Santa Lives In Knoxville

Kathleen R. Moore

© Copyright 2002 by Kathleen R. Moore


Photo of Kathleen, kitty, and Bearby when she was three.

My Uncle Don was everyone's favorite uncle. This story is a reminiscence and a testimonial to how he helped me understand the spirit of Christmas.

I have a picture of myself at three, cuddling in bed with my two new friends, gifts from my two uncles. One is a beautiful stuffed kitty from Germany, made with real fur, white with black legs that Uncle Richard sent. The other is a bear almost as big as me. That was Bearby, my Christmas present from Uncle Don that year. My eyes sparkle in the picture, for what three-year-old doesn’t want an almost-real kitty and a teddy bear as big as herself?

Bearby has been a part of my life ever since, almost loved to death. He sits now in my spare room, his face loved off, his head and arms repaired more than once, but still hanging precariously, and stuffing coming out of his legs. When I was old enough to learn about Smokey the Bear, and to decide I wanted to be a forest ranger, I decided Bearby was too childish a name, so he became Smokey. Later Mom and Dad gave me Smokey Junior, complete with dungarees, shovel, ranger hat and badge, so eventually I went back to calling Smokey Sr. just Bearby. What a friend! And especially because he was the first Christmas gift I could remember from Uncle Don.

Uncle Don’s presents were always memorable. We looked forward to them as to no others, wondering when they would come, when we would see him, and whether we would have some to deliver for him on our way to Wisconsin. Uncle Don knew us, every one of the 39 nieces and nephews, and even though he was getting gifts for so many, he knew just what I wanted.

My heroes were Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger; I longed to have a horse and go fight for right out west. (My big sister scornfully told me I couldn’t be a cowboy, I’d have to be a cowgirl.) Uncle Don gave me a cowgirl outfit, a skirt and vest with fringe and real western decorations and a real silver buckle! So even if cowgirls might seem a bit sissy on TV, I didn’t when I wore my cowgirl outfit. It’s now tucked away in a box of mementos.

But what happened to my guns? I imagine they disappeared during some move. I don’t suppose Mom and Dad were real thrilled about the idea of me with a six-gun in my hand, but if I was going to fight the bad guys out west, I needed to practice. I did practice whenever we visited Dave and Jeff or the Crews boys; I was always first to claim the gun and holster when we were playing. But I needed my own. And Uncle Don understood that. One year I opened his gift to find a gun in a dark brown leather holster. I gave that gun a pretty good workout, and in a couple of years it had broken, with the handle flopping so that the barrel had to be held up to shoot. So Uncle Don gave me my second gun! This one was classy, almost like Roy Rogers’ two-gun set. I had only one gun but it had a beautiful pearl handle, and a light tan holster with a silver medallion and strings to tie it to the knee. So did I become a gun collector? No, I became a pacifist! Isn’t it interesting that even though Uncle Don gave me my guns, I found myself as an adult far closer to his gentle nature than that of my cowboy heroes? I do believe, however, that those cowboy heroes helped to form my strong sense of justice.

Even though Uncle Don enjoyed giving me my tomboy toys, he knew that I could also enjoy some quieter gifts. He knew not to give me dolls! But he did give me a rose tea set, complete with coffee pot, creamer and sugar bowl, platter and covered dish—a very classy set of dishes for tea parties! The best part was that they matched Mom’s new dishes, so sometimes we used part of my set for butter and jelly when we had company. I felt very grown-up with my rose dishes.

Through the years, as I grew, Uncle Don’s presents changed. He introduced me to Heaven Scent and Wind Song perfumes when I was in high school. Some of the best gifts were the books. Don knew what kind of books I would like. I may have been no more than twelve or thirteen when Don gave me Ivan Sanderson’s Book of Great Jungles. It was then that I fell in love with jungles. When the day finally comes that I can visit some, the spirit of excitement and wonder of that book will go with me.

I received Eckardt’s The Frontiersman one year and sister Ann received his The Wilderness the next. Or was it the other way around? We shared our books. As I look at some of my most treasured books, I find so many from Don: A Conservation Saga, American Wildflowers, A Documentary History of Conservation in America, The Secret Life of the Forest, The Forest World. One of the outstanding ones is a huge book, wonderfully illustrated, about the Plains Indians. People keep borrowing that one for years at a time!

Uncle Don’s Christmas gifts have always been a very special part of my memories as I know they have for all my cousins. But even more special are the memories of those years our own family got to be part of Santa’s workshop. As Don got older, it was harder for him to get all his shopping and wrapping done by Christmas. First Mom began to go with him to help with the shopping, in a shopping marathon on one or two days (or evenings) when almost every gift was bought. But that’s a lot of wrapping! So when I was in high school, when we lived half an hour from Knoxville, we began going over on a Friday night to help wrap gifts.

As I recall, the first year we four kids stayed downstairs watching T.V. (I saw Star Trek the first time) while the adults worked all night upstairs. Later we helped with the wrapping for at least part of the night. I don’t ever remember pulling an all-nighter but Don, Mom, and Dad usually did.

Don would hide our gifts before we came, and then we were allowed to go upstairs to the big bedroom—Santa’s Workshop. There were gifts laid out according to family. Including brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, their children, and other fortunate recipients, the total number of gifts was over 100. . Each person had a little card with his or her name and birth date on it, so Don could keep track of how old each niece and nephew was getting to be. Those cards were used over each year, so each one was laid on a package and then carefully collected after the package was wrapped and tagged so the person’s name wouldn’t be lost for next year!

I remember that sometimes we kids helped by taking off price tags. Ugghh! Some of those price tags were really hard to get off, and there were a lot of them! I remember that when Grandma was there she also worked on taking off tags; it kept her busy for a long time.

Oh, the piles of paper and ribbons and tags! The rolls of scotch tape! The whole room was highly organized. The several beds held gifts, while card tables were set up for wrapping. Gifts were wrapped at one table, then passed to the next for ribbons and bows, then on to Don for tags. Of course, he had to sign each tag himself; that could not be anyone else’s job. Then the wrapped gifts were taken back to the beds, some of them being put in large cardboard boxes for transporting. Delivery alone was a masterpiece of organization. One box would hold one family’s gifts, and then the box next to it might be the gifts that family would be passing on to another family. Don knew just which groups of gifts would be put together for a trip to Reinbeck or Iowa City or Des Moines. His sleigh wasn ’t quite able to deliver them all in one night, but they did get delivered.

By Saturday morning we kids would be sprawled out on couches and chairs, dead to the world. We would wake to hear our parents fixing breakfast and Don hurrying to take packages to the post office to mail them to arrive in California by Christmas Day.

We would load up our family’s gifts, along with those for Platteville and maybe Iowa City or Linda’s family or Harold. We knew that every person receiving these presents would treasure Don’s gift as we did. They were chosen with care and wrapped with love. I think those for little kids even had an extra measure of love tucked in, because Don especially loved shopping and giving gifts to the tiny ones.

We four kids felt privileged to have been elves, to have had a glimpse into Santa’s workshop. There in the workshop in Knoxville we had experienced the Spirit of Christmas.

Uncle Don died last year. Our final gift from him was sent by my mother to every niece and nephew—the card with his or her name and birth date on it. Mine sits on my desk and will always be a reminder of how the Santa of Knoxville showed us the joy of giving.

Kathy Moore is a United Methodist pastor who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Along with a busy church schedule, she spends her time traveling with her dog, writing hymns and reading with a lapful of cat. Some of her best times are spent with her own six nieces and nephews

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