We crept along the roads of Half Mile Lake, our car idling through the cold and wind, our older son staring open-mouthed at the strings of lights and inflatable decorations. It was Christmastime 2010, and I had an early flight out of town the next morning.
My older son was 6 years old then. His baby brother was 1 1/2. The year had been exhausting on every front. Not much had gone right, and the holiday season had started to feel almost onerous. We had not decorated our home, and it was dark when we pulled back in the driveway.
I don’t remember how long it took me to understand the sadness on my boy’s face. I don’t know if he had taken his bath yet, if we’d eaten dinner or if I’d even packed for my trip. I only remember that it came to me in a rush: His Christmas wasn’t Christmas when our house sat in the dark.
My old man took a special kind of pride in decorating our humble house when I was a kid. He felt zero shame in the amount of electricity he pulled off the grid. When friends came by and quoted “Christmas Vacation” (“It’s a beaut, Clark! It’s a beaut!”), he took it as the highest compliment. There was a time before 2010 when I followed in his example, but that year, I didn’t have it in me… until I saw my kid’s face.
With December darkness seeming blacker by the minute, I set off for the store, credit card limit be damned, and decided that I wasn’t getting on a plane the next morning without making sure my kid was smiling. The result: the biggest Santa Claus I could find. The Spanish translation on the box called it “Santa Gigante,” and so he was named.
I spent that night in driving wind and spitting rain clutching Santa Gigante like a Macy’s parade balloon handler in a hurricane, but by the time I woke my kid out of a sound sleep, Santa Gigante was tethered to the ground and waving his giant hand at all passersby.
We moved to the other side of town the following year, and Santa Gigante came with us. Over the next five years, he survived wind, snow and a brutal assault by some ne’er-do-wells who mistook my kids’ joy for an opportunity to celebrate their drunken revelry. He was a beacon on my front lawn, one that served as an important reminder of what I learned that 2010 Christmas.
We’ve all (perhaps surprisingly) lived through 2016, and it might not come as a surprise that it was hard to light a fire under the Christmas spirit this year. Thanksgiving weekend marked five years since my father died. The first weekend of December was my another-year-grayer-and-older birthday, and the sky spit cold rain all over the Saturday and Sunday. By the time the next weekend came, there were some discussions about whether it was even worth it to put up our decorations this year. Put off by the frigid temperatures outside, I decided to leave the decision to the boys, now 12 and 7 years old. Did they actually care if we decorated the house this year?
They answered in unison and voices so urgent they pushed me back on my heels.
And that’s how it came to be that I was out on a cold Sunday afternoon pulling Santa Gigante out of his box. I plugged him in… and nothing happened. I checked the fuse. I checked the cord. I checked the outlet. Santa Gigante rested in the grass as deflated as I’d felt for the past three weeks.
I walked inside and assembled my family in a small circle.
“I regret to inform you,” I said, pausing to let the gravity of the moment do its work, “that after six years of faithful service, Santa Gigante is no more.”
My older son dropped his head for dramatic effect. I stood there wondering if this moment would act as a bookend to that 2010 Christmas and mark the year we just didn’t do it anymore.
Before I knew what was happening, both boys were wearing shoes and coats. They raced to the car and buckled their seatbelts. Almost exactly six years after the fact, I would soon be racing all over town again trying to find the perfect replacement for Santa Gigante, only this time I wasn’t doing it alone. I had my sons with me, zipping from aisle to aisle, screeching with sincere belly laughs, and picking out what would sit on our lawn for the years to come. They chose a polar bear they named Rodriguez and a 12-foot-tall snowman we dubbed (with, again, help from the foreign language translation) Frosty Hateur. Two hours later, both towered over my front lawn.
With the job done, the only remaining task was to deal with Santa Gigante’s remains.
We conducted a mock funeral at the trashcan. I sang “Taps.” We lowered the lid slowly. We laughed a little at the moment. And then, as I would for any friend who had passed, I asked the kids what they would remember about Santa Gigante.
“He gave me joy in my heart,” the little one said.
I looked at the big kid. He’s going on 13 and has all the sass and hormones you’d expect from a middle school kid. But in the moment, he was six years old again and looking up at me with gratitude.
“What will you remember?” I asked.
“He was how you saved Christmas,” he said. It was gratitude, pure and sincere.
So it was on this 2016 afternoon that my heart again swelled with Christmas spirit and the knowledge that the only gift I’ll ever need is my kids’ happiness.
And just how big did my heart swell that day? Well, you might just say it was gigante.
Brad Willis is a writer who lives in Greenville County. In addition to his other professional work, he writes at RapidEyeReality.com.