Secret Santa: A Mysterious Christmas Delight

Keeping the magic in one neighborhood’s Yuletide tradition.

Illustration by Carlos Zamora

The December I was 12 began like every other I had known. This was Wyckoff 1976, pre-Jonas Brothers. We skated at a makeshift ice rink in a frozen parking lot, admired the decorations along Franklin Avenue and coveted the toys crammed in the window of Grants Variety Store.

For most people in Bergen County, the giant Santa perched on a chimney in the middle of the Garden State Plaza shopping mall in Paramus heralded the Christmas season. But on my street, Patton Place, the holidays didn’t start until our own Santa came, one who would bring a special kind of treat.

In those days, our lives revolved around candy. My mother rarely bought sweets, so my older brothers would make furtive trips to the gas-station gumball machine at the end of the street. After Halloween we were flush, but by Christmas our supplies were low.

Then Santa would come to our street, a nondescript station wagon pulling his sparkling sleigh. Clanging bells and blaring carols announced his arrival. We’d sing along with the tinny music and chase the gifts Santa tossed us: brightly printed boxes filled with peppermint ribbon candies, loose and unwrapped, and sometimes clumped together.

We never looked at the station wagon license plate to see if it said North Pole. We didn’t tug on Santa’s beard to see if it was real. We never knew how much of the town our Santa covered—only that he made us feel special. We held this tradition sacred, and we did not question our good luck.

But the December I was 12, everything changed.

As always, a pack of us had gone caroling down Patton Place and around Woodbury Drive. We piled on as much clothing as our mothers demanded and zigzagged along the street. At each house, we sang the carols the people requested, and they gave us treats.

Then we headed to the Neils’ house. All the girls had a crush on their son, even though we hardly knew him. Blushing furiously, we sang our best songs for the boy and his parents. When we were through, Mr. Neil beamed as he handed each of us a brightly printed box filled with peppermint ribbon candies, unwrapped and stuck together in clumps. The youngest kids happily examined their gifts, but the rest of us held them gingerly, as if something suspicious had been dropped in our hands. We stared hard at Mr. Neil, noticing his merry blue eyes and the gray curls at his temples. And there—in the driveway—was that familiar station wagon.

When our night finally ended with Mom ladling cocoa for all the carolers from a giant pot on the stove, the little ones recounted the highlights, but the rest of us were quiet.

A few days later, while biking past the Neils’ house, I caught a glimpse of the sparkling red sleigh tucked into the garage.

Mr. Neil continued his tradition for 20 years, long after my gang had been replaced by a new generation of kids. A few years ago, when I heard he’d died, I got a lump in my throat almost identical to the one I felt when he came to the door that winter when I was 12. Mr. Neil will always be Santa to me.

Kathy Anne Cowie is married and the mother of two girls. She lives in Ridgewood and shares ribbon candy with her family every Christmas.

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  1. Shelley Spaulding

    It sounds like this world needs more people like Mr. Neil.