My Forty Years Scribblin's
Ma Versus the Christmas Spirit

(Editor's note: Mildred Chaffin wrote a short story about the making of the first Santa Claus suit used by the Seeley Lake Santas. It was published in the December 15, 1961 issue of the Montana Farmer-Stockman, a bi-monthly newspaper published by The Montana Farmer, Inc. in Great Falls, Montana. (Her story is factual, but she changed the names to protect the innocent.) It is a delightful story about heart-felt family feelings that ring as true today as they did when that first Santa suit for Seeley Lake was sewn. Mrs. Chaffin was paid twenty-five dollars for her story).

"Coming - I'm coming!" Plump, dependable Martha (Ma) Robison let fall her armload of Christmas wrapping paraphernalia and hurried out to the big old ranch house kitchen at the telephone's insistent jingle.

"Oh, Martha," came the mournful tidings, "What are we going to do? We've been all over the neighborhood and we simply can't find a Santa Claus suit."

"Oh, heavenly day!" Ma recognized calamity in the voice of Ivy Chandler, chairwoman of the entertainment committee of the Clearwater Valley Women's Club, of which Ma was president. For Pa Robison, in this age of the atom, was the proud owner of a driving team and an ancient sleigh, complete with bells; and Ivy's committee had caught him down in the village and wheedled him into playing Santa at the community Christmas tree.

"Well," promised Ma, after a moment's reflection, "I'll give it a think."

"Oh, bless you!" Ivy gushed, in tones of pure sugar. "I knew you would know just what to do! Bye now. I've just got to set my hair—promised Mary Donegal I'd fill in for pinochle this afternoon."

The click of the distant receiver told Ma the matter was settled, as far as Ivy was concerned; and she ran work worn fingers through her own neglected locks while her temperature soared at the realization of how easily she had been roped in.

Now, as the time approached, Pa was showing signs of increasing nervousness and Ma knew he would welcome the slightest excuse to back out and with yards and yards of lace remaining to be stitched on the frilly blouse that their youngest, Bernadine was longing for, Ma had enough difficulties without taking on her committee's work.

Then, there was Mary Ann, married, and with three youngsters of her own; all of whom would be mighty disappointed not to get something from Grandma and Grandpa.

Seems as though, with all the rushing around, helping with the club party and getting the Sunday school program functioning, she had sold herself short of time for her own holiday preparations.

The big tree was up in the town square.

Citizens had decorated the one main street, and the carolers were raising the school house roof with their practicing. Notices had gone out that Santa would be on hand with treats for every child from far and near, and it was plain to Ma that something must be done about that Santa suit.

If only Ivy had phoned before Mike and Bernadine left for town to do their own private little shopping. Both Pa and Ma had felt they would be safer in the family car on the all day trip, which left only the little jalopy for home use.

All in all, it was a fine "howdy do!" Just two days until Christmas, 20 icy miles to town, and Santa without a stitch to his name!

Ma searched the attic, the closets and the bureau drawers without so much as a pair of red flannels to reward her. And as she went from one to the other, her Christmas spirit sickened, shriveled up and died.

There was just one thing she might do.

In her morning rambles she had come upon a worn sheet and some feed bags. Resolutely, she laid away her plans to have friends in for coffee after the community doings.

"Martha B. Robison," was her ultimatum, "you can just set that soft head of yours to sew for two more midnights. One for the Santa suit and one for the blouse."

She couldn't disappoint Bernadine if it meant sewing all night before Christmas.

Pa's noon meal would be late to the table. Served him right! if he'd had the gumption to say no, he wouldn't be in this predicament

Pa sometimes used the jalopy under stress, but Ma had never even deigned to ride in it; much less drive the beast. Now she took the key from the nail in the dish-cupboard, donned her heavy coat and tied her babushka inelegantly under her second chin.

Old man Hankinson, down at the village store, usually kept a smattering of dyes and she prayed he wouldn't be out of red today.

Home again, both relieved and perturbed, Ma banged pans and stomped about the kitchen; and Pa, knowing the symptoms if not the cause, ate his meal without comment and made tracks for the cow barn.

Ma was a jumble of emotions. Bless Pa for her new clothes dryer, and dagnab him for being such a "softie!"

She dyed and dried, snipped and sewed, and presently held up in enormous pair of red "britches," the sight of which modified her resentment for the moment, and brought a hoot of laughter. Better hide those things. One look at them would petrify an already reluctant Santa.

But the coat was something else. For all her perversity, she couldn't have Pa catch his death of cold, so it had to go on over his mackinaw.

Pa, Mike and Bernadine were long in dreamland when she finished stitching the cotton bands on the coat.

A fluffy white pompom dangled from the point of the red cap; and cotton whiskers, she glued to a cloth mask, for that object too, would be needed to transform Pa into a "jolly old elf."

She set the alarm ahead half an hour before climbing in beside Pa. Tomorrow held so many things to be done. And Mary Ann and Bob, with their three young ones, would be driving out from town right after work to see Santa and spend the holidays.

Ma could have sworn the day before Christmas went by jet propelled. Still, somehow the tasks were eliminated one by one. She even found time to work on the frilly blouse for an hour, shooing Bernadine off to the Chandler house on pretext of borrowing some cocoa she didn't need.

Evening arrived with added uproar. Mike and Bernadine ran from chore to chore, gobbled their supper, and took off in the jalopy for one last carol rehearsal.

Mary Ann's tikes pestered to leave early so as not to miss any of the fun, and Pa was, at least, resigned.

The team stood harnessed, ready to be hooked up.

"Je-hosaphat!" sputtered Pa, "did they build that suit for Santy or the sleigh?"

Ma held her tongue. She didn't need to be told it wasn't a proper fit, and she sewed him into it with a vengeance.

Now they were on their way. Ma stayed behind with the car lights so a stranger on the highway wouldn't plow into the little vehicle unaware. Near the village Pa sent her on to see that the stage was set for his entry for, like any good Santa, he wanted to arrive right on schedule. Ma rounded the last curve—and gasped.

Such a crowd! Why, there weren't that many people in the whole Clearwater Valley! She was right. But many of the inhabitants had company for the holidays, so company and all, they had come out to take part in the festivities. Little Seeley Junction seemed transfigured.

It swarmed with people, sparkled with gaiety and good will. A bonfire for warming, and the big tree with its dazzling lights lent a fairy-tale atmosphere to the scene.

"Si-i-lent Night-Ho-o-ly Night"—the carolers were beginning their last number and Ma knew a little unexpected surge of pleasure, for it had always been, and always would be, her favorite Christmas song.

"Is he coming?" Someone had spied her.

"He's almost here," she nodded, and straightway a stream of small boys erupted from the crowd and poured down the road toward the tinkling of the bells and the drumming of trotting hoofs on the hard packed snow.

Santa and his following and the pseudo reindeer pulled into the designated spot and immediately became swallowed up in the laughing, bantering crowd.

Ma's astonishment was jelling into a feeling of gratification; the evident enjoyment of all these people overshadowing her struggle of the last few days.

"Slee-eep in Heav-en-ly Peace," the fresh young voices floated away on the night air and the carolers too, hurried over to get in line.

A coyote howled across the frozen lake unheard, feeling the magic of the wondrous night, and giving voice in his own peculiar way, from his own little niche in the Great Plan of things.

Heavenly Peace—The Heavens seemed very close tonight.

Truly, they seemed to be leaning away from the snow capped peaks to catch every note of the little celebration, and smiled down on the happy little town, bonded by a baptism of silvery frost. The excitement was contagious and Ma smiled to see that by now, Pa was having as much fun as anyone.

He was bending down now, and she moved over to see him the better. His "customer" was Mary Ann's moppet, age four; the brown eyes full of stars, and her little soul so enthralled that she failed to recognize the voice of her grandfather. It gave Ma a turn to see the absolute wonderment on the little face.

A tiny boy in stocking cap was having his turn at the sleigh. Pure joy radiated from the small countenance and his eyes were pools of utter belief. Pa was laughing at some message he gave, and his piping baby voice drummed on Ma's heart like a small invisible hammer from the edge of the crowd as he was dragged away—"an I ben a good lit-ta boy."

He was earnestness and innocence combined; and for the moment he stole the show.

There was a smile on Ma's lips and a lump in her throat. The moment passed, but the message lingered—echoed— and mingled with the night.

Ma felt a mittened hand in hers. It was the brown eyed moppet, stars and all. The other mitten clutched her treasured gift from Santa.

An aged man, who Ma knew lived alone, stepped in front of her.

"The Christmas Spirit is certainly with us this night, Mrs. Robison," said he. "A fine thing it is for the young ones!" His cheeks and ears were red from the frosty air and his old eyes shone with the unaccustomed excitement.

"Yes—uh, yes—Merry Christmas Mr. Barker," she tried to match his conversational mood. But the words were barely spoken when the thought occurred: how could he be merry, this solitary old soul in his humble cabin?

But he glowed, as though she had just handed him a gift. "Thank ye Ma'am," he smiled, "and may the Good Lord bring the same to you." Then he shuffled busily away, as though to absorb enough merriment to sustain him to the end of the season.

The crowd had divided into little visiting groups; and these in turn, began to move toward the warmth of their cars.

"Merry Christmas" rang out from all directions, and became lost in the roar of exhausts. Mary Ann handed over her other two youngsters saying, "They want to ride home with Grandma."

She and the three tikes went to warm their hands at the dying bonfire.

"Grandma," piped the brown eyed one.

"What dear?"

"Did you see the Kwissmus 'Pirit?" Ma was somewhat taken aback.

"Why a—yes dear—yes I did."

"What did it look like?" persisted the moppet.

"Well." Ma thought hard and fast, the event of the evening passing in review before her.

"Well," she began again, "sometimes it looks like a very small girl with stars in her eyes."

"Like me?"

"Like you," affirmed Ma.

"And sometimes it looks like Grandpa, or Mike, or Bernadine or even an old old man," she finished.

It was true as she knew how to make it. Each was a symbol of Christmas. The spirit was little boys and girls, youth and age, friendship, and doing in his name, for those we love.

"I hope I see the Kwissmus 'Pirit sometime," said the dreamy child.

"I hope," answered Ma, staring into the embers, "that you never lose it."

"All abo-a-r-d!" It was a bellow from Pa.

"Ohmystars!" Ma came out of her reverie, gathered the grand-babies and headed for the Robison sedan.

Pa flipped the lines over the horse's backs and headed back to the Robison ranch.

He had discarded the mask, and under the rakish red cap his face wore a grin of honest pleasure, for he had exchanged his pack of sweets for a cargo of happy youngsters hitching a ride—their first in Santa's sleigh.