint, not a perfect person but a heroic person). In her considerate way, she had passed away early enough not to conflict with the holidays, but it was still snowing. I looked out the window of the plane, into the clouds of snow, and saw a perfect, circular rainbow.
If you've ever seen a rainbow from the air, you'll know that instead of the arc which is the most you can see from the ground, you see the spectrum of color in a full circle, imprinted on the clouds. And because it was snowing, not raining, I decided that Grandma must have sent me a snowbow. A big, shiny ornament, hung right there in the sky. Just because she could.
"I do set my bow in the cloud..."
So then that December, I was on another flight, this time to Chicago. Like most flights to O'Hare, this one was late, and very crowded. I was seated next to a gentleman I can only describe as jolly. He had the white beard, twinkling eyes, everything to look just like Santa Claus. Only he was dressed in plain clothes, and once we got to talking, it emerged that he worked in Michigan, in a prison.
Now everyone knows that Père Noël must live in Canada, because the magnetic North Pole is in Canadian territory. But part of Michigan is actually north of part of Ontario, so, close enough. What I now report is what he told me; I haven't researched it, so don't feel obligated to believe. I am only telling you what I remember.
He supervised the prison shop, where the prisoners did metalwork. According to him, the people he really wanted working for him were those convicted of the most serious crimes, like murder. Yes, they had done terrible things, but they knew that they were in prison for life and that the only way they could possibly redeem the time was to make something of it. So they worked hard for him and did a good job.
On the other hand, those convicted of drug offenses or something that had put them in prison for a year or so, he found pretty useless. He believed that they had no stake in making their lives in prison better, so they gave him trouble.
When we arrived in Chicago and he left to (probably) miss his connecting flight, it occurred to me that he hadn't told me his name. Not even a first name. Kris?
I told Trish this, and that he'd looked just like Father Christmas. "Well, maybe he is, sweetie," she said, like the most normal thing in the world.
So that is the story of how I met Santa Claus. He works off-season at a prison in Michigan somewhere.