Time to think and feel like a kid again.

It was one of those idyllic evenings, the kind in books where everything’s just a little too perfect.

Oversized snowflakes floated softly down on the summertime tourist town of Medora, N.D., population 100 September through May, and fresh, fluffy inches covered the ground.

It was 1973 or ’74. I was about five or six.

I was raised in a Catholic family, so we celebrated Christmas and my parents had nurtured several holiday traditions that we held to year after year.

One was opening presents on Christmas Eve, but only after the washing, drying and putting away of the dishes and otherwise cleaning up after supper was completely done.

I don’t remember a lot of the details now, nearly 50 years later, but there’s one thing I can still feel like it was yesterday – the gut-twisting physical and emotional pain of waiting for those dishes to get done.

It was an intense itching all over my body. It was a bunch of people giving me “snake bites” on all of my arms and legs at the same time. It was a headache, a mad fever and a sure sense that I was going to puke all over the gifts at any moment. Say what you want; it was for real.

Another tradition was the meal itself:  chili and caramel rolls.

I’ve always wondered where the nonsensical combination came from. The closest Mom ever got to a logical response was when she said chili was an easy and quick meal to make and clean up after so we could get to the present opening more quickly, and that my Dad really, really loved those rolls.

The author in 1973, age 5

But back to ’73 or ’74…

Just about the time the last plate thankfully, finally, excruciatingly hit the stack in the cupboard, there was a pounding on the back door…

This was the third tradition.

In addition to presents from my parents on Christmas Eve, we also received “Santa gifts.” Christmas Day brought more from Santa in our stockings, but for that evening the folks would enlist a friend to deliver the Santa gifts right as we were getting ready to dive into the stack already under the tree. So every year he made a racket of the arose-such-a-clatter variety, and I’d run out to try to catch a glimpse.

I was quick that night, and as always in Medora during the winter, the evening was heartbeat silent. As I bounced down the back steps I heard the singular sound of fluffy snow being compressed step-by-step. I dashed around the corner and there, on the sidewalk leading to the front of the house, I saw –

Not Rudolph, and definitely not a sleigh with a massive sack of presents in the back, but there on the sidewalk in the fresh couple of inches were Santa’s boot prints.

I rushed back up the stairs and into the house.

The clatter must’ve jumbled up with candy canes, caramel rolls and the thrill of new toys to come. I blurted out, “Santa! I heard his footprints!”


I haven’t been a Catholic for a long time now, or any other Christian denomination or organized religion for that matter, and my wife and I have combined, changed and cultivated holiday traditions from our two families while adding in some originals. My kids are beyond Santa age, so he no longer makes a clatter in the yard, sprints to the front of the house to stay out of sight or puts a finger to the side of his nose to go up the chimney.

We’re doing our best to shed as much of the consumerism of the season as possible so we do less harm to the planet and our collective future. And every day I try to find joy in little things and be generous with people I meet along the way, not just during this season but year ’round. I’m not always successful, but I’m workin’ at it.

That’s the kind of holiday and everyday magic I still believe in, and always will.

It’s the kind that makes it possible to hear the footprints.

Say what you want; it’s for real.

Regardless of whether you and your family celebrate Hanukkah or Eid or Christmas or something else, what your beliefs are, who you love, where you live, where you came from or what time of year it happens to be, I hope you hear the footprints, too.

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