When Santa Became Real

I want to share a story from my childhood about a Christmas unlike any other I had known before it. It was a Christmas that changed my outlook on the holiday, and as you’ll read, recent events made that particular season all the more special all these years later.

By the fall of 1986, my thoughts were starting to turn to the coming Christmas season, and anticipation was starting to build for the holiday. The hope of children isn’t easily pushed to the side, but back in those days, I would be lying if I said that Christmas didn’t feel a little lacking.

Admittedly, I personally never felt slighted on Christmas morning. Whatever was under the tree from Santa Claus always left a lasting impression on me, even if I sometimes felt the little internal tug of wanting a little bit more. But when I would return to school, and see and hear about all the cool things my friends and others had gotten for Christmas, I would get a little jealous.

I was a good kid. I never caused trouble at school, and I knew better than to cause trouble at home. I did my chores and I ate my vegetables, so why did I seem to be farther down Santa’s Nice list than some of the other kids?

“Jonathon pushed Samantha down and hurt her arm”, “why did he get a huge Lego set and I only got a trumpet?”.

Zach punched me in the arm all year…hard.” “Why did he get a cool G.I. Joe HISS Tank and all the Dreadnoks figures and I ended up with a set of cars?” 

Such are the worrisome ponderings and questions of a kid who is not aware of all the comings and goings of adulthood.

What I didn’t know or understand back then, and actually I’m still learning and gaining a greater perspective on now, is that times were very tough for my family in the early eighties. My Dad was a self-employed businessman. He bought and sold new and used conveyor belts to coal mines, and as the coal business went, so did my family’s financial well-being.

1983 was a very tough year. My Grandfather’s alcohol addiction was in the last stages of consuming his life, and my Dad spent more time helping my Grandmother, both emotionally and financially, than he did with the business. The first week of December, my Grandfather passed away. Christmas was lean due to dealing with the emotional struggles of losing someone close, and the fact that so much time had been spent away from the business.

1984 came along, and so did the large-scale United Mine Workers of America strike in West Virginia…..primarily against the A.T. Massey Coal Companies and subsidiaries. West Virginia was always the breadbasket of my Dad’s business. When strikes occurred, it crippled his business and our financial well-being for quite some time, and unfortunately, this strike would not be over quickly.

1985 came, and the strike was still on. It wasn’t resolved until late in the year. Too late for lost income to be made up. Several straight years of lean and underwhelming visits from Santa Claus were wearing on my faith in the man.

But then came 1986. The strike had been resolved, and with the mines back in full-time operation, orders poured in from all sides. It was a VERY good year. Not so coincidentally, Santa seemed to fill his sleigh just for my family. I guess he was making up for lost time.

That year, I can vividly remember more cakes, candies, and goodies being around than any other. While I was pleased by gifts from previous Christmas days, I was blown away on that Christmas morning in 1986! The Cobra Terror Drome! The G.I. Joe Tomahawk Helicopter! Tomax & Zamot 2 pack! Grizzlor figure! The Hot Wheels Snake Mountain Challenge Race Track Set! Tonka Steel Monsters Truck! A huge Construx set! A G.I. Joe VHS Tape! Holy Cow!!!

The big one was the G.I. Joe Cobra Terror Drome.  At that time in life, my world revolved around four toys.  G.I Joe, Masters of the Universe, Construx, and Legos….with G.I. Joe being at the top of the list.  Knowing this, it was no surprise to my parents that the biggest hit of the holiday season would be this huge G.I. Joe playset.

It had room for plenty of figures, so massive battles were a foregone conclusion.  I stockpiled this sucker with every bad guy I had in my collection and then began a full-on assault with all of the good guys I could find.

And what a treat it was on that Christmas morning to find that they had merged Masters of the Universe with Hot Wheels and created the action set, Snake Mountain Challenge!

This was one of the cool Hot Wheels sets that featured the orange pieces of track, a launcher for the car, and some kind of obstacle.  In this set, the obstacle was a cardboard rendition of Snake Mountain that the car had to jump through at the end to escape, hence the name, Snake Mountain Challenge.

It even came with a cool silver car with the MOTU logo on the sides of it!

My Dad set the short track up on the pool table, and he, my brother, and I took many turns that day trying to escape Snake Mountain with little success.  While my Dad and my brother each picked other cars from our Hot Wheels collection to try and make the jump with, I stuck with the great-looking He-Man car for all of my attempts.

It was like Santa Claus was issuing a huge “I’m sorry” for the previous couple of years, and making it up all in one day. And it wasn’t just me. My brother got a see-thru V8 engine kit, and some other cool stuff. My Mom got our family’s first microwave, a new bed coat, new shoes, a new Aigner purse, and a new Aigner leather coat.

I had always believed in Santa Claus, but 1986 was the year I fully got behind the larger-than-life man. He had come through in a big way and left memories of what was my favorite Christmas season for years….pretty much up until I had kids of my own. I went to school strutting with excitement in anticipation of telling all of my friends what I had gotten for Christmas. I was simply overjoyed.

The years rolled by, and one Christmas after another was really good, but none reached the heights of triumph that 1986 had. It wasn’t until my later teen years that I learned and thought I finally understood why 1986 had been so magical. The stories I recounted at the beginning of this article came up in conversation every so often. About how the early eighties were a tight time for my family with the business swings and family issues and all. In 1986, my Dad’s business hit its zenith, and he was finally able to give his family the Christmas he had wanted in those prior years.

So I was in my late teens, and I had heard the tales and understood why those early Christmas mornings were less than stellar. Dad just didn’t have the money to give us an awesome Christmas every year. It’s ok. I understand now.

When Santa Became Real chair

See, this is how the story has been left and told for the last 25 years or so of my life. I learned the truth and thought it was cool that when my Dad finally had the chance, he went overboard on us for Christmas. But for all these years, there are other details that he had left out that I didn’t learn until just a few months ago. Bear with me while I finish this tale.

Where I currently work, several people from throughout the community also ply their trade here. One of the fellows whom I’ll call James to keep his identity private, served with my Dad in those early 80s years in the local Volunteer Fire Department. James and I would sit around during break periods and talk about those old days. Somehow one evening, the conversation turned to Christmas and other holidays. I recounted an abbreviated version of the events above and explained to James how my Dad had finally had a good year and turned into Santa Claus overnight and threw a big Christmas in ’86. James then proceeded to enlighten me to some details I had never been privy to before.

He said that my dad was a good man, and just because I may not have gotten a lot of toys and such in those years, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t much to go around, it just meant that more gifts were being given to some folks who maybe needed it a little more than I did.

He piqued my interest and we continued talking and he opened my eyes to so much about those years. He reminded me of the Christmas parties that the Fire Department would host every year. He reminded me that every kid there got a new toy. He said that in those years when the fundraising for the party came in below what was needed, it was my Dad who donated the rest to make sure that every needy child in town got something there and went home happy.

When Santa Became Real party

He told me that when the town’s Christmas decorations that were hung from the light poles in town fell apart and needed to be replaced before the holiday season, it was my Dad who went and got a loan against his business to buy them so the town would still have decorations up for the Christmas season, not just that year, but for years to come.

And without any hesitation or embarrassment whatsoever, he told me that there was a year in there that he (James) had had a very rough year financially, and was in a real bind coming up on the holidays. My Dad could sense it and went to James and asked him if he needed help to give his kids a nice Christmas. James told him that it was going to be hard that year. He said my Dad gave him money to buy his three kids presents. He also bought him a ham and some other food for a Christmas dinner, and my Dad and my uncle cut and delivered him two loads of firewood to see that he got through the season with heat for his family. He told a few other stories in the same vein of my Dad helping people through the holidays.

When Santa Became Real Fire Fightetr

I need to tell you right now, I shed a tear listening to James tell me all of these things. For those years as a kid, I may have been selfish and wished for more than I had gotten. As I grew older, I thought I learned the truth and thought my Dad was cool for making that year of ’86 extra special. But now, all these years later, I learned the rest of the story. I learned that even though I doubted the validity of Santa Claus being real, he IS most definitely alive and well. I learned that the real Santa is a hard-working man who wants the best for his family, but he is also a caring and kind man to everyone else as well. He is a humble man, as he never felt the need to talk about all the things he did for people.  And I’m sure that the spirit of Santa Claus lives in many more men than just my own dad.  

Through these experiences, he has taught me to care for others, and he has taught me love. Heck, all the things I mentioned in the article I wrote last Christmas about all the great things my Dad gave us each year were inspired by the Christmas of ’86, and at the time of writing, I had no idea just how far-reaching his Christmas spirit carried.  

It may have taken a lot of years now to learn the lesson to this degree, but I go into this coming Christmas season with a newfound outlook and a new attitude. I hope you get something from this story to take with you, and I hope THIS is the most wonderful and magical Christmas of your years.

About Mickey Yarber 226 Articles
Editor-in-Chief Sometimes referred to as the Retro Rambler...I was born in the '70s, grew up in the '80s, and came of age in the '90s. I love to share all the fun stuff from those years via my Retro Ramblings column.

1 Comment

  1. Loved reading this, Mickey! So happy that you learned about those other stories about your Dad’s generosity. Definitely sounds like a great man. It’s amazing how much our parents did/do for us that we never knew. I know I would do the same for my daughter and that is thanks to my parents efforts.

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